Arsenal’s defensive dominance against Man City shows that Premier League, Champions League glory is possible

Written by on March 31, 2024

MANCHESTER — Eighty-two minutes played and the Etihad Stadium lets out a squeal of anticipation. This was going to be Erling Haaland’s moment, the ball rolling temptingly into that spot 10 or so yards from goal, the left channel of the penalty area where options aplenty were open to him. Drive it high into the top corner, fire across David Raya and into the bottom corner, he could even take it to the byline and cut back if he wanted.

As soon as the path seemed to have opened, one of those burly bouncers in red stepped across to inform Haaland that he would not, in fact, be allowed in this afternoon. This was Gabriel’s penalty area and he would not be allowing anyone else in without an almighty scrap.

That is what this game devolved into, typified by half a dozen players on both sides crashing into each other in pursuit of a late bouncing ball. Hardly the great advert for the Premier League that meetings between Manchester City and Liverpool are labeled but it is not incumbent on either side to go full throttle on the offensive if it lessens their chances of success in a game neither can afford to lose. Anyway, it was certainly a glowing endorsement of the defense that may well, at home or abroad, take Arsenal to major silverware in this season or those to come.

Across 180 minutes of Premier League football this season, Arsenal have held the English and European champions goalless. In that time City have registered 16 shots and 1.43 expected goals (xG), both numbers below what they average in 90 minutes across the league campaign as a whole. Almost half of that xG has fallen to Nathan Ake, whose diversion of Kevin De Bruyne’s corner straight at David Raya was the best chance the hosts created. Indeed it was the only save Raya had to make. Haaland remains without a shot on target against the Gunners, another opportunity to break that coming when he couldn’t decide whether to hit the ball with his left or right when Josko Gvardiol flicked a corner in his direction.

Set pieces, shots from range, the odd error when Arsenal played out from the back: that was about the sum total of what City turned their 72.1 percent possession into. Mikel Arteta would have liked a more even contest in the mold of the 1-0 win at the Emirates Stadium back in October. This was just as attritional but rather than each side wearing down the other, Arsenal were challenged to retain their structure under relentless probing from the champions.

No wonder the Arsenal manager enjoyed this “thrilling” game far more than the neutrals. 

“We competed really well,” he said, “Defensively we were outstanding. When we had to go and put them under pressure high up the pitch. We were really good. They are that good that they get you in this low block and it’s very difficult to get out of it. We prevented the spaces really well. That’s the difficulty. 

“It’s the first time they haven’t scored at home in three years. That’s the outstanding team they are.”

This was quite the volte-face from the best defensive side in Europe. They may hold opponents to a handful of shots and xG pittance but they usually do so as an authoritative side who crave possession, blocking out chances because they hardly ever give the ball away (and when they do it gets drawn into the gravitational force of their giant backline). Sunday, they were forced into their shells even by a diminished Manchester City. They had begun the game in the hope, perhaps expectation, that that would not be the case. Declan Rice joined the press early on but there was always a spare man in sky blue, usually Mateo Kovacic, who spent an entire hour squatting in every vacant space at the Etihad Stadium. The visitors were forced into a low block against their will but crucially they knew how they were going to deal with that situation. Arteta had given them “clarity.”


Kovacic’s touches in Manchester City’s 0-0 draw with Arsenal. TruMedia

“Are you ready to follow 30 passes? And then after regaining the ball, lose it and follow another 30 passes? Yes? If so, then you are ready to play Manchester City. It’s that important. If you’re not ready to do that then you cannot play them.

Arsenal were ready, at least after Haaland’s charging in behind from an offside position had woken them up. Gabriel relished his duels with Haaland, Saliba grew in composure and authority as the stakes ratcheted up. Ben White is fast building a case to be England’s outstanding right back and even if it was all a bit hurdy-gurdy in midfield, Rice seemed to understand when to put the boot in. His redeployment as Kevin De Bruyne’s shadow in the second half did much to suppress but not fully silence the Belgian.

No one could hope to do that but Arsenal at least ensured the instances when De Bruyne turned and ran, Jeremy Doku beat his man or Bernardo Silva hung a cross to the back post were what Pep Guardiola termed “almost moments.”

Those did not even come for Haaland. There was nothing uniquely poor about the Norwegian’s off-ball work this afternoon, he was still delivering those bursts across or around a defender, searching for the pass that never came.

The implicit contract that City have with their No. 9 is that they will get him the ball often enough that he will score by the bucketload. Against nearly every opponent that they face, it does not matter that they are one man light in build-up. City have become a ruthlessly effective machine at creating chances for their ruthlessly effective striker (who averages over 20 percent of his side’s shots when he starts). But when Saliba and Gabriel quelled Haaland you saw the slight flaw in the plan, those 30 passes searching for nothing in particular. A simple equation then for managers out to stop City in the weeks ahead, deploy two of the best young center backs in the world and you’ll be grand.

By his post-match press conference, the City boss had established rather more extreme ideas for how his side might have got shooting chances for Haaland and company. “Kill someone,” he joked.

Guardiola would insist one moment that his side remains favorites for the Premier League title, the next claim that first-placed Liverpool and Arsenal are ahead of him in the odds. That rather reflects a race that feels some way from its finishing straight. City have perhaps the easiest fixtures yet on the docket but altogether less control of their fate. If Liverpool continue to take every early setback as an invitation to rain fire on their opposition, the chasing pack may need to be flawless.

As for Arsenal, taking four points from the champions burnishes their credentials but given the tricky nature of the road games ahead of them, they might really have needed six. There is, however, the great missing prize in the Emirates Stadium trophy cabinet to consider.

After all, any team that can have the best striker in the world living off scraps over 180 minutes can feel extremely confident about their chances in the Champions League.

The post Arsenal’s defensive dominance against Man City shows that Premier League, Champions League glory is possible first appeared on CBS Sports.

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