Despite the FA Cup victories in recent years, Arsene Wenger’s time at Arsenal has grown increasingly stale if only due to the uncanny feeling of deja vu that accompanies them. At first this was justified as limited finances in the wake of building the Emirates Stadium saw them slip behind those with more resources, yet year after year they never quite made it back to the peak. While they never face disaster, they never quite have anything to look forward to either: easing their way through the Champions League group stages, but then crashing out in the last sixteen; making a title challenge, but not sustaining it when the going gets tough. That feeling must have only been aggravated by Leicester City tearing up the accepted wisdom last season and, as Arsenal’s season settles into that now familiar pattern, the atmosphere has turned decidedly toxic in North London. On the back of two losses, another visit from one of the league’s better teams didn’t come at a welcome time for Wenger.
Both managers opted for a 4-2-3-1, which would typically make for a tight congested game but instead it was rather open.
Part of this was due to the way Arsenal press. Trying to stop Manchester City playing out from the back, Mesut Ozil pushed up alongside Danny Welbeck, leaving space for City’s holding midfielders to pick up the ball in which in turn requires one of their own to step up and negate the space, but also leaves gaps behind them that the centre-backs must then cover. The opening goal comes from this: rather than play out to the heavily marked defenders, Willy Caballero hits it long to Sergio Aguero. Shkodran Mustafi wins it but his header falls to Kevin De Bruyne, who has plenty of space to hit his first time pass for Leroy Sane into.
City played their own part in ensuring the game was open too though, often leaving Aguero, Sane and Raheem Sterling high up the pitch. While it allowed them to constantly threaten in behind, it also made it easy for the Arsenal full-backs to get forward, especially with so many players being ahead of the ball making it difficult to counterpress. With the lead, they gradually dropped back but after 25 or so minutes Arsenal had wrestled control of the game from City, mainly due to their control of their left side. Sterling was doing a poor job of keeping track of Nacho Monreal, allowing him to overlap and failing to stop any passes he made. This only made things worse for Jesus Navas, who was having a torrid time up against Alexis Sanchez at right-back. The Spaniard was a bizarre choice primarily because he’s not a right-back and clearly doesn’t have the defensive skills for it (and Sanchez could expose weaknesses even in strong full-backs), but also because it’s hard to see what the benefit was: with Sterling high and wide there wouldn’t have been any room for him to attack even if he got the opportunity.
Arsenal’s pressure eventually wore City down and they got their equaliser only to immediately hand the lead back to the Mancunians with some poor defending. At half-time Sterling was replaced by Yaya Toure, with Kevin De Bruyne moving out to the right wing. This failed to stop Monreal getting forward though and Mustafi soon equalised from a corner won through a combination between the Spaniard and Sanchez.
City soon reclaimed control but rarely threatened. They frequently tried to attack the near post from the right, whether that was from the byline or De Bruyne looping crosses in from deeper, yet it was rare they actually got anyone in the area to attack the ball, only mustering weak efforts when they did pop up.
With Arsenal struggling to keep the ball and play out, City no longer had any space to attack in behind and the ball generally ended going around in a U shape with little penetration. It got a little bit more end-to-end as the clock ticked towards 90 minutes but it was a game of little quality that neither side can be too satisfied with.