The clubs with the two most prevalent storylines in the Premier League faced off in new Arsenal head coach Unai Emery’s first competitive match with the north London side. Manchester City began their title defense as well as they could have hoped, as they will take the bus home with three points in the bag.
Unai Emery got to jump right in the deep end during his first Premier League game. His new club played the defending champions, and the Citizens showed their ruthlessness as they calmly put Arsenal to bed on their way to a 2-0 win to begin their Premier League campaign.
Although the Gunners looked encouraging in the early minutes, it became clear as time passed that they were going to struggle to break down the heart of City’s team. The visitors put in a complete display, especially since most of their key players did not have full preseasons due to the World Cup and it was the first league game of the season. Their pace, directness, and efficiency forced Arsenal’s slow center back pairing of Shkodran Mustafi and Sokratis Papastathopoulos out of their respective comfort zones.
The Gunners needed to defend the Citizens’ first goal with a bit more fight. Raheem Sterling cut in from the left wing, beating Hector Bellerin and 19-year-old debutant Matteo Guendouzi before putting a slightly deflected shot into the back of the net in the 14th minute. The young Frenchman looked rather uncoordinated defensively all game: he has the youthful tendency of overcommitting his body when he tries to close out ball-carrying attackers, and City’s experienced dribblers dealt with him easily for the most part.
Alexandre Lacazette entered the game in the 52nd minute and instantly gave Arsenal a spark. Aaron Ramsey made way for the French forward, and Emery changed the system to Arsenal’s usual 4-2-3-1 with Aubameyang on the left flank, Özil on the right, Mkhitaryan in the center, and Lacazette filling the traditional No. 9 role. Lacazette sprung Aubameyang into space twice and put a good effort just outside of the right post shortly after entering the game, but no goals came from those chances.
After a decent few minutes filled with long passes and tough tackles, Guendouzi failed to control a clearance around the midline off of an Arsenal free kick, which let Sergio Aguero run through on goal for a solid 50 yards. Petr Cech reacted quickly and hit the ground to parry the attempt.
Just a few seconds later, Bernardo Silva doubled City’s lead with a stunning strike in the top corner upon making an intelligent run into space towards the top of the box. Stephan Lichtsteiner, who came on late in the first half for an injured Ainsley Maitland-Niles, failed to track the Portuguese international, and the 24-year-old playmaker made Arsenal pay for its defensive ineptitude.
The main controversy came when Benjamin Mendy appeared to trip Shkodran Mustafi in the box on a corner kick, but referee Michael Oliver did not see anything in it as he waved play on. Additionally, Aguero had a chance to add another goal for the Sky Blues had he squared a ball in the box to Kevin De Bruyne deep in the second half of the match, but took the chance himself which Petr Cech denied.
There were not many other instances in this match that caused much controversy, but the storylines surrounding this match made it an important one for each team. City had the pressure of beginning their title defense with three points while Arsenal had to show the rest of the league that they have the capability to at least challenge for a Champions League spot.
Manchester City told the world they have not lost a step after they steamrolled the rest of England’s top flight on the way to winning their third Premier League title. Arsenal proved that they still have a lot of improvements to make under their new head coach’s guidance.
City’s fans do not have much to complain about after their calm win in London, but Gooners are not thrilled with the performances of Özil and Cech, who almost passed the ball into his own net in the first half. Emery stuck the recently retired Germany international on the right wing and gave him a lot of defensive responsibility, and it did not work out.
Arsene Wenger tried the same thing with the 2014 World Cup winner in the first few matches after he joined the club in 2013, and that did not yield too many positives for the Gunners either. Emery needs to consider moving Özil into Ramsey’s role and give the Welshman more to do defensively.
Arsenal played a 4-3-3, using a three-man central midfield of Guendouzi, Granit Xhaka, and Aaron Ramsey. Emery used Ramsey in a No. 9 role when the Gunners went on defense while Mesut Özil tracked way back to help Hector Bellerin defend the right flank.
Early on, Emery had his team press City and it worked well, but Arsenal’s intensity dropped as the clock ticked on. That might concern Arsenal fans: now that the season has started, it will be tough for Emery to work in rigorous fitness training while the squad should be preparing for their next opponents.
The Gunners spent most of their first half using the counter-attack and running it through Özil, but with the flat midfield of Emery’s 4-3-3, the empty space between the midfielders and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang caused the home side to slow down their attack and wait for the likes of Xhaka to fill the space in the center of the park.
Matteo Guendouzi played at the center of Arsenal’s midfield, right ahead of center backs Shkodran Mustafi and Sokratis Papastathopoulos. Aside from his aforementioned poor defensive display, the youngster showed promise with the ball at his feet. His passing range aided the team in playing their way out of pressure and his composure looks like that of a player 10 years older.
Manchester City played a 4-5-1 formation, but Pep Guardiola sometimes had Kyle Walker stay back to form a back three with Aymeric Laporte and John Stones. That let Benjamin Mendy attack with reckless abandon and it gave Sterling the peace of mind to play as an inside forward and have much less defensive responsibility.
Sterling, Mahrez, and Silva provided some directness to the City attack. The pacey Englishman caused the steadily regressing Hector Bellerin plenty of problems, and the midfield struggled to track Bernardo Silva’s movement with and without the ball. Guardiola’s side played similarly to any other side coached by the Spanish legend: the moved the ball quickly, efficiently, and attractively, and at the end of the day, it was simply too much for this Arsenal side to handle.
Man of the Match: Raheem Sterling
Though he picked up a yellow card, Sterling wins the man of the match award for his direct dribbling and opening goal. He constantly ran right at Arsenal’s back four, and each time he beat Hector Bellerin, he forced Sokratis, Mustafi, and Lichtsteiner to readjust their positioning.
Additionally, Sterling led most of City’s counter-attacks. He did well to move the ball downfield before Arsenal’s midfielders could track back, which gave the Sky Blues some open shots towards goal.
The England international evidently gained confidence from his country’s run to the semi-finals, and if he keeps up this level of play once David Silva and De Bruyne regain full fitness, Manchester City might be even more dangerous than last season’s side.
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