A Manchester City victory in this league fixture has been a procession in recent years, with a combined score of 19-3 in their last seven wins against Arsenal. Mikel Arteta had managed to beat 23 out of the 24 teams he has faced in the league, with only City — where he worked as an assistant coach under Pep Guardiola between 2016 and 2019 — remaining unconquered. In a result which should serve as a significant psychological boost for the young coach, Arsenal got the victory this time around, winning 1-0, thanks to a deflected Gabriel Martinelli shot.
Both teams were missing key players from their 2022/23 campaigns, with City without John Stones, Rodri and Kevin de Bruyne, and Arsenal missing Bukayo Saka with Gabriel Martinelli starting on the bench after a spell on the sidelines. Consequently, the tactical setups of both sides were influenced by the absence of these key figures and the need to neutralize the opposition.
The middle of the park was the key battleground, with both teams packing this area of the pitch, vying for control in the game. City adopted an unconventional formation, deploying Bernardo Silva in defensive mid, flanked by Rico Lewis and Mateo Kovačić. The full-backs for City held the width and functioned as wingers.
Call this formation what you want, 3-2-3-2, 2-3-2-3, 2-3-5; it proved effective for City, particularly in the first half. Silva effortlessly resisted Arsenal’s press while Kyle Walker and Joško Gvardiol wreaked havoc down Arsenal’s flanks, providing an outlet to their teammates and finding space with ease.
Arsenal adopted a double pivot with Jorginho and Declan Rice, with Oleksandr Zinchenko inverting when in possession. Jorginho, similarly to Silva, played the conductor role and artfully utilised his wide range of passes to progress the ball, with Declan Rice acting as the destroyer, disrupting City’s attacks, when not in possession.
Both teams pressed well but Arsenal were sloppier in possession, allowing City to assert their dominance early on. The sloppiness could be traced back to a shaky start by Arsenal keeper David Raya, with the Spaniard in no man’s land from a corner, only to be rescued by a goal-line clearance by Rice.
The summer signing from Brentford looked like a deer in headlights throughout the first 45, with numerous misplaced passes, wildly missing crosses in the air and almost cannoned the ball into his own net via a deflection from City’s Julian Alvarez, after taking too much time on the ball.
This contest was a game of cat and mouse, with both teams setting up well in defence, going man for man and restricting space in behind. Both teams pressed high and efficiently, although showed some reluctance in pressing the opposing goalkeepers. Both Ederson and Raya, who are known for their on-the-ball qualities, oftentimes held onto the ball for extended periods of time, due to the limited passing options.
The major talking point of the first half was Kovačić narrowly escaping a red card, with two reckless slide tackles. The first, with studs up, caught Arsenal skipper Martin Ødegaard on the ankle, and could have warranted a red on its own. VAR deemed a yellow sufficient, but if the on-field decision was a red, would VAR have intervened?
However, the second challenge was another careless move, given he was already on a yellow. The referee did not deem the challenge to be a bookable offence, but it would have been good for him to have a second view, as Rice is clearly caught by the sliding challenge. With all the criticism of VAR in recent weeks, the policy of not intervening in yellow card offences remains perplexing, as a second yellow would have resulted in a red, and potentially altered the game in Arsenal’s favour.
The second half was a much-improved performance by Raya and Arsenal in general, with the Arsenal keeper confident in the air, accurate with his diagonals and calm in possession; maybe the occasion got to him initially, but the composed second-half performance by the Spaniard only cemented his status as Arsenals numero uno.
Gabriel Martinelli emerged as the catalyst for his team’s victory, with his introduction at the interval sparking Arsenal into life. In contrast to Leandro Trossard, who had a quiet outing with just 13 touches, least among all the starters for both teams, Martinelli had an immediate impact, registering Arsenal’s first shot on target around the 50-minute mark. Martinelli was direct in his running and forced Walker to limit his advances down the right flank.
One criticism of Arteta has been his decision-making regarding substitutions, which he himself has referenced previously. When Pep made a triple sub just before the 70th-minute mark, Arteta duly responded with an Uno reverse card, introducing Thomas Partey, Takehiro Tomiyasu and Kai Havertz to add height and physicality.
The trio combined seamlessly to set up the winner. As the game went on, Arsenal began using long balls to transition the ball up the pitch quicker. Havertz’s height offered a distinct advantage over Eddie Nketiah, with the German providing his first Arsenal assist when teeing up Martinelli, whose shot took fortuitous deflection leaving Ederson rooted to the spot.
The Man of the Match performance must go to William Saliba who delivered a commanding display throughout the game, solidifying his status as one of the best centre backs in world football. The young Frenchman was colossal at the back, winning all his duels (2 ground duels / 1 aerial duel – SofaScore) and was a major factor in neutralising Erling Haaland, who failed to register a single shot. Declan Rice was another standout performer, making key interceptions in crucial moments in the game (joint top for both interceptions and tackles – both 3 – Sofascore), as well as the clearance off the line in the opening stages which set the tone for the contest.
A final thought must go to Kalvin Phillips, who must be questioning his role at City right now. A £42m signing from Leeds a couple of summers ago, he was bought in for games like this with Rodri missing. However, 18-year-old Rico Lewis was preferred in midfield, a position unnatural to him. This decision must leave the writing on the wall for Philips, as he is unlikely to ever be given a consistent run of games at City.
Overall, the game was extremely tight and a captivating watch from a tactical perspective. Neither team looked their best, but that is precisely what top-tier teams do to their opponents, make them appear less formidable. Both teams could argue they deserved a win, with a draw being a fair outcome. However, a stroke of luck favoured the Gunners, securing them a 1-0 victory in front of their raucous fans. While this result may not significantly impact the title race at this early stage, the upcoming reverse fixture in late March promises to be an enticing encounter.
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / David Price – Arsenal FC