Once the team news was leaked ahead of Manchester City’s visit on Sunday, pessimism was rife among the Arsenal fanbase. They’d have taken a point, let’s say that.
While Gabriel Martinelli recovered in time to make the bench, Bukayo Saka was absent from the squad entirely and some raised an eyebrow or two when they saw Jorginho’s name in midfield. Despite the sturdy backline and Declan Rice’s presence, it wasn’t an XI that inspired confidence heading into a titanic duel with the Premier League’s supreme force.
However, the visitors themselves were hampered by key absences. Arsenal slayer Kevin De Bruyne (13 goal contributions in 20 games against the Gunners) and Rodri were both missing, while John Stones could only make the bench.
As a result, the depleted Gunners were fortunate to face up against a far-from-perfect City team. Bernardo Silva was forced into a deep position in the build-up, and a combination of Rico Lewis, Mateo Kovacic, and Julian Alvarez were tasked with matching De Bruyne’s dynamism. Spoiler alert: they couldn’t.
There’s no doubt City’s absences aided Arsenal’s ability to hold them at arm’s length for the majority of the contest, but that shouldn’t take away from a stellar defensive showing from the hosts.
Defensive brilliance key to Arsenal’s victory over Man City
Tifo Football’s Jon Mackenzie, a respected football analyst whose opinion is well worth taking seriously, has previously described Mikel Arteta’s side as the best team in the world out of possession. Sunday’s win was further vindication of Mackenzie’s claim.
Both teams were excellent without the ball, and it did take a little while for the hosts to settle. City would’ve been 1-0 up in the opening exchanges hadn’t Declan Rice been in the right place at the right time to head away Josko Gvardiol’s goalbound effort. However, once they settled, Arsenal were majestic out of possession, and Arteta deserves immense credit for coaching his side to a level where they’re comparable to Pep Guardiola’s Cityzens, whose work without the ball has long gone under the radar given their majesty with it.
Every build-up sequence was an ordeal for City on Sunday as Arsenal’s harmonious and intense press rendered sweeping Sky Blue passing moves infrequent as they struggled to venture into the final third. In fact, Arsenal entered the final third more than their opponents (40 entries to 37), notched more passes in the final third (144 to 88), and made more ball recoveries in the attacking third (five to three).
There was very little to separate the two as both managers played out a vintage chess match during which they each looked content with grabbing a point given their absentees. However, a stout defensive showing from the hosts set the stage for Martinelli’s late show which sent the Emirates into raptures.
Any time City bypassed Arsenal’s press, the Gunners held firm thanks to the brilliance of individuals. William Saliba’s athleticism allowed him to match Erling Haaland stride-for-stride in open space, while Rice made numerous recoveries from positions which looked sub-optimal. These two were particularly outstanding, but it was Arsenal’s collective effort that rendered City’s stars non-entities and that started from the front.
“So proud. It was the moment with the right people and the right players,” Arteta said post-match after securing his first Premier League win over mentor Guardiola. “We knew we would have to suffer and we did that. You need a big performance and the crowd too. It feels like a big win.”
A big win it most certainly was, and while the contest won’t be remembered as a classic (the two teams combined for less than 1.0 xG), it may go down as a significant moment in Arteta’s project. His side have so often lacked emotional maturity in contests of this magnitude, but they were remarkably measured to overcome their perpetual destroyers on Sunday, especially given the perceived injustice involving Mateo Kovacic in the first half.
This was a statement of intent from the north London outfit. While some have harboured doubts over their title credentials at the start of 2023/24 despite their productive opening, their slender win over the champions depicted an outfit that are ready to usurp the Premier League’s dominant force.