Manchester City vs Arsenal: Sergio Aguero still main man as Unai Emery recovery undone by errors

Five things we learned: Sergio Aguero's hat-trick allowed City to close the gap at the top of the table to two points

Mark Critchley
Northern Football Correspondent
Sunday 03 February 2019 19:28
Transfer deadline day January 2019: The five biggest moves

City's crucial week begins with three points

Is this the biggest single week of Manchester City’s season so far? Pep Guardiola seems to field this question at every press conference but it is true that, if the defending champions take another six points against Everton and Chelsea to add to these three, then the defence of their crown will seem a lot likelier.

After Tuesday’s insipid performance and defeat at Newcastle United, City have less margin for error than at any other point this season, and Guardiola spent the last few days demanding improvement more than anything else.

It would not be hard to better the St James’ Park display - perhaps the worst of City's campaign thus far - and this display could have been better, despite the 3-1 victory. But it at least had glimpses of Guardiola’s side returning to their best, with the energetic passing, fluid movement and cut-backs from the byline that Etihad is used to seeing.

The champions now travel to an Everton side struggling for form before welcoming Chelsea, who have spent the campaign veering between excellence and incompetence. Both fixtures are perhaps less challenging in reality than they are on paper.

The gap is now only two points wide and should still be by this time next week.

Hard-working Aguero is still City's man for the big occasion

His third may have been questionable, and the combined yardage of all his goals probably did not stretch into double figures, but none of that will matter to Sergio Aguero after his 14th hat-trick in City colours.

The past month at the Etihad has seen Gabriel Jesus rediscover form and provide genuine competition to Aguero again, but here was a reminder that the Argentine is still City's leading man for the big occasion.

Guardiola once doubted Aguero's work rate and was ready to move him to one side but was convinced to give the 30-year-old time because of his importance to the club and as he is his son's favourite player. Aguero was told to improve off the ball and has done just that, without losing any of his predatory instincts.

Jesus may be biting at Aguero's heels again but Guardiola now recognises that City lose nothing from their game when their all-time leading goalscorer is preferred up front.

Arsenal errors kill first-half recovery

Alex Iwobi was dispossessed near his own penalty area inside the opening minute, allowing Aymeric Laporte to cross for Aguero to score. Stephan Lichtsteiner later lost Raheem Sterling entirely, allowing him to cross for Aguero to score again. Other than that, how was the first half, Mr Emery?

It was not too bad, actually. The 43 minutes between City’s first two goals saw Arsenal slowly but surely assert themselves, with Matteo Guendouzi and Lucas Torreira growing particularly dominant in midfield, wresting control from the champions. Emery’s game plan of sitting deep and countering was working.

Yet it was undone not so much by a City at their superlative best, but an Arsenal at their error-prone and absent-minded worst.

Iwobi dallying on the ball was poor but the errors that preceded City's second proved more costly. At least Lichtsteiner made the effort to stay with Sterling. Aguero's presence at the far post seemed to take Laurent Koscielny completely by surprise.

City’s mini-slump will concern Guardiola

For the second time in the space of a week, Aguero put City ahead before a minute had elapsed on the clock, stooping low to capitalise on Iwobi’s error and head past Bernd Leno after only 46 seconds.

Unlike at St James’ Park on Tuesday night, City could not be accused of ‘forgetting to play’ once they went ahead. Guardiola’s side immediately began searching for a second and Aymeric Laporte believing he had found it until the offside flag was raised.

Yet once Koscielny had administered a sucker punch to equalise, City went strangely off the boil, losing their early momentum and only regaining it at the half’s close.

It was not quite Newcastle but it was another example of this team suffering a strange lull after a setback - the kind that the likes of Liverpool and Manchester United punished in City's only league defeats last season. Arsenal were unable to do the same.

Lichtsteiner has no answer to Sterling's speed of thought

Guardiola’s team selections often come out of left-field but they usually at least contain a left back. However, with neither Benjamin Mendy or Leroy Sané starting, the City line-up had no natural left-side player and this stumped many in attendance at the Etihad before kick-off.

It transpired that the right-footed Sterling would be City’s sole presence on the left flank, with left-sided centre-back Laporte offering auxiliary cover. It was an unorthodox and risky decision by Guardiola but one which exposed Lichtsteiner, Arsenal’s weak link.

It may be cruel to pick on the 35-year-old, but that we will follow Guardiola's lead and do exactly that. It is not as if age and physicality was deciding factor anyway. Lichtsteiner struggled to keep pace with Sterling, but also had little answer to his speed of thought and movement.

Once Mendy is fit again, with Sané in reserve, Guardiola is not short of options to give him width down the left but Sterling showed here that he can offer something different.

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