Drab day at the office

There’s a familiar numbness that comes with losing to City at the Etihad. Usually, it’s because we’ve just been swept aside 3-0 – like every other year – but yesterday’s numbness arrived a little bit differently.

Even at 1-0, as we were for most of the game, I had my doubts about us coming away with a point, let alone three. It’s not that we weren’t without chances but the approach was “off”. In the end, it was death by 1000 cuts as City toyed with us for most of the second half with insufferable ease, as so many teams have endured against Pep.

On paper, it felt like a game that was winnable given some of the key players City were missing but when a club has spent £450m on defenders alone and a net spend of £867m since 2011/2012, life is still going to be difficult. On this occasion, a single player in Kyle Walker was able to negate most of our attacking capability as he shows no signs of slowing up any time soon. After our F.A. Cup smash-and-grab triumph last season, it was only natural for Pep to wisen up to the dangers we pose and as I feared as the transfer window came to a close, we ended up ruing our dearth of creativity because without our ability to counter-attack, our attack is sterile.

With the exception of Saka, there was no one willing or able to beat their man, or take a risk or try something different. There’s reasons for that; City are still a strong side even without players like De Bruyne, Laporte and Mendy, and the most obvious instalment under Arteta has been our defensive discipline. With that in mind and going behind relatively early in the match, I’m sure the fear of compounding the scoreline left us playing “a little bit with the handbrake”.

There was also an over-willingness to simply launch the ball long from Gabriel, Luiz, Xhaka and Tierney (which was undoubtedly by design) and with Walker as quick as he is, there were few opportunities to get in behind. When we did create something, it was invariably from driving runs forward from Saka while Willian once again ghosted through the game. There was nothing in the way of progression or creativity from a player expected to do just that, and our entire front line suffered. No amount of centre forwards on the pitch at the same time was going to change that either, with Lacazette and Nketiah proving just as ineffective with their late cameos.

While I was pleased to see him feature, I also found myself wondering what would have happened if Partey had been given 30 minutes instead of 10. There was fluidity, ease and drive to his game, which is exactly why we bought the player and I can’t help but think a player of his calibre would have relished such a game to bed himself in the team. It didn’t stop City from picking Ruben Dias in the starting lineup and he hardly looked out of place.

None of this was helped by the level of cynicism in City’s approach. A raking challenge down Tierney’s leg could have seen Cancelo sent off on another day and Kyle Walker’s clearance that saw his boot level with Gabriel’s head may have given us a way back into the game, but this is part and parcel of VAR and was by no means decisive in the grand scheme of things.

It’s not all bad. While it may now be our longest losing streak to any top-flight team, it was a damn sight more competitive than what we’ve grown used to and while the goal was a sloppy one to concede, we continue to grow from the back. That’s thanks in part to Gabriel who seems surprisingly at ease and dominant already, and while he was highly culpable for the goal, Bellerín looks back to the breakthrough version of himself.

Saka continues to strengthen his position with every minute he plays and I can still scarcely believe he’s 19. Handing him the No. 7 is a testament to his quality and the belief those around him have in his future but to be vindicating that decision already is something else. When he picks up the ball, I’m excited because he’s not only a joy to watch with how takes players on and rides challenges but because he’s actually effective in what he does. Our best chances of the game fell to him which were largely of his own making and as he progresses, he could well be finishing with the same frequency as his City counter-part in Sterling.

Going forward, Arteta now has to find a way to release the offensive shackles and enable players who can make a difference to do so. With the addition of Partey, the dynamics of our midfield are no doubt going to take a dramatic shift to accommodate him despite the fact we were beginning to show signs of cohesion with Xhaka and Ceballos.

It’s early days and while yesterday afternoon felt like a chore at times, we’ve now played our two hardest games of the season and find ourselves outside of the Top Four on goal difference. Progress is progress.

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