Manchester City 3
A NIGHT FOR the realisation to run slickly like cold oils down the backs of Arsenal and the rest of the Premier League…it’s learning from its own mistakes!
Like the latest version of ChatGPT, Pep Guardiola’s singular, brilliant, and maddening Big Game Brain seems to have evolved to the point where it’s correcting its own errors.
City floundered for an hour against Arsenal under Guardiola’s pre-game plan but thrived once he tore it up, scoring twice to beat Arsenal 3-1 and return to the top of the league. It’s a caveated lead – on goal difference having played a game more – but plainly a huge shift of momentum.
Errant and strange tactics from Guardiola are usually the stuff of Champions League games but here he reprised the baffling tactic of the weekend win over Aston Villa by deploying Bernardo Silva at left-back. Silva played deep in midfield in front of a back three in possession but dropped to the left of City’s back four when Arsenal had the ball. Which, in the first-half, was pretty much all the time.
Actual Left-Backs have been skinned all season by the brilliant Bukayo Saka so it was little surprise to see Silva’s best coping tactic was simply to foul him. Referee Anthony Taylor was stern on time-wasting all night but lenient on Silva, allowing him four Saka fouls before finally booking him. If Arsenal have a regret from their opening 45 minutes, it is that they didn’t get Saka skating at Silva often enough.
It was Silva off whom Eddie Nketiah ran to flash Oleksandr Zinchenko’s cross wide in the first clear chance of a clash knotted with fabulous, big-game tension. Silva found himself at left-back partly because Zinchenko was wearing the red of Arsenal, allowed to leave for a rival in the summer by City in an act of munificence by Guardiola followed by the packing off of Joao Cancelo to Bayern Munich in the name of squad harmony. But these are the counter-intuitions characteristic of Guardiola.
The first goal was counter-intuitive too, City taking the lead through a defensive mistake made costly by Kevin De Bruyne’s brilliance, pouncing on Takehiro Tomiyasu’s underhit backpass to pitch the ball with just enough backspin to arc over Aaron Ramsdale and bounce inside the post. Given all that is happening off the pitch, there was an irony in City taking the lead thanks to an error that can’t be accounted for.
Arsenal’s responded as they have all season: calmly. They kept on weaving their patterns and starving City of possession, quickly levelling when Saka rolled home a penalty won when Ederson collided with Nketiah. Ederson was fortunate not to be sent off for a second yellow card, with the baying Emirates crowd forced to settle for his embarrassment of seeing Saka slot the ball into the corner he had pointed toward.
City were improved in the second half but the transformation came on the hour mark. Guardiola replaced Riyad Mahrez with centre-half Manuel Akanji, shuffled Nathan Ake to left-back, and freed Silva to return to more familiar terrain on the right of City’s attack. His impact was instant: immediately winning the ball back and forcing an attack that Arsenal snuffed out.
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They couldn’t repeat the trick 10 minutes later. Jack Grealish’s lead goal was slightly fortunate – Ramsdale might have saved the shot if it hadn’t flicked off Tomiyasu – but its genesis was Silva’s pressure on Gabriel, who clumsily gave the ball away. Silva’s running and presence on the right helped to stymie Zinchenko’s forward propulsion and helped City smother Arsenal as the game wore on. Erling Haaland sealed the game with his elastic two-touch finish and shot from De Bruyne’s cross, after which Arteta turned away and looked at the sky in vain disgust.
The third goal sucked the air from the Emirates and how Arsenal now respond will define their season. Three games without a win officially constitutes a wobble, and there are emerging issues in the team. Gabriel Martinelli’s diminished contributions are a concern, and tonight was the first game since the World Cup in which Gabriel Jesus was truly missed.
Ultimately, Mikel Arteta does not have the squad depth that Guardiola has. Well, everywhere but at left-back.