Round 1 of the best two teams in England this season is in the books. Manchester City prevail at the Etihad 1-0. A narrow game of evenly matched teams that needed Nathan Ake to pull out a silky-smooth pass into the corner pocket to decide a winner. The tactical chess match was a dream to behold and the individual battles were compelling. A learning experience for both managers that had the feel of the early rounds of a boxing match. So, what exactly did we learn?
Arsenal will arguably be the happier of the two teams. The press against the ball in the first half was fantastic and organized. De Bruyne was blanketed and could not find the ball regularly in their build up which will certainly be a feature of future meetings between these two.
However, when City have space in the attacking third, they will punish you mercilessly. The Gunners stood up wonderfully in defense but cannot afford to let up, ever! Every time City broke through the lines, they looked dangerous.
Psychologically, losing huge would have been a terrible result for the morale. Despite wanting to win the game and progress in the cup, Arsenal have played well and only lost one-nil. This is not as damaging to the mentality as it could have been. Arteta’s men have bounced back from every set back so far, and will look to do the same at Everton.
Looking forward, they need to be honing in on just what it will take to win the next time these two giants face off. Give this City team a lead at your peril. Arsenal have shown amazing control of the ball this season but Man City are better, still the champions. The men in red chased shadows for the last 15 minutes of the game even with the introduction of the Norwegian magician, Oodegard.
The “second team” for Arsenal showed up well with a couple of notable exceptions. Vieira looked scared in possession and his focus on the defensive side of the game, where he was decent, cost him and the team going forward in the first half. The Kieran Tierney Leandro Trossard combo was effective down the left getting in behind Rico Lewis. Many Arsenal fans, including myself, will be instant Trossard fans. Tomiyasu is a stud on the other side and had a typically strong performance. Rob Holding did a job on Haaland and it taught the defense that it will take all of them to corral the god of thunder. Matty Turner also took his chance to show his quality well with decisiveness and calm in possession, despite a few wobbles. It must be said, however, that when Sambi Lokonga got an opportunity that, arguably was massively important for him individually, he failed his test. His inability to keep up with the rotating midfielders was directly at fault for City’s dominance in the first 20 minutes of the second half. He needed Zinchenko’s presence in the middle to settle down and finish out the game adequately.
The game will actually be encouraging for Arteta, at least it should be. His men can go toe to toe with his mentor’s champions. There is space to be had but only efficient, speedy lethality will suffice to take that mantle as their own.
Manchester City Lens
Pep Guardiola should be happy with the win and the progression in the cup. It shows that the mentality is still there and of course, it was a great opportunity to learn about their quarry in the league this season. Arsenal’s press is smothering but when City won the second ball in moments where Haaland was able to hold up play well and keep possession, they were dangerous.
Arsenal are good at passing through the press but sloppiness from being rushed can creep into their game. That’s how they have been punished at times this season. Matt Turner looked capable of a mistake and Ramsdale (whom will no doubt play in February) has also had to hold his hand up once or twice in the campaign.
Finding the space behind Partey is the key to unlocking them in possession. Get in those pockets and get their defenders running towards their own goal. Grealish or Mahrez can pull their guys in close and the ball is on to the open man. Quick passes to open the back post ball gave them fits more than once in the game.
Once the lead is achieved, make them chase forever with the impetus on possession and less on scoring more. Get the goal and City could sit on it for three straight 90 minutes the way they held onto the ball in the end. Could be risky but is certainly an option that works.
They will bring the same press in February. KDB will have an influence on the game then because there is time to figure out how to get him on the ball more. When the press is too good, the ball over the top to Haaland can be used but the second ball is paramount. This could be risky but winning the second ball is dangerously effective. Saka is the weaker of the wingers against the ball and so attacking Ben White could be useful despite there being more space on the other side. Shut down the space for Oodegard to work in and don’t let him have the ball and you can make them chase for long periods. These tactical subtleties just might be the blueprint.
Psychologically, this does give the dressing room a boost. City are still the champions, still have the discipline and prowess to win, no matter what is going on. Still the champs and clear favorites to win the FA Cup! This could be the perfect tool to galvanize the team off the back of Guardiola’s comments in recent days. No reason to panic in the league, they can beat Arsenal both times and hunt them down in the table. This was a champion’s like performance against a team flying too close to the sun perhaps…
The first round goes to Pep and to the men in blue. Manchester City have the psychological advantage of already having beaten Arsenal once but Round 2 looms just around the corner…