Result: Manchester City 4-1 Arsenal
Competition: Premier League
Date: 26 April 2023
Venue: Etihad Stadium
Arsenal: Ramsdale, White, Holding, Gabriel, Zinchenko, Partey, Xhaka, Odegaard, Saka, Martinelli, Jesus
Subs: Turner, Tierney, Kiwior, Jorginho, Smith Rowe, Vieira, Trossard, Nelson, Nketiah
Arsenal’s hopes of a first league title in 19 years were dealt a huge blow at the Etihad Stadium as Manchester City ran out comprehensive 4-1 winners in the much-anticipated top-of-the-table clash.
A brace from Kevin De Bruyne and a header by John Stones did the damage before the hour mark before Rob Holding and Erling Haaland traded late strikes.
While the Gunners continue to top the table, this was a chastening night for Mikel Arteta’s young squad who struggled from the off. Pep Guardiola’s side have now cut the gap to two points and have two games in hand.
There’s still the potential for further twists and turns as we head into the final month of the season but the reigning champions certainly have the upper hand.
Despite five days of Arsenal fans ruminating over potential tactical tweaks to cope with City’s firepower, Mikel Arteta stuck to his preferred formation making only one change from the side that started the draw with Southampton. Granit Xhaka’s recovery from illness meant he replaced Fabio Vieira in the left midfield slot. Rob Holding’s inclusion in the centre of defence alongside Gabriel Magalhaes was arguably more divisive than it was surprising.
After conceding early on Friday night, the importance of keeping it tight in the early stages seemed to play on Arsenal’s minds. You could sense the nerves immediately. City, on the other hand, had the bit between their teeth.
Inside the opening three minutes, the home fans twice called for a penalty; first for a potential handball by Rob Holding and then for a foul by Thomas Partey on Haaland who was trying to pounce on a loose ball in the box after a poor Ramsdale parry. Referee Michael Oliver spotted the Ghanaian had been kicked by De Bruyne and gave us the benefit of the doubt.
A brief foray forward saw Martinelli trying to work his teammates into a frenzy with some aggressive arm waving. It got the travelling Arsenal fans going for a moment but in reality, we needed calm heads to deal with the City assault.
An already difficult job got far harder on 6 minutes when De Bruyne ruthlessly found the net on the run from outside the box. Haaland had done the legwork, pulling the ball out of the air, and spinning past Holding, but the Belgian’s ability to carry the ball at full speed before fizzing home a curler underlined how special a player he is. Guardiola went ballistic in celebration on the touchline. (GOAL 1-0)
Arsenal’s reaction was to try and keep the ball for longer but City, hunting diligently, boxed us in repeatedly, ultimately leading to us giving the ball away. Over the course of the half, Ramsdale increasingly decided to just hoof the ball long.
A pattern started to emerge where City would play straight through the middle of the pitch with Haaland and De Bruyne at the centre of most of the attacks. Ramsdale saved from Bernardo Silva and Haaland and Ben White made a desperate block to stop De Bruyne.
City found it so easy working through our press that Arsenal almost seemed in two minds whether to bother pressing at all. The fear was that if we did, we’d just find ourselves out of position and running back towards our own goal in a panic.
Three times, Haaland came close to getting on the scoresheet. Ramsdale beat away an audacious left foot volley, then got down to his right to claw away another as the Norwegian danced inside Holding. Another shot by the striker flashed just wide. At the other end, Partey, teed up by Odegaard, also curled wide; our only effort of note.
Arsenal were holding on for dear life. Just as it looked like we might make it to the break without conceding again, we did exactly that. Partey gave away a free-kick, De Bruyne whipped it to the back post and John Stones climbed high to head home. The assistant’s flag went up straight away only for a VAR review to show Ben White’s foot had kept the defender onside. To say Mikel Arteta looked crestfallen is an understatement. (GOAL 2-0)
Handbags following a coming together between White and Ruben Dias rounded things off. The Portugal international went into the book but it was Arsenal who had lost their heads.
It didn’t take long for Haaland to renew his battle with Ramsdale. Gabriel misjudged a long ball like a schoolboy and the Norwegian pounced before forcing the England international into another save. Those of you of a certain vintage may remember watching All Black Jonah Lomu steamrolling England’s rugby team back in the nineties. It was like watching that.
The reprieve, if you can call it that, was temporary. Inside a minute, De Bruyne added to his tally. Odegaard gave the ball away, the Belgian stole it, played a give-and-go with Haaland and then passed the ball home through Holding’s legs. And that was that. (GOAL 3-0)
Following a Holding shot that was blocked for a corner (whoop!), Arteta decided to switch it up. Martinelli was sacrificed for Trossard and Jorginho came on for Xhaka who seemed desperate to engineer a situation with Grealish where he could get sent off. There were 30 minutes remaining and City knew they just had to keep us at arm’s length.
If defiance was lacking on the pitch, it wasn’t on the terraces where the Arsenal supporters roared the team’s name trying to spark something, anything.
A coming together between Partey and Grealish saw both men going into the book and the Ghana international was lucky not to get sent off later after hauling down Haaland quite cynically. It was fight of a sort. But not particularly helpful. If anything summed up our night, it was the sight of Saka carefully lining up a free-kick only to fire way over the bar.
Nelson, Smith Rowe and Nketiah meant Hale End were well represented on the pitch in the closing stages. They added spark and pep at a time when City were winding down and combined with the lively Trossard created a chance for Holding who fired home to reduce the deficit with a couple of minutes remaining. It was a nice goal, to be fair. (GOAL 3-1)
Of course, the sight of his marker scoring seemed to trigger something in Haaland who took his hair down and promptly grabbed the goal his performance probably deserved. Again, Arsenal caused their own downfall by giving the ball away and the striker pounced to sweep past Ramsdale. It was pretty much the last kick of the game. (GOAL 4-1)
On a night when we were outclassed from the first moment, there’s not much more to add. All we can do now is park the disappointment, regroup and do our best over the five remaining fixtures.
It’s not over until it’s over. But it’s not looking good.