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Sunday, April 14, 2024

Arsenal and Man City deliver dullest title ‘showdown’ but Gunners won’t care at all

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Football

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It wasn’t exactly the game to justify a rise in ticket prices from Manchester City, not that anything would be. It certainly wasn’t a game to justify the build-up. That shouldn’t be a surprise. The Premier League actually has a pretty substantial history of these supposed showdowns being underwhelming games, where the tension has suppressed expression.

The real surprise, however, was how bad this 0-0 between the champions and Arsenal was. Whatever about expression, there were stretches of play where some of the best players in the world didn’t seem to be able to kick a ball properly. City’s attackers were stumbling with their touch on the edge of the box. Arsenal’s defenders were desperately hacking it clear. Even someone as sublime as Martin Odegaard played one of the most strangely-miscued through balls you will ever see from such a player. As for his international teammate, was there even a moment when Erling Haaland connected with a ball properly? There was certainly another bad miss to follow that one against Manchester United, although this time it was more consequential.

Much of that was to do with William Saliba, who was one player who rose above it all. He was superb, always knowing exactly where to be to bring Haaland into areas he didn’t want.

The brief face-off between the two after the game was the only time the Norwegian wasn’t quiet. Saliba was helped by a hugely disciplined defence, with Gabriel often as crucial in directly dealing with Haaland in one-on-ones.

This points to what was probably the biggest influence on how and why the game played out as it did. It was down to more than tension. It was down to set-up.

Although the onus had been on Arsenal to finally get that “statement” away victory, there was the telling stat that they had become the first team to prevent City scoring at home in almost three years. Saliba said after the game they can’t be happy with any game where they don’t win but there felt considerable satisfaction with this.

William Saliba was hugely effective in stopping Erling Haaland

(Getty Images)

A victory would have put Arsenal back on top and probably clear favourites for the title but this is still City, even a City now in third place with fewer than 10 games to go. Even Liverpool at their best didn’t really go there and win. It is something you might hope for but can’t really aim for. They are still the best team in Europe and the best at what they do, which meant Mikel Arteta had to adapt around Pep Guardiola’s approach. There was never going to be any imposing their own game here, in the manner they have naively done in the past.

It shows the further maturation of the team, even if there is considerable doubt over whether there is sufficient growth to make them champions.

Arsenal have now done this a few times, once against Liverpool away and now twice against Manchester City. This time it saw them cede ground in the title race, as Jurgen Klopp’s side went two points clear on their own, but the most important point is they still have that foothold with so much to play. Even Arsenal draws at this stadium aren’t exactly common. Arteta ultimately did what was sensible.

They didn’t go for it, in the way they did for that humiliation in April and the way they might have been tempted to given that build-up. Even Declan Rice spoke about needing a win. The invitation was there to “prove” themselves, and try and go at City. The outcome surely would have been something similar to last season’s 4-1 defeat, if not as chastening.

Arsenal frustrated Man City and emerged with a creditable draw

(Getty Images)

Those at Arsenal might point to the fact they didn’t have Saliba for that game but had him here, and he illustrated how crucial he is. There was still more to it than that.

This performance showed how Arsenal have learned from last season, how it has further honed them. That has been the pattern with this team, in a way that has often been overlooked.

They followed the perceived farce of 2020-21 and a bad start to the following season with a challenge for the Champions League places in 2021-22. When they finished fifth there, after another humiliation but this time to close rivals Tottenham Hotspur, they then just came back with a title challenge.

Another falter there led to a lot of criticism of Arteta’s side for “bottling it” and not having it, but the truth was it was a young team over performing and ultimately running out of steam. This whole season, right down to Kai Havertz’s evolution, has been a response to that. They have clearly got closer to the finished article.

As to whether they can continue the pattern of Arteta’s time and follow last season’s second place by going one better… well, that’s where it gets even more difficult. The hardest part is still to come. It isn’t as punishing to go from eighth to fifth or fifth to second as it is to actually get over the line. That’s the real test of mettle, especially when up against City.

Arsenal celebrated a hard-earned point but even greater tests are to come

(EPA)

That was what a lot of this performance was about. It was about standing ground rather than losing it. One of the reasons why there was more onus on Arsenal going into this game, however, is because they do have a significantly more difficult run-in than either Liverpool or City.

The feeling remains that they will just drop more points. It is why everyone spoke of this being a particularly good day for Liverpool, and it might have been an even better one if Arsenal had won. City are still the standard. Arsenal, however, have found a way to meet them. That is important in itself.

It’s also why Saliba seemed to shake his head when it was put to him that Liverpool might now have the advantage. As the centre-half showed at City, he is prepared to do his utmost to ensure nobody gets by this burgeoning Arsenal that easily.

That’s maybe the greatest significance of this. It was never going to be a showdown, or at least one that decided anything. It is simply further setup and maybe keeps it all the more interesting.

The run-in is likely to be much more watchable than this.

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