Monday 16 September 2019

Imperious City lay down a marker

Arsenal 0 Manchester City 2

Raheem Sterling scores Manchester City’s first goal at the Emirates. Photo: Eddie Keogh/Reuters
Raheem Sterling scores Manchester City’s first goal at the Emirates. Photo: Eddie Keogh/Reuters

Miguel Delaney

Amid all the talk of a new era at Arsenal, it looks like that best describes Manchester City.

The champions just so effervescently offered even more evidence that they are going to really dominate and repeatedly win this league in a way no side has done since Alex Ferguson's Manchester United were in their pomp.

An ultimately disappointing Arsenal still looked somewhere between Fergie's old rival Arsene Wenger and Unai Emery, as they were so often caught between two approaches and positions, and just as often caught out by a truly exceptional side, albeit one not quite at the very peak of their incredible powers yesterday.

This completely commanding 2-0 win away to one of the top six - and that after the win over Chelsea in the Community Shield - was some way to begin a title defence.

Kevin De Bruyne could even sit on the bench and Sergio Aguero could afford to miss a sitter, because City just had too much, and could have had more than the two goals scored by the relentless Raheem Sterling and delightful Bernardo Silva.

It was, however, no way to begin Emery's reconstruction of this Arsenal defence.

Arsenal's Stephan Lichtsteiner in action with Manchester City’s Ilkay Gundogan. Photo: John Sibley/Action Images via Reuters
Arsenal's Stephan Lichtsteiner in action with Manchester City’s Ilkay Gundogan. Photo: John Sibley/Action Images via Reuters

Given that this was a first game against the champions, and with champions as sensational as this Manchester City, Emery can be given a pass for a lot of this… but not all of it, by any means.

There were still frustrations.

The Basque is renowned as a particularly brilliant defensive coach above anything else, and one big change expected to come at the Emirates is that the back line is properly drilled; that they don't give up easy goals.

Sterling's opener should not have been easy given the position he was running from, but it was made so.

Arsenal's Matteo Guendouzi in action with Manchester City’s Kevin De Bruyne. Photo: John Sibley/Action Images via Reuters
Arsenal's Matteo Guendouzi in action with Manchester City’s Kevin De Bruyne. Photo: John Sibley/Action Images via Reuters

The rampaging forward was allowed to just cruise past Hector Bellerin and Matteo Guendouzi with barely a challenge and, once he got what was a strong but still fairly central shot off, there was barely an attempt at a stop from Petr Cech.

Unsighted, the goalkeeper didn't even stick his arms out as the ball flew in.

It wasn't Cech's only error and that pointed to another question about Emery's approach to his first competitive match at the helm: the personnel.

Only two of Arsenal's new signings started the game, and that was understandable given Emery probably didn't want to overload the side with new faces, but what was less understandable was who he did select.

Manchester City’s Kyle Walker in action with Arsenal's Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. Photo: John Sibley/Action Images via Reuters
Manchester City’s Kyle Walker in action with Arsenal's Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. Photo: John Sibley/Action Images via Reuters

Experience

If Bernd Leno is inevitably going to usurp Cech in goal, why delay the decision, especially if it makes the Czech himself seem as indecisive as he appeared to be here? To his left, Ainsley Maitland-Niles over the experience and know-how of Stephan Lichtseiner, who eventually came on? Ahead of Cech, Sokratis was probably always going to start at centre-back but ahead of him?

Was this really the match to start a 19-year-old brought in from Ligue 2 in France in Guendouzi? In this midfield… against that midfield? And with someone like Lucas Torreira on the bench?

The game did seem to get to Guendouzi early on as his first major contribution was a 10-yard mis-control to put the ball out for a throw-in and his second was ushering Sterling through for the opening goal.

The teenager did show character by persevering and it was telling that, within minutes of that, and right in the midst of that most testing of engine rooms, he still had the composure and presence of mind to keep the ball and pick out a fine pass for Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.

This attempt to get in behind was Arsenal's only properly visible attacking pattern, and it was logical… but there were also two very logical reasons it failed. Arsenal are not yet anywhere near cohesive enough to be that kind of rapid countering side, even if it may well come in time.

City, however, are beyond cohesive. They're almost organic with the way the players seem to understand how to instantly change up to fit into a new Guardiola plan, while maintaining the same magnificent qualities.

And there may be more evidence of evolution here.

That ball behind the back of a high line has previously exposed the biggest weakness in any Guardiola side - going all the way back to even his best Barcelona - a necessary risk in his approach, and in some more hysterical times has been seen as his teams' glass jaw.

Not here. They were rock solid.

There were four occasions when the game was still alive when Arsenal looked like they might get in behind, only for the slight sliver of a hope from an instant's opening to evaporate in the thunder of a lightning interception. They came from John Stones, Kyle Walker and - twice - from Aymeric Laporte.

The French defender was fortunate to escape sanction however - and maybe even a red for another challenge on Aubameyang in one of Arsenal's more impressively frenetic stages, that was also a tactical foul. It might have made a difference given how good his performance was.

This was something else so impressive about City, the sharpness going right through the team, at this stage of the season. They are just so high-functioning.

The pace of Walker down the right was a particularly striking element of the game, but was here - and now surely for this season to come - matched and perhaps even surpassed by Benjamin Mendy on the opposite flank. It was the French international's surge that set up the second goal, flicking the ball into the box for Bernardo Silva to so effortlessly fire the ball into the top corner.

Again, mind, it seemed all the more effortless because, well, little effort was required to evade anyone. There was no one to evade.

Silva was somehow left with yards of space in the box, as this still looked so much more like an Arsenal defence than an Emery defence.

That all must be put in the context of the likelihood that this is going to be the strongest title defence in years. Maybe the strongest team in years.

Irish Independent

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