There’s a fair amount to unpack from that 90 minutes of football. Frustrations aside, I can’t remember the last time I saw such a competitive Arsenal side and they absolutely took the game to City. Pep finally got a taste of his own medicine with Arsenal’s scything, dynamic football and relentless work in winning the ball back. His squad of superstars and well-financed match officials couldn’t even engineer a single shot on target from open play until the 93rd minute winner and they needed a highly contentious dive and a red card to get there.
I’m absolutely gutted that there’s nothing to show for this game. At the very least, Arsenal were good for a point and who knows where the game would have ended up had Arsenal got the same run of the green. Across the pitch, Arsenal rose to the occasion; Thomas Partey at long last eclipsing his stellar performance at Old Trafford and delivering when we needed him to, Tomiyasu has everything you could ever ask for in a full back and kept Raheem Sterling deathly quiet for 90 minutes and Saka and Martinelli ran Cancelo and Ake ragged. The goal itself was sublime and Saka continues to prove he can perform against any opposition and with goals added to his game, he’s a scary prospect. All I hope now is that a corner has finally been turned in these fixtures because most teams will be blown away by this new ceiling.
Arsenal were also without their touchline talisman and his auditory onslaught, making the performance all the more impressive. Once fans returned and the famous drinks breaks stopped, I thought he might struggle to have an impact from the sidelines but seeing how animated he still is, it’s hard to say he hasn’t been a factor in recent weeks. What I’m now seeing though, is a well-drilled team that fights in every position on the pitch and leaves nothing out there.
I’d love to only focus on the performance but once again, the Premier League’s officiating proved it’s not fit for purpose. I don’t think there’s going to be any consensus on who’s to blame for what unfolded or what the correct decisions should have been but the very least anyone can ask for is consistency. The problem is, as isolated incidences, it’s impossible to understand how one can be reviewed and one can’t. Clear and obvious is what we always here but Xhaka’s “foul” was the only case which needed a review from Atwell.
As much as I loathe diving – and Silva has absolutely taken a dive there – Xhaka complicated matters by planting that seed of doubt. An outstretched leg and a shirt pull in combination are enough to do that, and as much as I don’t agree with the final decision, he was at least responsible in part. What I take massive issue with is how Odegaard’s was not scrutinised as closely, because as everyone has now seen, Ederson did not win any of the ball and it’s a penalty all day long.
Arsenal’s mad 5 minutes that unravelled the match saw a dive overturned for a penalty, an open goal missed and Gabriel’s red card. In fairness to Martinelli, Atwell was also inexplicably sprinting into the box ahead of him for some unknown reason and while he’ll be devastated to from there, it had its complications.
Besides a glancing header from Dias, City created nothing of any value. Arsenal had to bide their time and weathered periods of predictable City dominance in possession but their patience paid off and their incessant pressing slowly brought respite.
The respite came from Arsenal’s outlets on either wing, with their ability to stretch and panic City breathing life into play elsewhere on the pitch. In previous outings, everything we’ve tried against City has felt helpless but seeing Martinelli and Saka breezing through City’s lines was a crucial building block in confidence. Arsenal were often able to relieve pressure by finding these two from deep, breaking City’s own press in much the same way that City so often manage to.
Even reduced to ten men, Arsenal were commendably still playing their football and to be able to do that against City is no small feat. Throughout the tie, Arsenal were playing some sumptuous football and to have the confidence and ability to do that against City is something to be proud of.
Going forward, it’s a real disservice to think that Arsenal can only overcome these injustices by learning the dark arts. City aren’t the only side to rely on rotational fouling but they’re probably the biggest beneficiaries. The only difference was Arsenal were punished for trying the same tricks that City can get away with. In this instance, the gravity of the tie was clearly too much for the referee and Atwell has a growing catalogue of errors already (as does Jared Gillet, the VAR). Until these types of people are either held to scrutiny or out of a job, this will continue. It at least feels like clubs are at their wit’s end with the standard of officiating in the Premier League.
For Arsenal, all I can say is “please channel that first hour for all future matches” because that was no fluke.