If Arsenal was in the game against Manchester City at all, it was only because Pep Guardiola’s towering title favorites allowed them to be there. Because City lacked the sharpness and urgency to blow Arsenal off the field in the first half.
On some level, it was all a little sad. After all, Arsenal has won England’s top flight 13 times and the FA Cup 13 times — the latter is a record. And there’s hardly a season when the game’s pundits and experts don’t ascribe the Gunners a chance of winning the title, provided a few things break right.
Yet on Sunday, Manchester City’s 3-1 victory at home over the North Londoners was so straightforward, so casual, so wasteful even, that you had to feel sort of sorry for Arsenal. They were outclassed. As if City were hosting Swansea or Bournemouth or West Brom. After a rollicking opening, City played with all the effort of an early round League Cup game with a lineup of second-stringers. Yet Arsenal was in this game because City was insufficiently bothered to kill off its hopes early.
That there was any tension at all, in the 10-minute spell in the second half when Arsenal reduced the deficit to one, was entirely down to a loss of focus by City and a boatload of missed chances. If this game had ended by a half-dozen goals to the home team’s favor, it wouldn’t have been entirely shocking.
This City side looks like an all-time great team in the making, getting off to a best-ever 10-0-1 start to the Premier League season. And Arsenal, well, is still very much Arsenal. A goodish team that only competes when enough other members of the Big Six are having troubled seasons.
If you squint hard enough, you could imagine this sort of dominance returning to Arsenal some day. After all, all the elements are there. A big name, a big stadium, a big following. And for all the pleas of poverty, Arsenal has appeared in the top-10 of the Deloitte Football Money League — a global tally of the highest-grossing teams — in 14 of the 16 years that it’s been published annually. Indeed, Arsenal even has the super-wealthy owners that propelled City to its startling ascent over the last decade.
It could have been Arsenal. Maybe it should have been Arsenal, were it not for its endless underperformance and institutional cheapness. This is the central frustration of legion Arsenal fans. It’s too big of a club to be overpowered the way it was by City. Because that club has nothing the Gunners don’t have. Yes, the Abu Dhabi United Group, which owns City, is very wealthy. But Arsenal’s co-owners, Stan Kroenke and Alisher Usmanov, are worth a combined $22.5 billion.
City should have taken an early lead when Sergio Aguero sprung Leroy Sane. But he squared the ball just out of Raheem Sterling’s reach on the open goal. In the 19th minute, however, a snap shot by Kevin De Bruyne, who would have another transcendent afternoon, was saved well by Petr Cech.
But on the continuation of the play, the Belgian — who is starting to look like a ginger Zinedine Zidane these days — exchanged passes with Fernandinho, slipped through two defenders and whacked his finish into the side netting.
Later in the half, De Bruyne destroyed the Arsenal defense with a single pass, sending Sterling and Sane through two-on-one. But Sterling got his setup for Sane completely wrong, wasting another fat chance.
Sterling’s mistake was slowing down, letting Koscielny get too close to him, cut off angle. Shoulda played it here: pic.twitter.com/lM1FWZvDFG
— Henry Bushnell (@HenryBushnell) November 5, 2017
Arsenal very nearly capitalized on the home side’s wastefulness. On a breakaway just before half-time, Ederson had to come up with a strong save on Aaron Ramsey’s effort to the near post.
But shortly after the break, Sterling beat Sead Kolisinac on a ball over the top and was trampled by Nacho Monreal in the box. Aguero converted the penalty off the inside of the post.
That’s when Arsenal finally stirred again. Ederson bobbled Alex Iwobi’s stinging shot and was fouled as the ball bundled over the line — a goal rightfully called off thereafter. But in the 65th minute, Alexandre Lacazette, controversially benched for this affair, made it 2-1. Arsenal pounced on a quick transition and the Frenchman took the feed from Ramsay and slashed it through Ederson’s legs.
Following a huge block by Cech on a rifled Gabriel Jesus shot from a corner, he was beaten simply by the young Brazilian striker in the 75th minute. But David Silva was very much offside when he received the pass that he would turn into an assist.
There is a way of looking at this game and seeing it as a missed opportunity for Arsenal. It had chances. And its approach of playing City high kept it in the game. A few lineup choices were questionable, as always, but without the offside City goal and with an alternative reading of the penalty, things could have been different.
But then perhaps City might have actually shifted all the way up to its top gear if a victory in this game had ever been truly in danger.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.