Arsenal shut down ‘the best in the world’. The world has changed. – The Athletic

By James McNicholas and Mark Carey6h ago

If defence wins you titles, then Arsenal must be in with a chance.

Arsenal held Manchester City to a goalless draw on Sunday to maintain their one-point advantage over the champions. It was the first time City have failed to score in a home league game since October 2021, ending a run of 47 consecutive games.

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They limited City to their joint-fewest touches in the opposition penalty area (four) in a first half at the Etihad Stadium since their manager Pep Guardiola came to the Premier League in summer 2016. City striker Erling Haaland has now faced Arsenal three times this season without scoring. Centre-backs William Saliba and Gabriel Magalhaes were Arsenal’s bouncers at the edge of their 18-yard box — “Sorry, Erling. Your name’s not on the list, you’re not coming in.”

Two Premier League clean sheets against City in this season’s two league meetings is a source of pride for manager Mikel Arteta. “It’s extremely difficult to do that,” he said at his post-match press conference. “It shows you the commitment of every player, the discipline they showed and how they compete.”

Playing City away from home is a unique challenge. No one else in the Premier League has forced Arsenal to play so compact and so deep. Arteta suggested their low block was part of a plan, but also something of an inevitability.

“When they (City) attack good, they get you in this low block and it’s really hard to get out of that,” said the Arsenal manager. “They can drop a winger to the goalkeeper and an attacking midfielder. They can bring a full-back inside, a centre-back inside. If you want to follow those seven, eight players inside and leave Haaland one-on-one, it’s your choice. If you win it, great. If you don’t, then you know what is happening… The line is really thin with them.”

It’s a line Arsenal trod carefully in eastern Manchester yesterday. To defend so well, for so long, is a testament to their powers of concentration. “Clarity,” summarised Arteta. “Are you ready to follow 30 passes? And then after regaining the ball, lose it and follow another 30 passes? Yes? If so, then you are ready to play Manchester City. It’s that important. If you’re not ready to do that, then you cannot play them.”

“It is more tiring in our heads,” concurred Saliba. “We know it is the best team in the world, so we have to keep focused all the game.”

Guardiola was so exasperated by Arsenal’s defensive diligence that, when he was asked what the best way to dismantle the low block might be, he jokingly shrugged and suggested, “Kill someone?”.

While Saliba and Gabriel might have been top of Guardiola’s hit-list, this was a team effort from Arsenal. Kai Havertz, Martin Odegaard and Declan Rice led the press, hoping to capitalise on any uncertainty in City’s build-up caused by the absences of injured trio Ederson in goal, plus defenders John Stones and Kyle Walker.

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But if City bypassed them, the team collapsed into its low block formation with impressive efficiency.

Gabriel Jesus started on the left wing, and performed almost a man-marking role on Bernardo Silva, occasionally filling spaces more commonly associated with a left wing-back when the Portuguese midfielder drifted inside or deep.

It meant that Jesus provided Jakub Kiwior with necessary support in what was arguably the biggest club game of the Poland international’s career. Guardiola has previously asserted that City old boy Jesus is one of the best defensive forwards in the world. He would’ve been left cursing that fact after another typically committed display.

“It’s tough to play against them,” admitted Bernardo. “Man to man when they were pressing high, (and) when they were defending low, their wingers were playing as full-backs in almost a line of six.

“It’s never easy to play against teams that defend this well — when they’re high pressing and when they defend deep they defend so well and so connected.”

Bernardo saw a team who had learned from their 4-1 mauling in this fixture last season. “(In that game) Last April, I felt they were doing man to man all over the pitch for the whole game, and when you do man to man, it’s a bit of a 50/50,” he told the media. “If you have quick players like Kevin (De Bruyne) and Erling, it’s always tough to play against… Today, it wasn’t quite the same.”

If you are to get a clean sheet against City, you will occasionally need a stroke of luck. Arsenal were arguably fortunate that Nathan Ake failed to convert a headed chance in the first half. When the ball did break for Haaland after the interval, he missed his kick.

This might have been Arsenal’s day. After spending the first 25 minutes on the back foot, they began to carve out opportunities on the break. Arteta was visibly frustrated about his side’s inability to punish City’s rare defensive lapses. “No way can you be fully happy (with just a point),” he said. “We played the game in an exceptional way, and in other parts of the game we could have done much better, especially with the ball in the final third.”

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Overall, this was a much more mature Arsenal than the version we saw on this pitch 11 months ago — tactically, physically and emotionally. “I think we have made a big step today,” said Arteta. “We had the experience of playing here last season and we have come across in a different way today.”

There is a prevailing stereotype of Arsenal as a fragile side — a notion that is now entirely outdated. Whether they win the league next month or not remains to be seen, but their progress is clear. If Arsenal can defend so effectively against the team Arteta calls “by far the best in the world”, they can do so against anyone.

GO DEEPER

Manchester City 0 Arsenal 0: Defences on top as title rivals cancel each other out

(Top photo: Robbie Jay Barratt – AMA/Getty Images)

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