Arsenal’s humiliation proves the title race was only an illusion

Manchester City 4-1 Arsenal: In a showdown that failed to live up to the billing, City delivered a crushing masterclass

Miguel Delaney
Etihad Stadium
Thursday 27 April 2023 06:57 BST
Arsenal should relish ‘incredible opportunity’ at Man City, says Arteta

The great league showdown didn’t live up to the title, only showcasing Manchester City’s immense power. Arsenal are remarkably still top of the Premier League table after a humiliation that felt much worse than 4-1 but, like so much else about this title race, it is an illusion.

This was reality, and it was a machine of a City team turning the game that the Premier League had billed as its supposed prestige fixture into a training exercise. So much of it was just attack against defence, right down to the nature of the drills. It was often two on six but, despite the outcomes, that wasn’t two defenders. The most frequent image of the game, and its most influential factor, was Kevin De Bruyne and Erling Haaland terrorising Arsenal’s entire backline by just tearing down on goal.

The only visible competition here was between City’s two great talents seeking to declare who was actually the best player in the Premier League. It was just all the worse for Arsenal because they were working so well together, Haaland simply dominating poor Rob Holding to set up De Bruyne twice. The Norwegian of course got his own goal to fittingly seal the win – and, probably, the title – as a John Stones header added the night's only sense of variety.

Beyond that, it was difficult to think of a fixture where there had been such a gap between the manner it was billed and the reality of what happened. The gap in the scoreline could have been much worse. The gap at the top of the table is surely going to be a chasm by the end. Pep Guardiola will of course profess City have to go and win their remaining seven games but does anyone doubt that will happen? Does anyone think they will even need to win all seven? There is the danger that Arsenal just fade away now, as so many of their stars looked tired here.

They were lucky not to be 4-0 or 5-0 behind by half-time, although part of that was Aaron Ramsdale performing some heroics to keep the score down. If the temptation at that point was to think that at least kept them alive, for some chance at a smash and grab, they just couldn’t get close enough for a shot. The league leaders – for now – went an entire half without an effort on target.

Arsenal just couldn’t get close. City kept coming. It was often amazing to watch, possibly football at its highest form. But was it actually exciting, in the sense of sporting jeopardy making something thrilling? The result looked inevitable after the first attack when a panicked Thomas Partey was probably fortunate to avoid a penalty. Arsenal might argue about the offside call for Stones’ header but it was the only time the game came down to anything like such margins.

City were simply unstoppable with Kevin De Bruyne leading the way (PA)

All of which creates the question of whether this is actually good for a competition that sells itself on its competitiveness? This looked more like Ligue Un. People do get bored when this subject comes up but the only reason it does is because of the threat of various factors coming together to make the Premier League title race boring – or at least predictable.

Here, after such a long build-up, we may very quickly be denied any sort of title race at all. This didn’t look like it was going to the wire. Arsenal don’t look capable of that right now. Still, it is Frank Lampard’s Chelsea next. The Premier League now almost has to look to a time beyond Guardiola’s City. That’s how good he has made them, the best of everything. They may well prove that with this title potentially forming part of a Champions League treble.

None of this is to absolve Arsenal or Arteta. There are many questions about their approach, particularly why they sought to go toe to toe with a City team they couldn’t possibly play on equal terms given recent form and with William Saliba out. It ensured almost perfect circumstances for Haaland, and the most challenging game that Holding surely ever had. He at least had the consolation of a goal, although it didn’t really feel like that for Arsenal. Haaland soon made them feel worse. He made it a trashing.

Erling Haaland’s superb performance was finished off with a goal at the death (Reuters)

But, for all that, it was ultimately Arteta seeking to develop a young team into something greater as they went for their first title together and the club’s first in 19 years. Here, in a game they pretty much had to win to keep alive their challenge, they were up against a side who are going for five and six and represent the apex of a 15-year Abu Dhabi project.

It might well be the apex of football, as could be proven over the next month. Remarkably, they are still not at the top of the Premier League. That almost seems an illusion, much like the idea this was ever going to be a contest; much like the title race. Arsenal, even at two points clear, need something huge to win it from here. They certainly need something grander than this supposed showdown. City didn't just shut Arsenal down. They trampled them onto the pitch.

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