Mikel Arteta proved he can park the bus when Arsenal finally ended a Premier League hoodoo against Manchester City. The 1-0 victory was tedious, ugly and a huge result for the Gunners’ belief they can win this season’s Premier League title.
Jose Mourinho and Mikel Arteta aren’t so different after all. Arteta did his best impression of the once, sort-of ‘Special One’ by parking the bus to help Arsenal beat Manchester City 1-0 and assume top spot in the Premier League going into October’s international break.
The performance was tedious and ugly, but the result is a huge fillip for the Gunners’ belief they can finally end a title drought that will reach the two-decade mark next May. Capturing the title requires a marathon, not a sprint, meaning teams usually need a few ugly wins.
Mission was accomplished after Arsenal shut up shop and played safety-first football against a City side woefully lacking inspiration in Kevin De Bruyne’s absence. Going defensive isn’t an indictment of Arteta. It was a necessary response to being without his best player, Bukayo Saka.
The gifted winger finally broke under a workload that would have wasted a mere mortal long ago. Saka’s absence left Arteta with a few dilemmas in terms of team selection; tests the manager passed with room to spare.
Smart team selection stymied City
Jorginho’s inclusion in the starting XI raised a few eyebrows, but it was an inspired choice. Less about the player, and more because putting a defensive-minded midfielder alongside Declan Rice sent a clear message to City.
Arteta’s team wasn’t about to go blow for blow with last season’s treble winners. Instead, the onus was on the visitors to the Emirates Stadium to carry the fight, a tall order without an injured De Bruyne and the suspended Rodri.
Jorginho not only afforded the Arsenal back four an extra layer of protection. His presence also let Rice employ his destructive tendencies higher up the pitch. Rice joined a press already amply led by tenacious strikers Gabriel Jesus and Eddie Nketiah.
Putting Jesus right and keeping Nketiah through the middle was another masterstroke. It meant Arsenal had two worker bees able to harass the City back five.
City’s normally swift and fluent build-up consistently wilted under pressure from Arsenal’s pressers, with Rice the driving force, per numbers from Squawka Live.
Sacrificing a more forward-thinking player like Fabio Vieira for Jorginho not only let Rice defend from the front. It gave inverted full-back Oleksandr Zinchenko some company in the deeper areas of midfield.
The result was City struggling to play through extra numbers at the back. Those struggles were summed up by the away side averaging “just 51% pass competition rate in Arsenal’s third in the first half, compared to 87.3% across the entire pitch,” according to Opta Analyst.
City not being able to exert themselves in the action areas meant star striker Erling Haaland was robbed of service. Haaland didn’t see much of the ball, but he saw plenty of William Saliba.
Saliba could stay aggressive and take some chances with Haaland because Jorginho, Zinchenko and Rice took turns protecting and reinforcing the defence. Arteta picked a starting XI equipped to suffocate City at both ends of the pitch.
It worked like a treat, limiting a team that had scored for fun during previous meetings with Arsenal in the league to a mere “four shots,” per Orbinho.
Going defensive isn’t Arteta’s style, but he directed this game like a seasoned bus-parker. Even down to the late introduction of Gabriel Martinelli to add some juice to the counter-attack and eventually score the winner.
Arsenal have gone defensive to win titles before
A football purist like Arteta probably won’t do this too often, but it’s worth noting even Arsene Wenger, the ultimate purveyor of ‘The Beautiful Game,’ wasn’t above valuing function over form against title rivals.
Wenger picked a midfield of Patrick Vieira, Gilberto Silva and Ray Parlour to play for a point during the infamous ‘Battle of Old Trafford’ away to Manchester United in 2003. Silky schemer Robert Pires wasn’t included for this kind of rugged rearguard.
Vieira, Palour and Edu broke up play and owned the midfield when Wenger’s second double-winners sealed the title at Old Trafford in 2002.
There’s a time and place to keep things compact in every title race. Arteta now knows his team can do it in games Arsenal had become used to losing.
Repeat this kind of stubborn defiance at the Etihad Stadium, Anfield and the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, and Arteta could well be lifting the trophy next summer.