Arsenal Found Out Just How Hard It Is To Topple Manchester City
10:47 AM EST on February 16, 2023
Twenty-four minutes into the highly anticipated 1-2 matchup between Arsenal and Manchester City on Wednesday, Takehiro Tomiyasu messed up. It's the kind of mistake that defenders tend to make under pressure. With Jack Grealish hassling him around a loose ball, Arsenal's right back did what modern teams tell their players to do, and he attempted to pass the ball back to goalkeeper Aaron Ramsdale. On this occasion, that was a fatal mistake: City's megastar, Kevin De Bruyne, read the under-hit pass correctly, rushed onto the ball, and hit one of the best first-touch finishes of his, or anyone's, career:
This is how thins the margin are when playing against Manchester City, and those margins generally do not care about things such as "form" or "luck." City has not been its usual juggernaut self this season, which speaks more to how high the floor is for the side: Entering Tuesday's match, the defending champions were still just six points behind the high-flying surprise of the season, albeit with one more game played. If Arsenal had won Wednesday's game at its home stadium, it could have built a truly impressive cushion as it hunts its first Premier League title since the magical Invincibles season of 2004. Instead, City rode the millimeters between victory and defeat in North London, coming away with a 3-1 win that seemed closer than that in action, but which might have shifted the power in this season's title race directly into City's hands.
To beat Manchester City in a game is doable. Four teams have done it so far this season, including Arsenal's North London rivals Tottenham and eighth-place Brentford. To beat City for the Premier League title, though, is a whole different beast, requiring near-perfection over a grueling 38-game season. Even that sometimes isn't enough; just ask Liverpool. Twice. Arsenal has been the best story of this Premier League season, roaring out of the gates to take the lead and hold it for most of the season to date. Even after Wednesday's loss, the team has only fallen three times this season: to City, to Manchester United in September, and, somewhat inexplicably, to Everton in Sean Dyche's first match in charge following Frank Lampard's firing.
That last loss might be more indicative of how difficult the Premier League can be to win, especially when City is lurking. Clubs can lose to City, or even fellow top-four candidates, but they absolutely can't lose to Everton. Or drop 10 points in six matches, including draws to Brentford and Newcastle. Even in a more fragile state than it has been in years, City will punish any failure to create distance, and it will do so because it has the best players money can buy, players who can create goals from little mistakes like Tomiyasu's.
Even something that barely registers as a mistake can swing things in City's favor: With the score tied 1-1 in the 72nd minute, thanks to a Bukayo Saka penalty just before halftime, Bernardo Silva hit a speculative ball through to Erling Haaland, who was, somehow, despite being the biggest goal-scoring threat in the league, wide open at the top of the box. Playing City in 2023 means keeping an eye on Haaland at all times, but just a bit of space allowed him to force a defensive collapse, which he took advantage of by slotting the ball across to Ilkay Gundogan, who dummied it over to Jack Grealish (also wide open) for a stunning, if slightly deflected, shot that gave City a lead it would not relinquish:
Haaland was there again 10 minutes later, latching on to a De Bruyne cutback with just enough space to hit the ball to his right foot and then, while falling, into the bottom corner of the net. Just like that, 3-1:
It's hard to say that Arsenal was completely outplayed on Wednesday. The Gunners did what they've been doing all season by controlling the flow of the game, even against possession-thirsty City, and generally creating decent chances. Those chances simply did not go in, or even go particularly close to the goal: Arsenal took 10 shots to City's nine, but only put one on target. City, on the other hand, hit Arsenal's goal six times, including with the three goals. Soccer is a complicated sport, full of confusing and perhaps not all that helpful analytics, but sometimes it really is as simple as "the team who makes the most of its chances will win," and that team is quite often City.
It helps overcome any possession deficiencies when you can press as well as City did on Wednesday, too. Even after going up 2-1 in a must-win game, City didn't back off from haranguing Arsenal, and all three of its goals were set up by quick transitions into the final third. This is where this version of City is at its most dangerous; while Haaland has become a bit of a meme for how often he scores with how few touches he gets, there's a reason for it. He just needs a little bit of space to either score himself or warp defenses enough to set up easy chances for others. By giving City free rein on the counter-attack, Arsenal played into City's hands.
I don't think it's safe to say that the title race is over now that Arsenal lost its lead, but Wednesday's game is a good example of how City has been able to win so many times (four of the last five titles) in recent seasons. Even on the road, and even in merely great form rather than unbeatable status, the side can punish every mistake in the blink of an eye. To beat City is to beat back the inevitable, and Arsenal faltered in that quest on its first attempt.
The two sides play again in late April, and there's a chance that the title race will still be close then. Arsenal's schedule between now and then has only one match that could pose a real problem—at Liverpool on April 8—and a plethora of opportunities to secure three points against lesser sides. The best thing the Gunners can do between now and that April 26 showdown in Manchester would be to gain a better understanding of the perfection needed to bring an end City's reign of terror. The good news from Wednesday, if there are any, is that Arsenal has now seen firsthand what it needs to do and, perhaps more importantly, what it absolutely can't do. The rest of this season, and Arsenal's glorious title hunt, will be decided by how close to flawless it can be in the face of yet another City charge to the top.