Perhaps we were too excited?
After waiting 13 days and sitting through a series of dire international matches, the hype coming into Saturday’s clash against a Kevin De Bruyne-less Manchester City had Arsenal fans in high spirits.
Hoping to end a run of 28 matches on the road against the ‘big six’, there was a feeling that the stars were aligning over the Etihad Stadium given the form of both sides, as well as a combination of the players available, and unavailable.
With Thomas Partey joining the fray and morale soaring, there was good reason for optimism. In the end, we may have got somewhat carried away with ourselves. Why? Because in truth, that was fairly tiresome to watch.
Here is what we learned from the defeat.
It Was All Too Safe
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When Arsenal committed bodies forward and got it into advanced positions with numbers, opportunities were made. A first half that looked good, without being spectacular in any way, had its best moments when Kieran Tierney would gallop down the left flank and Hector Bellerin would run in behind Nicolas Pepe.
If you play a system that has no out and out No. 10, the full-backs or wing-backs are imperative to the offering creativity in wide areas. To paraphrase Arsene Wenger, playing with the handbrake on as Arsenal did was an opportunity wasted.
Bukayo Saka’s chance in the first half was born out of the back four pushing up a few yards and the midfield closing the gaps between themselves and the forward line. Keeping the City players occupied, it allowed Saka to make the runs in between defenders without the added strain of being marked touch tight. His neat give and go’s on the edge of the area are so effective, but he was prevented from expressing himself in that manner with the overly cautious approach.
Even as the game wore on and the clocked ticked down, the substitutions were almost like-for-like, if not more negative. Alexandre Lacazette was so deep yet there were no runners off him, just leaving Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Eddie Nketiah as wide forwards hoping for an offensive counter turnover.
Gave City too much respect.
Arsenal Are at 66%
Two out of three areas on the pitch are so refined. From the horror days under Unai Emery where passing out from the back triggered an almost immediate heart attack, I find myself falling closer to Mikel Arteta’s way of thinking where hoofing it long becomes the real cause for concern.
No matter how deep the team are, the distribution and confidence they have playing out from the back and thus forcing the opposition to drop further off is superb. Then, the next phase where the ball is moved into central areas is done with equal precision and structure. Coached down to their bones and aware of the right and wrong spaces to pick up, the improvements here are vast.
But shift up a third and it’s all so flat.
On a few occasions there were runs in behind that weren’t picked out properly – Tierney was at fault for a few which is understandable – yet the team look stunted and lacking in ideas with each pass of the ball.
That’s not to say Arsenal can’t create chances, just not enough of them. When the wide players are given support or when a midfielder drops of the striker to pull central defenders out of their line, then they can have joy. Why not do it more? Only at the very end when City were holding onto their lead was there semblance of a Plan B.
Thomas Partey came on and Dani Ceballos pushed further forward with Saka. Seeking out a different avenue into the City box at least offered variation the advanced phases. Too little, too late, however.
Far too pedestrian.
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang Is Losing Patience
With Lacazette dropped to the bench and Nicolas Pepe joining Aubameyang and Willian up top, a few Arsenal heads will have dropped at the sight of the Brazilian operating in the centre forward role.
Appetites were whet at the thought of Aubameyang starting a match down the middle, so seeing him hug the touchline once more was an admitted disappointment. He’s scored a stupid amount of goals from that position, but he’s being sacrificed to account for whichever member of the cavalry joins the attack. Tierney didn’t provide it on too many occasions, but when he did the captain was left to offer the one-two passes on the touchline. If it was Saka overloading, then he’d be the one making the inside runs.
Only rarely was the 31-year-old able to make diagonal runs across the central defender, one such occasion he nearly scored from. Putting Willian in almost as a false nine for the two wide forwards to cut across appeared lacking in practice.
They needed more support from the full-backs to make those runs, but they were few and far between, with the ploy not succeeding in exploiting City’s weaknesses.
Aubameyang must be agonising at the role he’s playing at the moment. No qualsm with him playing on the wing, but he’s being asked to perform intricate technical play stood on the touchline. That isn’t his forte.
Gabriel Magalhaes Passed His Etihad Test
This was a big day for the 22-year-old, who came face to face his toughest challenge on Saturday night. A side so fluid in their front line and with two of the most spry wingers in world football to defend against. Did Gabriel do well? No, he did brilliantly.
Boasting such a big, yet nimble frame, he won all his duels both aerially and on the ground. In possession he kept all those hounding him down at an arm’s length, while he relinquished the ball on only a select few occasions following excellent City pressing from deep. We must also mention Sergio Aguero – who is almost impossible to mark – someone Gabriel ensured he had a quiet enough affair.
The Etihad was always going to be his acid test after simpler matches, less taxing clashes against Fulham, West Ham and Sheffield United, so to see him come out of it as one of Arsenal’s better players was one of few notable positives.
We’ve got some player on our hands.