Perhaps the master bettered the apprentice, or maybe it was simply a case that the stronger side won. Whichever, Pep Guardiola could savour a reunion with Mikel Arteta, beating his old assistant for the second time in four months, albeit separated by an FA Cup semi-final defeat that suggested Arsenal’s precocious manager could compensate for the deficiencies in his squad.
Not always, though, because while Arteta has a series of seriously impressive wins against the elite, Arsenal’s run without a league victory away at big-six opponents now stretches to 29 games. Home and away, they have no points from a possible 21 against City. Raheem Sterling has scored in the last three and City have won the last seven.
As Guardiola’s sides have become more frayed, City have felt more reliant on individuals and, minus the injured Kevin de Bruyne, Sterling stepped up, taking on both the armband and the status as a talisman, even if he benefitted from the help of a deluxe sidekick.
In a game of tactical chess, it was Arteta who fielded the false nine, in Willian, and Guardiola who abandoned that ploy to select the specialist striker, in a fit-again Sergio Aguero, but the Argentinian had a greater influence than the uncharacteristically subdued Brazilian.
And yet City’s record scorer has not been their leading scorer over the last 15 months; that is Sterling, with 35. That is in part because of Aguero’s injuries, and this was his first appearance since June, but a shift in status is apparent in other ways. In a sign of seniority, Sterling, rather than Aguero, was the stand-in skipper and the Englishman got the sort of goal the Argentinian would often score, converting the rebound after Bernd Leno blocked Phil Foden’s shot. Aguero’s role came earlier, surging forward and picking out Foden. The same trio almost combined for a second; Aguero and Sterling teaming up to set up Foden, whose effort was stopped by Leno. Foden and Riyad Mahrez operated on the flanks in an unconventional 3-3-4 formation – perhaps Guardiola outwitted Arteta with that one and certainly it pushed Arsenal back – and each would have scored but for Leno.
Nevertheless, City could be grateful for the excellence of Ederson; after conceding five times to Leicester in his previous home game, he made restoratively brilliant saves from Bukayo Saka and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, who had set up the teenager’s chance. The captain almost had an assist and a goal in the space of two minutes. Saka, though, was terrific, a prodigy who seems to rise to every occasion. Ruben Dias got booked for a rather agricultural challenge on the teenager.
But the Portuguese could at least enjoy the reality of a clean sheet for a rejigged rearguard. Fellow travellers in so much, Guardiola and Arteta both had to redraw their defensive plans. Plans had to be redrawn. Kieran Tierney came out of self-isolation to start, Rob Holding was ruled out after the warm-up and David Luiz, initially a substitute, started at the ground where he produced his most embarrassing Arsenal performance in June. He hinted at a sequel when he almost diverted Joao Cancelo’s cross into his own net. Arsenal nevertheless defended far better than then, even if they lacked the counter-attacking menace they showed when beating City at Wembley.
Thomas Partey’s Arsenal debut was a seven-minute affair, far too short to be conclusive. The more damning statistic is that only Hector Bellerin of his team-mates at the Etihad has claimed three points away in a Gunners shirt at any of their big-six peers. For Arsenal, back in Manchester in November, it represents the next barometer of improvement.
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