The story of Arsenal’s season has been beating teams they are expected to beat but coming unstuck when matched with the Premier League‘s elite sides. Only three of Arsenal’s 11 league victories this campaign have come against those currently situated in the top half of the table: Tottenham (5th), West Ham (6th) and Leicester (9th).
Conversely, five of their seven losses have come against so-called Big Six rivals: Manchester City (twice), Liverpool, Chelsea and Manchester United. The other defeats occurred against Brentford, when the squad was hit by a Covid outbreak, and Everton, when the Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang saga was just beginning to unravel.
Those Big Six defeats were difficult to stomach for Arsenal fans: Mikel Arteta’s side were thoroughly outclassed by Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, City at the Etihad and Liverpool at Anfield, and then shot themselves in the foot when losing to United at Old Trafford. This time was different though: frustration and apathy were replaced by righteous indignation and a rare sense of pride. Referee Stuart Atwell and by extension his VAR official Jarred Gillett were the subjects of Arsenal’s fans ire, not the absent Arteta (due to Covid) or his players. That in itself is proof of progress at a club that once booed off their own captain.
Opinion will be split on whether the officials got the major decisions right, depending on whether they are viewed through the prism of fandom or not. Arsenal had an early penalty shout waved away when Ederson got a touch to the ball but appeared to clump Martin Odegaard in the process and were later punished in their own penalty box when Granit Xhaka tugged at Bernardo Silva’s shirt. Both incidents went to VAR, but only one was given. Those of an Arsenal persuasion will argue that if one was awarded, the other one should have been too.
There was also a sense of injustice over Gabriel Magalhaes’ first yellow card which initially appeared to be for scuffing up the penalty spot before Riyad Mahrez was about to take it, but i understands it was in fact given for dissent. Albert Stuivenberg, the Dutch assistant playing the role of Arteta for the day, was adamant that no “dirty language” had escaped the Brazilian’s lips. Even if Gabriel had been unfortunate to go into the book, his second yellow for a reckless barge on Gabriel Jesus by the halfway line, which arrived just 68 seconds after the first, was completely avoidable.
Arsenal fans may disagree, but the game changed around two individual mistakes: Xhaka’s foul on Silva and Gabriel’s second booking. It could be argued that Gabriel Martinelli’s gilt-edged miss, sandwiched between those two instances in a remarkable 118 seconds of play, also fit that criteria: in the form that the 20-year-old is in, it was mystifying that he fired his shot outside, rather than inside the post as the goal yawned in front of him.
And in that sense, this result typified a club that has routinely snatched defeat from the jaws of victory in the years since their Premier League glory days. If the result was typical of “banter era” Arsenal, the overall performance was anything but. Unusually for a loss, there wouldn’t have been much for the Arsenal Fan TV crew to get upset about. Up until that frantic few minutes, Arsenal had comfortably been the better team.
They were brave on the ball and relentless off it: Martin Odegaard’s through passes were weighted to perfection; Bukayo Saka and Martinelli ran Nathan Ake and Joao Cancelo ragged on the flanks; Thomas Partey, who delivered his most assured performance in an Arsenal shirt made four tackles in the opening 24 minutes. They played with a speed and intensity that City simply could not match. Guardiola gesticulated frantically at his players for the entirety of the opening half an hour, like an exasperated parent trying to spring their kids into action on a school day.
Afterwards, he blamed the rigours of the fixture schedule, injuries and Covid absences for City’s lack of energy – and admitted Arsenal were the better side too.
But as good as the Gunners were, they failed to capitalise on Saka’s brilliantly well-taken opener. City were on the ropes and while Arsenal hit them with a couple of painful jabs, it was ultimately the visitors who landed the knockout blow. Experience won out over exuberance.
Arsenal, who have the youngest team in the Premier League, have plenty of reason for optimism, but until they pick up a statement victory they will continue to peer enviously at the big boys ahead of them. This was a golden opportunity wasted.