Result: Arsenal 0-1 Manchester City
Competition: Premier League
Date: 21 February 2021
Venue: Emirates Stadium
Arsenal: Leno, Bellerin, Holding, Mari, Tierney, Elneny, Xhaka, Odegaard, Saka, Pepe, Aubameyang
Subs: Ryan, Cedric, Luiz, Gabriel, Ceballos, Willian, Smith Rowe, Martinelli, Lacazette
Raheem Sterling’s early header was enough to seal all three points for Manchester City as they beat Arsenal 1-0 at the Emirates.
The visitors went ahead inside two minutes when the England international climbed high unmarked inside the six-yard box and they might have extended their lead on a number of occasions in a thoroughly dominant opening 30 minutes.
While the Gunners weathered the early storm they never really looked like grabbing an equaliser on an afternoon when tired legs seemed to catch up with Mikel Arteta’s men.
Mikel Arteta made five changes from the side that started in Rome against Benfica. Kieran Tierney, who came off the bench on Thursday, made his first start in the league since January’s win over Newcastle in place of Cedric. Alongside him, Rob Holding and Pablo Mari replaced David Luiz and Gabriel. Mohamed Elneny was given a run out in midfield alongside Granit Xhaka – Dani Ceballos dropped to the bench – and Nicolas Pepe took over from Emile Smith Rowe. Explaining his decisions, the boss told Sky Sports before the game, “We have players who have struggled to train the last few days.”
City have made a habit of fast starts at the Emirates in recent years and this was no different.
Inside a minute, Sterling missed from close range with a wild swipe at the ball. Inside two, he’d headed Pep Guardiola’s side ahead. Mahrez on the right cut onto his left foot and whipped a dangerous ball to the six-yard box and the England international climbed unmarked between Holding and Bellerin to find the top corner. (1-0)
Sterling should have doubled the lead on 6 minutes. Played through by De Bruyne he dawdled on the ball a little too long allowing Leno to claim at his feet. City kept piling down our left flank and it took a Tierney block to deny Mahrez.
It took until the 18th minute for the Gunners to create a meaningful attack. Saka and Tierney combined down the left before the former pulled the trigger on a cutback. The shot was flying wide before it hit Aubameyang who was flagged for offside.
For a solid 35 minutes, we chased shadows. The visitors had a ridiculous amount of the ball. They had no problem reducing the game to walking pace but would then turn up the tempo in an instant. We looked tired and increasingly dejected, especially as we repeatedly squandered possession after working hard to win the ball back.
It took a while, but bit by bit we started to grow into the game. Saka started to find space between the lines and Tierney was a constant outlet. The Scot tested Edersen’s catching skills with a shot from range and then had three crosses cleared. On the right, Pepe and Bellerin bumbled their way towards goal before the Ivorian dragged a shot into the side netting.
Two efforts from De Bruyne inside three minutes – one lashed over, the other a chip that fell just wide – suggested Guardiola had warned his players not to be lured into a false sense of security.
While it wasn’t quite the all-out City dominance of the first half, we were still penned in. Gundogan tried a curler that Leno clawed for a corner. From the resulting set-piece, the ball dropped for De Bruyne who hammered a volley into the stands.
The game drifted into scrappiness, epitomised by a series of bookings for Xhaka, Bernardo Silva and Joao Cancelo. The away side might have had more but for referee Jon Moss turning a blind eye to shows of dissent by Stones and Sterling.
City weren’t quite clicking and we seemed incapable of keeping the ball in the final third. The best we could muster was a rasping long-range shot by Elneny after Edersen had hacked away a looping back pass. It flew wide.
It was no surprise that Arteta decided to change things. Lacazette replaced Odegaard and Smith Rowe took over from Pepe. City still looked more likely to score.
Cancelo, after accidentally clattering Holding’s head, tried a cute curler with the outside of his right foot that went just wide. Our centre-back required extensive treatment and was deemed unfit to continue which meant David Luiz became our first-ever concussion substitute. As that didn’t count towards the standard three changes, it meant Dani Ceballos could also come on. That was about as exciting as things got.
As Gary Neville remarked on Sky Sports, if there had been fans in the ground, they’d have been hollering for urgency from Arsenal. Without them, it just didn’t materialise. Lobbing long balls towards attackers not known for their prowess in the air was desperate rather than smart, all the more so given Stones and Dias looked rock solid.
While a win today was always going to be a bit of a long shot, there’s no hiding that we’re running out of matches to improve our position in the table. We stay in 10th place but with further tough games ahead, qualifying for Europe through the league is starting to look unlikely. The players seem to sense that which makes Thursday’s trip to Athens very important.