1. Mikel Arteta picked a team with which to make a statement. His big focus is on the club’s culture and it wasn’t hard to read between the lines and see the attempt at encouraging some kind of meritocracy. Pablo Mari was included ahead of David Luiz. Eddie Nketiah started from the right, where Nicolas Pepe might have been expecting to play, and Joe Willock and Bukayo Saka were each picked ahead of Mesut Ozil, who wasn’t even on the bench.
The results weren’t hugely positive, but the message stood: places in this team are going to be earned, not guaranteed, and while not particularly original, it was worthy enough in its attempt and a slap in the face which some of the players excluded probably deserved.
2. The official explanation for John Stones being left on Manchester City’s bench was that he wasn’t fully fit. Possibly true, we’ll see in time, but it’s difficult to think of another player who’s suffered such a sharp decline in status over the past two years. If there had been a European Championship this summer, would he have even made the 23? As it stands, even with a year with which to recover his place and his form, it’s difficult to see him being involved in 2021.
From being someone who Pep Guardiola defended almost to the point of parody, Stones is now almost nowhere and desperately in need of a reset at a different club.
3. The flags at the Etihad were good. That’s meant sincerely and despite the sponsors, because City have clearly made an effort to alleviate some of the weirdness of this situation and, while it will depend on the camera angles at the different grounds, that might be part of the way forward. We’re all going to have to play dumb to an extent, but the little touches will help – even if, ultimately, as in this case, they’re being made to create some extra advertising inventory.
4. Granit Xhaka lasted less than eight minutes. A shame for him, because the stabilising of his career has been one of Arteta’s early successes, but it was also an early suggestion of the difficulties that lie ahead for these clubs.
Even minor injuries are going to result in players missing many more games than normal. If, for instance, Xhaka is diagnosed with a minor strain or pull – something that typically takes two or three weeks to recover from – then he could theoretically miss as many as five or six matches. This is going to be a huge test for the depth of these squads.
5, Unfortunately, Pablo Mari will probably be gone for even longer. If that was his Achilles, then his mini-season is already over. It’s obviously difficult to trace the cause of different injuries, but this is potentially another problem with playing so many games in such little time with very little competitive preparation beforehand. Remember, for a lot of players, this will be the longest they’ve gone in their careers between games.
6 One of Arteta’s other initiatives has been to change the way Arsenal move the ball out of defence. There’s to be no more passing for passing’s sake. Instead, he wants his players committing opponents first, then releasing the ball forward.
The idea is obviously to draw a high-press then cut through it with sharp, vertical distribution, but that’s a refined ability which will take time to develop. For it to work properly, the defenders not only need to be brave enough to tease the press, but the players ahead of them have to be in position to receive the ball. If they’re not, the only real result is greater risk.
It’s going to be a process. When David Luiz came on in place of Mari, it was interesting to see him immediately carry possession to the line, only to turn back and out, with no options available. He did that twice in quick succession and while it obviously wasn’t the night to pass judgement, this will likely be trial and error for a while.
7. If anything, Kevin De Bruyne is actually underrated. He’s a strange player, because he’s not the slickest and he doesn’t move like a conventionally elite athlete. He’s not smooth like they often are. But there’s so much variety to him and one of the reasons why he’s so effective is because he appears in so many different positions and when he does, he’s invariably capable of doing so much damage in so many different ways.
Those two passes in the first half – the first for Riyad Mahrez, the second for Raheem Sterling – were glorious examples. The Arsenal defence was drawn out to him, spooked by his reputation for violent, long-range shooting, but it was a soft, delicate touch which cut them open, courtesy of De Bruyne’s knifing subtlety.
What passes those were; tickled through the smallest gaps, creating opportunities which each should have been taken. He is a foot-ball-er. Three syllables.
8. Ironically, though, it was a mis-hit which created the first goal. And a mistake by David Luiz.
Luiz is meme fodder and presumably that moment will have been met with contrived mirth, but maybe some sympathy for him (at that point of the game, at least)? Gary Neville spoke of a lapse in concentration in his commentary and was as scathing as always with Luiz, but the ball skipped off the surface and most of us can relate to how silly you can look in that situation.
9. Not as mitigation for Luiz, but as a further criticism: not a single Arsenal player reacted to the run Sterling made across the defensive line and, if there’s one situation which screams for cover, it’s David Luiz squared up to an awkward, bouncing ball in wet conditions and with a lack of match practice. If we’re being hyper-critical, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang could also have done more to cut the move off at source, given that De Bruyne’s ability from that position is hardly a secret.
Lovely finish, though.
10. Statistically, that first half wasn’t a great endorsement of Arteta’s selection, well intended as it was. Between them, Willock and Saka had just 27 touches between them and, to be kind, that illustrated how lost they often looked and how much of a disservice they were done by the players tasked with supplying them.
Picking young players is positive, it can even be empowering, but allowing them to become victims of a passive system is less so and – while it’s obviously easy to judge these things in hindsight – this might have been one of those occasions when Arteta’s eagerness to set a precedent got the better of him. Arsenal need change, most would accept that and forgive his attempt to force it, but they also need points and confidence and self-respect, and they left the Etihad with none of those. He has to pick his moments better, perhaps, because there wasn’t a single positive to draw from Wednesday night.
