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Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Arsenal’s tedious display against Manchester City epitomises Mikel Arteta’s growing ambition

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Arsenal could savour the tedium. On a weekend overflowing with goals, the dullest game may prove the most consequential. If the day’s great winners were Liverpool in one respect, as Arsenal were dislodged from the Premier League summit, as their 100 per cent record in 2024 ended, they showed their staying power.

Arsenal did not win their war of attrition but they at least ensured they did not lose it. Last season’s title challenge suffered unmendable damage against Manchester City. This year’s tilt did not. Mikel Arteta has suffered through eviscerations at the Etihad in the past. As Arsenal collected the first point there in Pep Guardiola’s reign, the champions were unable to breach Arteta’s red wall.

He was schooled by the City manager when his assistant, but this display owed more to George Graham than Guardiola. Arsenal were expertly drilled, mounting a demonstration of organisation and concentration. If the eventual measure of success will come with the final league table that may answer the question of whether they ought to have been bolder in search of victory, they will complete the Premier League campaign without conceding to City.

Indeed, they have barely conceded a shot on target to them: just one at the Emirates Stadium in October, only one in the rematch. It felt a personal triumph for the terrific William Saliba, who has subdued Erling Haaland twice this season; expect a flurry of witticisms about the resident goal machine being found in the Frenchman’s pocket. Yet it was a triumph of the collective. In a game of their patience and City’s possession, Arsenal were compact in the centre of the pitch. Kai Havertz operated as a very withdrawn forward as, at times, 21 players converged on one-third of the pitch, all bar a lonely Stefan Ortega.

William Saliba kept Erling Haaland quiet as Arsenal frustrated the Premier League champions


It became a footnote that Ederson was injured. City’s back-up keeper had to parry a shot from the substitute Leandro Trossard but could otherwise stand and watch rather little happening.

That was how Arsenal liked it. Destroyed by Haaland and Kevin de Bruyne last season, they sought revenge by subduing them, by crowding them. And City lacked the spark, whether in terms of brute power, individual inspiration or clinically brilliant teamwork, to break Arsenal down. Arteta had a back four comprised entirely of centre-backs, two defensive midfielders and a team seemingly intent on revisiting some of the top-of-the-table clashes from the days of Jose Mourinho and Rafa Benitez, not the more action-packed events of recent years.

David Raya’s solitary save came after a quarter of an hour. Nathan Ake met De Bruyne’s corner but, from three yards, only contrived to shoulder his effort at the goalkeeper. Thereafter, Mateo Kovacic curled a shot just wide from the edge of the box. Haaland missed his kick after Josko Gvardiol flicked on a corner. And that, really, was the sum of City’s attacking efforts.

In a bid to end the impasse, Guardiola sent for Jack Grealish and Jeremy Doku, with the putative player of the year Phil Foden sacrificed. Arteta countered by bringing on Thomas Partey and Takehiro Tomiyasu, neither exactly an attacking substitution. It illustrated the differing attitudes, the older man searching for the win, the younger content with a draw and Arsenal flourished in their game of frustration. Bernardo Silva was the busiest of City’s forward-thinking players but even as they extended their unbeaten run to 23 games, they were defeated in a way by Arsenal’s defiance.

Gabriel Jesus created Arsenal’s best chances but was asked to play a thankless role at the top of the pitch

(Martin Rickett/PA Wire)

Perhaps they could have actually been beaten. City’s defensive injury problems mounted: without Kyle Walker, with John Stones restricted to a place on the bench, they then saw Ake limp off. If may have afforded an opportunity for Arsenal but they showed little interest in taking it.

The most prominent of their attackers, if not particularly successfully, was Gabriel Jesus, operating on the left wing on his return to the Etihad Stadium. He poked a shot into the side netting and dragged an effort from the edge of the box wide. Sliding, he could not apply the finishing touch to the otherwise quiet Bukayo Saka’s low centre; this particular Jesus missed the cross at Easter. Yet he lacks the blistering pace of Gabriel Martinelli and Walker’s absence meant the speedier Brazilian could have been their trump card if he had been allowed to run at Rico Lewis. Instead, the semi-fit Martinelli was confined to a late cameo; maybe the injuries cancelled each other out.

City’s reshaped defence kept their clean sheet. Arsenal’s redoubtable rearguard could savour theirs. Last season, City cut Arsenal apart with an ease that was either awesome or embarrassing, depending upon interpretation. This time around, they were more streetwise, more solid. It does not guarantee them glory. But at least this time they leave Manchester without having given City a psychological advantage. And, in a way, the attrition showed Arteta’s ambition to replace his old club as champions.

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