Arsenal succumbed to a 3-1 defeat to Manchester City side who were both profligate and fortuitous, but also clearly superior in every department.
Perhaps with one eye on the opposition, and with this season’s best away performance in mind, but also definitely enforced by the absences of Per Mertesacker, Shkodran Mustafi and Rob Holding, Arsene Wenger shuffled his pack for the trip to the Etihad.
However, what had worked so well against Chelsea’s back three came up short against City’s back four because the broad principles could not translate. City’s midfield were superior both in terms of numbers and quality to Chelsea’s, and boasted a front three who were fundamentally different and significantly more dangerous than their Chelsea counterparts.
In the past few weeks, we’ve seen Mertesacker deployed at the heart of the back three, as something of a steady dad figure, to instil calm, organise his line and be distributor in chief. In the weeks preceding the trip to Chelsea, Wenger had used Laurent Koscielny in the same role.
However, for the trip to Stamford Bridge, he instead switched his instructions and had the watchful Koscielny and Nacho Monreal either side of Mustafi, who had been given specific instructions to go hard and tight against Conte’s lone striker, Alvaro Morata. The plan worked, Morata was put off his game and was a non-factor.
Against City, it was Francis Coquelin tasked with playing this role to deal with Sergio Aguero. Even if Guardiola and right-hand man Mikel Arteta had considered Wenger may adopt this approach to deal with their superstar club record goalscorer, there is absolutely no chance they could have predicted the Arsenal player selected to carry out this assignment.
As such, City didn’t have a gameplan to use one of the league’s best players to systematically take apart one of the league’s worst. But they didn’t need one, because what they already had in mind was more than good enough to catch Arsenal out elsewhere.
One of the reasons why Arsenal’s back three with the aggressor in the middle had worked so well at Stamford Bridge was because Chelsea’s inside forwards who orbit Morata, Pedro and Willian prefer to come narrow. They were relatively easy for Monreal and Koscielny to deal with man on man. Furthermore, Chelsea matched Arsenal’s formation, so the respective wing-backs went man for man on their opposite number.
However, in City’s 4-3-3 formation, Guardiola likes to have his wide men, Raheem Sterling and Leroy Sane, stationed high and wide. This doesn’t stand them on outside centre-backs in the same way as Chelsea’s formation would but rather in the space behind Arsenal’s wing-backs Hector Bellerin and the clearly not match-fit Sead Kolasinac.
Bellerin and Kolasinac couldn’t abandon post and go man-for-man with City’s wide men due to the presence of supporting fullbacks behind them, who under Guardiola have been known to both go outside to provide traditional width, but also step inside and supplement the midfield.
Granti Xhaka and Aaron Ramsey comprehensively outplayed a Chelsea midfield two of N’Golo Kante and Cesc Fabregas at Stamford Bridge. However, the sum of the trio of David Silva, Kevin De Bruyne and Fernandinho had an additional man, far more technical ability, better mobility, while being able to run the game and pick out Sterling and Sane with consummate ease.
After an early spell of Arsenal pressure, it became increasingly likely from the 10th minute onwards that the first goal of the game would be scored by City and that it would only be a matter of time.
While the Sky Blues were clearly well on top and superior in all departments, they lacked the killer instinct in midfield and were profligate in front of goal. They almost allowed Arsenal a chance to get back into the game against the run of play through Aaron Ramsey before half time.
This wasn’t the first time in the half that Ramsey was open in an advanced position, but it was the first occasion he wasn’t ignored by Alexis Sanchez. This is becoming a concerning development, having also occurred against Everton and Swansea.
I was screaming at the TV so hard when Alexis ignored Ramsey here. I know they don't get along, but it's the obvious pass! pic.twitter.com/Iw4fpM7g77
— Renato (@th14Renato) November 7, 2017
When playing predominantly on the counter, it’s crucial to have players happy to receive the ball on the half-turn, the way Silva classically does for City. While he had a poor first-half where most of what he attempted didn’t come off, Alex Iwobi was the only Arsenal player doing this. It was no surprise that he started the move that led to Alexandre Lacazette pulling a goal back after getting on the end of Ramsey’s pass.
City could, and perhaps should, have been 4-0 up before Arsenal scored but they weren’t. At 2-1, Guardiola’s men started to look leggy following their midweek exertions against an exciting Napoli side. Had the score remained 2-1 with minutes remaining, I’m inclined to believe Arsenal’s fresher legs would have seen them breach a defence that contained Kyle Walker, Nicolas Otamendi and Fabian Delph.
Pretty clear, yet Alan Smith says not offside…..hmmmm pic.twitter.com/hUdZSS4Ewn
— Boring Arsenal (@Boring_Arsenal) November 5, 2017
Thanks to the referee’s assistant missing a fairly blatant offside call, Arsenal conceded a third goal which ended the game. That withstanding, you can’t help but feel that Wenger missed a trick not lining up Sanchez one-on-one with Delph, a one-paced central midfielder filling in at left back. Similarly, Arsenal can count themselves lucky City stuck to Pep’s gameplan and didn’t have Aguero and co tear Coquelin apart.
Given pre-match expectations and the gulf in quality of the two performances in the first hour, Arsenal fans won’t be surprised by the result. They can certainly feel aggrieved about the manner of the deciding goal, however. A clearly superior City side should have been out of sight before Arsenal pulled one back, but they weren’t. As such, a set of circumstances arose where a tight game was decided by a bad officiating decision.