Arsenal had passed most every test this season. There’s still a hint of wonder/confusion at their place atop the Premier League. While improvement was expected from their fifth-place finish last season, to run through the league for the first half of the season as they have come out of nowhere. What made it even more stupefying was the sheer volume of young players that had taken a huge leap forward, as well as the knee-weakening sexy soccer they’d been playing. But observers are always suspicious of teams filled with kids, so there’s been an element of skepticism of Arsenal’s resurgence. Even Arsenal supporters have kind of wondered when the floor might drop out from under them.
And yet, they’ve whacked Tottenham twice. They avenged their somewhat unlucky loss to Manchester United early in the season by authoring a comeback win over them at home a few weeks ago. They’ve beaten both Chelsea and Liverpool without breaking much of a sweat (nor is much of a sweat recovered required for that). For the season’s first half, there wasn’t a question that the Gunners didn’t seem to have an answer to.
That has wobbled of late. They caught Everton at the worst possible time, their first match under a new manager, and lost. They then got sort of screwed in a home draw with Brentford, but that happens from time to time. Sometimes you don’t get the bounces. Perhaps they got caught looking a little ahead to Wednesday’s visit by Manchester City, an occasion where Arsenal could have gotten one hand on the Premier League trophy with a win.
What happened in the first half
It’s the first test that Arsenal have unquestionably failed this season, losing 3-1 and temporarily ceding the top spot to City on goal difference. What will really burn Arsenal’s ass is that they were the authors of their own destruction.
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Especially in the first half, Arsenal had City on the run. Pep Guardiola had seemingly imported his usual Champions League too-cute-by-half tendencies into the Premier League, and started the match without a left-back. This has been the trend since he punted João Cancelo out of the club for being a disruptive prick off the field. Bernardo Silva was nominally filling the role, but when City have the ball they’ve always pushed a fullback into central midfield to give City a 3-2-4-1 look. Pep has decided to just go with that all the time.
And Arsenal picked at it relentlessly, with Silva clumsily and recklessly wandering through his defensive work when called upon, lucky to just get away with only one yellow card. Nathan Aké having to cover for Silva or Rodri having to cover for both of them left City kind of shapeless, and Arsenal pressed them relentlessly. City couldn’t really get out of their own half, and when Arsenal weren’t raiding down City’s left, they were switching the play to the unoccupied other side (where their penalty came from). Martin Ødegaard was continually drifting out there to combine with Bukayo Saka and Tomiyasu.
And with Silva playing deeper than he normally does, whenever he wasn’t trapped in defense, Arsenal was running midfield. Granit Xhaka, Ødegaard, and Jorginho were causing turnovers repeatedly and getting Arsenal on the break. Arsenal really could have made life even more hellish on Silva and Ake than they did, with the final ball lacking regularly. Eddie Nketiah’s radar was off for the first time in weeks, missing a golden chance before City scored.
And Arsenal ruined their work with their first self-inflicted buckshot to the face, when Takehiro Tomiyasu did this:
Arsenal was able to recover, regrip the game, and get on equal footing through Nketiah winning a penalty.
What happened in the second half
The second half started much as the first did, with Arsenal imposing themselves on City without really creating anything earth-shattering. And then somewhere around the 60th minute, the enormity of the occasion seemed to grip Arsenal way more than it did City. Which makes some sense, as City have been here for the past six seasons. Arsenal haven’t. The Gunners started having trouble finding each other with the simplest passes. Their decision-making started getting abstract. Xhaka, never considered a paragon of grace under fire, blew two chances to give them glorious scoring chances, scorching a through-ball to Nketiah when he needed some touch and then taking too long to decide whether to pass or shoot when on the edge of the box and doing neither. He was hardly alone. The edginess was palpable.
Guardiola seemed to sense the apprehension, and reverted to a more normal shape by bringing on Manuel Akanji for Riyad Mahrez, which pushed Silva up into the frontline, which gave them a more determined presser on the right side. Arsenal cracked under the upped pressure:
Both of these goals spring from Arsenal giving the ball away far too easily. City weren’t great, but they didn’t have to be, and they’ve been around the block enough to know that a lot of times, if you don’t fuck up yourself in a match like this, your opponent will do so. City have the highest floor in the Premier League, where they never seem to shoot themselves in the foot when it really counts (Europe is another matter).
Many miles to go before we sleep
It’s not a death blow for Arsenal. They still have a game in hand, which is Everton at home, and even with a new manager that should be a hanging curveball. They’ll get another crack at City down the road. They won’t be as distracted as City by European commitments, still waiting for their Europa League Round of 16 draw. They’re out of the FA Cup.
But this is still a pretty thin squad. Thomas Partey’s injury certainly was obvious yesterday when they started treating the ball like a hand grenade and needed someone to either calm them down or stop a City push. Jorginho is a lot of things but a stopper he is not. Nketiah has filled in admirably for Gabriel Jesus, not really a prolific scorer himself, but it was hard to miss the efficiently ruthless manner that Erling Haaland took his one chance and the way Nketiah missed the couple he had. They’re still pretty dependent on Ødegaard to create most of their attacking work.
They froze when the lights were brightest. As anyone else who’s tried to run with City will tell you, the margin for error is minimal. You certainly can’t give them anything when they’re already built to take everything anyway.
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