Arsenal’s title hopes, whether you fully believed in them or not, were dealt a blow after losing 1-3 to Manchester City. Despite the difficulty people often have in admitting this about their own team’s losses, the better of the two teams on the day walked away victors. At least the team that executed their game better did.
Arsenal fans should find a silver lining in the fact that the side possessed the ball and created enough chances to have a real opportunity at walking away as the better team, but that’s a difficult platform to argue when the result is still zero points and a stumble into second place for the first time this season.
It was a tight margin match and one I wrote more about in today’s other blog, centered around Arsenal being left to lament their own errors and City’s defensive quality.
Since that got long, I wanted to break my thoughts into two blogs and use this one to jump right into a few takeaways.
Strong principles but predictable?
Throughout the season we have seen the advancement of Arsenal’s identity, and you can’t say it hasn’t been effective. Winning points in the Premier League is tough, claiming 50 in 19 matches is even tougher. It’s an identity that has gotten this team very far, but one that has been in the spotlight for the wrong reasons the second half of the season, and again versus City.
There are many pillars of this side we have become used to: playing from the back, inverted fullbacks, a desire to get Saka isolated on the wings, winger play in general, dominance of space, control of the ball and midfield. The list goes on.
All staples of Arteta’s Arsenal.
Versus Manchester City, Arsenal stuck to their principles. They looked to possess and they wanted to play from the back and progress through their phases. It also may have been their undoing.
It worked well in the first half, finding ways through City’s lines, resulting in 59% of the ball and 7 shots. Arsenal didn’t take those chances, but there were plenty of reason to feel positive heading into the second half. In the second half, it was clear that City had figured out the movements.
City adjusted, they clamped down on the passing movements, they blocked easy passing lanes, they adjusted their formation in the 60th minute, and the result was almost night and day. 68% of the ball but 3 shots, none on target in the second half. It was a half filled with errors from the back and a lot of sloppy, erratic moments in which Arsenal looked panicked trying to play their game.
In a very different fashion from City, Everton, Brentford, and Newcastle have set out to smother the central areas and double in the wings. Each team has done it in a way that fits their team, and deployed structures that set up in different levels of the pitch, but all have faced an Arsenal side playing with these principles and frustrated them. City pushed high, Newcastle deployed a mid-block, Everton a low block, and Brentford their own hybrid low block but a little higher than Everton’s.
It begs the question, if the greatest skill a manager and team can have is the ability to integrate and create variety, is Arsenal in trouble if they can’t create it? It seems teams are figuring out these principles and it’s creating a very predictable Arsenal side.
Possession without punch
It’s been a long time since an Arsenal side has been capable of possessing the ball for 64% of a match against Manchester City. But when three errors lead to goals — two forced by City’s defense — and the play areas show 73% of the match being played in Arsenal’s defensive third or the middle third, even with the ball, it was a tough day.
In both this article and today’s other blog, I have been sure to remind people you can tip your cap to City’s defensive work and this image supports that notion the most. How many times have you seen a team with 64% of the ball and so much of it is within their own half?
Arsenal had the ball but City’s stout structure made life hell when it came to progressing up the pitch. For a side that creates danger when pinning teams into their own area, this is a problem. City keept Arsenal locked in their own half and more than an arms length from dangerous positions.
Unlike my first takeaway, this feels like an explainer for this individual result more than a concern moving forward. There aren’t many teams in the league, if any, that are capable of doing this without the ball. City fans will tout it as a Pep masterclass, and the defensive structure on display during the devastating twenty-one minutes that unraveled Arsenal was impressive. But it tells a story that runs in conjunction with my first takeaway.
On the day, Arsenal lacked enough variety and versatility in how they broke City’s press. Jorginho was fairly clean but between him, Xhaka, and Zinchenko none of them offer the ability to carry a ball out of trouble. With that in mind, City caught onto the need for short passes, didn’t fear being dribbled past, and kept their structure diligently, waiting to pounce on loose passes or willing to push Arsenal back toward their own goal. Eventually those erroneous passes came, they came in Arsenal’s defensive third where much of the match was played, and City capitalized and punished.
Call it a tough day at the office, but Arsenal need to continue to work on expanding how they breakdown the best teams. It comes with time and growth, but it was a real differential between champions and those in the hunt for the first time.
Arteta’s proclivity for like-for-like change but few tactical alterations and iterations
No single person or player is to blame for what was very much a team loss, but Arteta cannot escape clean either. He’s part of the team and while he put out a lineup and set of tactics that worked for the first half, he failed to make significant changes in response to City’s alterations and defensive dominance.
In fact, as the season has gone on, many have noticed that Arteta tends to make the exact same, like-for-like changes to matches. These are changes that bring on fresh legs, but don’t alter this tactical vision. We have long known he is a manager that spends much of the week working with the team on a vision to beat their opposition and set players up for success, but in the face of troubled waters, he rarely makes substitutions that tactically alter the side.
Pep did it yesterday and it stumped Arteta. Wenger was often known for putting on that extra attacker and changing the shape or adding in a midfielder or making some little tweak to the personnel that injected variety and demanded a response from the opposition. Both those managers are incredible in their own right, and Arteta has both time and room to grow, but it has to start somewhere.
Trossard and White were fine with their minutes, Vieira is a change from Xhaka’s profile, but none of it really demands a response from City, and two of them came in the final 10 minutes of the match, down 1-3. Like-for-like substitutions have their place, but if teams are figuring Arsenal out, Arteta has to play a role in causing opposition confusion through changes to the personnel.
Eddie closer to the backup we thought than the Jesus competition many dreamed of
So many people online wanted to lay the blame on Eddie for not scoring his two headed chances (I think he’s offsides on the flash across the six yard box “opportunity”). Those two chances were worth ~0.46 xG. It feels harsh and I stand by the fact that this loss falls heavy on the team as a whole coming up short against an opponent filled with quality. However, we can’t escape the reality that this match and the previous three have demonstrated why Nketiah is a backup within this Arsenal side.
Being a back up, in most cases, comes with reasons. We have seen his ceiling of play during this stretch, one that shows he is capable of scoring and being an effective center man at Premier League level. We are also witnessing his floor.
Early in this stint it was obvious that he wasn’t going to offer us the mobility and all-action variety of abilities Gabriel Jesus does, but he made up for it by putting the ball in the back of the net as a striker does. When those moments run dry and the chances get wasted, it’s clear to see the gap between ceiling and floor are too far apart.
When things were good, there were online debates about whether Arteta should even start Jesus when he returns, but people should have known that was far too premature. The judgement on Eddie Nketiah was always going to be less about individual performances and more bout the culmination of his work across a serious stint of time.
It’s quite clear at this point that there are reasons he is the number two, and that should be remembered by fans in two ways. One, because there will be a time when he comes good again. Even in this match he creates the opportunity that’s won Arsenal a penalty. Two, it should be remembered when assessing the fact that we are frustrated he isn’t providing starter levels as a temporary starter.
Name a team with a backup striker close to as good as their regular. There’s maybe two? Liverpool and City. Im not sure we can put Richarlison in that conversation.
Backups come with a drop in play, they just do. I think it’s obvious Arteta and Arsenal knew the drop off between the two, but also had to allocate funds into other positions this summer. At the start of the season many knew there were two players Arsenal couldn’t afford to miss crucial minutes — Jesus and Partey — and both were injured in the most crucial matchup of the season.
It hurts. Eddie is clearly playing at the level he plays at, and doing it in the fashion that suits how he plays, but where he lands on the ‘good enough’ scale, is closer to ‘backup’ levels than ‘starter’.