Another year, another stroll in the park for Man City. The same can be said for most teams City have played this season, with yesterday’s loss marking the 18th consecutive win for them in all competitions. There’s no team that comes close to them in the Premier League this season and the result was another step closer to a cakewalk of a title, and Arteta even claimed they were the “best in Europe” before the match.
With that in mind, losing 1-0 to them isn’t such a bad thing in the grand scheme of things but what the score line doesn’t reflect is the ease in which they were able to nullify everything Arsenal threw at them, and by “throw” I actually mean “gently roll from a safe distance”. With only a single shot on target all game – which I believe was Tierney’s ambitious but well-hit effort from outside the box – it often felt like City were running down the clock as soon as Sterling nodded home and everything therein was like a dangling carrot. I’d hoped that the match would at least show some signs of improvement from years gone by, but the ease at which City were able to control the game without breaking a sweat is nothing short of demoralising. It’s also par for the course if the last 5 years are anything to go by:
That’s 9 losses and a single draw in 5 seasons, with 5 goals scored and 23 conceded.
There’s room for frustration, because while entirely predictable – since we always find a way to concede early on to City – it was just sloppy. Tierney was off the pace and failed to close down Mahrez; somewhat understandable because he’s still lacking match fitness. Sterling did what all good forwards do which was to find space between defenders but there’s still something comically worrying when someone of his stature wins a header unchallenged, and that falls on Holding and Bellerin. Both were ball-watching and both lost their man.
From there, it was always going to be an uphill battle with a less adventurous midfield tasked with breaking down the best defence in the league, one that cost north of £200m and has conceded 10 less goals than the next best in the league – which is Arsenal’s. Losing to a country-backed franchise is less frustrating than losing to other rivals (not that City are even a rival these days), but there’s still something, a kind of hopelessness, that doesn’t sit well with me. It’s not a level playing field and that status quo isn’t going to change any time soon. There’s no question that Arsenal haven’t been smart in the transfer window for some time but when you have a £200m defence and players like Aguero, Foden, Rodri, Laporte and Gabriel Jesus all on the bench, it’s no wonder there’s a gulf.
It’s also fair to say there was a mental frailty in some players out there; some uncharacteristic behaviour where even the most simple tasks were too much, to hilarious effect. The laughter offered some brief respite to an otherwise dull afternoon and while Bellerín had the funniest of the lot, there were plenty of other howlers along these lines…
There was a silver lining from an unsurprising source, which is that Saka was still playing with the same tenacity and belief as he would against any other opposition, and he was the only player City didn’t seem to have a handle on.
He was once again shifted from his home on the right wing for the greater good, and still he was able to influence the game and remained our most potent threat on the day. While he has an array of skill at his disposal, his mental fortitude is just as impressive and we still seem to be learning new things about his depths. Playing anywhere on the pitch doesn’t faze him, the opposition doesn’t faze him, opposition players rubbing his head to try and unsettle him doesn’t faze him and even in the face of glowing praise whenever he’s interviewed, he takes it in his stride. You can’t really teach that, which I guess explains why he continues to stand out from the rest.
I do have some concerns about what good another 90 minutes did for him ahead of Thursday, especially given how tiring it is to keep a team like City at bay but he’s still doing his thing. That may well be a ticking time bomb but I hope there’s still some care afforded to him, as much as the team depends on him.
Looking ahead to Thursday, the City game wasn’t much of an exercise in preparedness and Arteta will no doubt be looking for more of the same. I expect that Benfica will give a better showing of themselves, which should hopefully bring the necessary edge to Arsenal in the process, but we’re going to need to show more endeavour and risk than we have done in the last two games.
It’s understandable to not commit against City. They were playing with the handbrake on but you know if they saw an easy opportunity to rip us apart, they’d take it. It’s not even as simple as just throwing more players forward, because they’re good enough to soak it up anyway. I do think there was room for something more in the first leg against Benfica though, and hope it doesn’t come back to haunt us but time will tell when they meet again in Greece.