£24m for David Luiz for one year.
The people who sanctioned that deal should be fired.
— arseblog (@arseblog) June 17, 2020
11. If David Luiz was due some sympathy for the first goal, he wasn’t for the second. It was all his deficiencies distilled within a few short seconds and if that is the last we see of him in English football, then such a dreadful encore would be very fitting. It was that familiar rash, impulsiveness that tempted him towards a tackle he could never make, and then the petulance to compound the mistake and make his side’s task for the rest of the evening impossible.
Luiz does have virtues and he’s only really become truly comedic in the last few years, but he’s out of contract at the end of the season and there’s not a snowball’s chance in hell that he’s getting an extension.
12. What happened to the ‘double jeopardy’ rule, though?
So Luiz gets a red card for not attempting to play the ball… But shoulder challenges and slight hands are an active part of defending, so surely that shouldn’t count as a deliberate foul?
— Alex Keble (@alexkeble) June 17, 2020
Alex has a point, no? Such a calamitous series of decisions probably deserved a red card, but that’s beside the point. It wasn’t so cynical as to demand a sending off – at least not under the rule change as it was advertised. Deliberate handballs, rugby tackles… wasn’t the override only supposed to occur in the most obvious instances?
13. Is Matteo Guendouzi actually any good? Passing ability aside – and that is substantial to be fair – he just seems too erratic to be a cohesive part of any serious midfield. In this instance, perhaps he was disrupted by the early injury to Xhaka and by then having to play alongside a completely different sort of partner in Dani Ceballos.
Maybe, but a lot of his performances look like this. They’re manic. A bit wild. Energetic, but misdirected. Sure, Guendouzi makes a lot of faces and waves his arms around in frustration as well as anyone in the league, but he’s not often entitled to play that part. It seems also as if too many Arsenal supporters are seduced by those histrionics, misinterpreting them as a sort of vital retaliation against the club’s perceived fragility.
He’s ‘the kind of player they need’. How often do you hear that?
Is he, though? Or is he still just an untamed set of attributes, prematurely anointed and presented as something he isn’t? There is a player in there – he’s definitely talented – but still in a very theoretical way.
14. Arsenal shouldn’t flatter themselves in thinking that they were anything other than wildly inferior. Part of that was down to David Luiz, some of it was probably the disruption caused by those two early injuries, but – technical issues aside – they didn’t compete to anything like the right standard. Maybe that was the biggest disappointment.
City played well, let’s not lose sight of that, but were they ever presented with a physical challenge? Were they ever made to feel uncomfortable? Not really. They gave a Premier League performance, Arsenal brought only an Emirates Cup attitude.
After the second goal went in, there was a distinct lack of ego to Arsenal, as if this was just what they expect to experience on this kind of ground now and that these aren’t the kind of games within which they feel they’re going to be judged. It’s forgivable, because there are obviously big differences in ability, squad depth and budget between the two clubs, but that kind of inferiority tends to be self-perpetuating.
15. It’s something else for Arteta to purge. And he’s right to attack the culture. His employers were also right in identifying the need for that kind of change.
It’s not even close to being Arsenal’s biggest problem, though. Fundamentally, a lot of their players just aren’t very good. A couple are, a few of the younger ones (Saka, Martinelli, Nelson) might potentially be excellent, but too many others are average, acceptable, or quite good at best. And, actually, while some of those youngsters do clearly have potential, none of them are genuinely exciting – at least not in the same way as Harvey Elliott or Mason Greenwood or even Phil Foden.
The head coach needed to change, that’s definitely true and it’s going to be interesting to watch Arteta learn and grow. But an awful lot needs to improve above him if he’s to have the space in which to develop, and that’s going to involve, among other pressing tasks, dramatically improving the performance in the transfer market and creating some clarity of who or what has been responsible for the decisions made in the past.
Arsenal’s a confusing club now. Arteta has arrived and brought plenty of fresh air with him, but there’s still something nebulous and opaque about their structure. Who’s identifying the players? Who is the ultimate authority? If Edu Gaspar and Raul Sanllehi differ on what a desirable footballer looks like, who casts the deciding vote? Those kind of questions generally aren’t directed at healthy clubs.
16. By contrast, City appear to be in rude health.
The appointment of Juanma Lillo as assistant manager is really intriguing, because his history with Guardiola makes him one of the few people in world football who might challenge him. Lillo has never been materially successful, but he’s had a hugely influential career and – most importantly, stemming from their time together in Mexico – he has Guardiola’s respect and his ear. Arteta was a protege, Lillo is more of a mentor; it’s a different dynamic.
It’s much too early to see the tangible effect from it, but watching City’s fresh, enthusiastic movement and some of their inventive angles, it was possible to see some promise and to imagine this team being reinvented and reimagined over the coming months. Sterling’s movement was excellent. The use of Kyle Walker in-field was creative. Riyad Mahrez and Kevin De Bruyne were potent in all sorts of ways.
So, this was very encouraging, especially as they’re still in the Champions League and – importantly – Liverpool have already been eliminated. Their defensive issues haven’t been cured and, yes, Arsenal were a flimsy opponent, but City look powerful and hungry.