A scenario straight out of Sunday league football played out at The Emirates on a snow-clad evening in London with the spectators in a half-empty stadium jeering the home team with boos and catcalls as the referee blew the whistle to mark the end of the first half during Manchester City’s trip to Arsenal. It wasn't, however, any inconsequential match in a trivial league but an encounter between two English mega-clubs, although the Gunners looked anything but a powerhouse.
Arsenal had shipped three goals to the Premier League leaders in the first 45 minutes as they wilted under sustained pressure from Pep Guardiola’s side. In a repeat of the Carabao Cup final, just four days after Manchester City had all but humiliated Arsene Wenger's men in a different part of London, resulting in an "earthquake of criticism" in Wenger’s own words, Arsenal once again succumbed to old habits.
Outplayed and outclassed all across the pitch, Arsenal rarely looked like a top-six English team in their 28th league game of the season, but the Gunners had started the game on the front-foot — their neat passing and dogged defending in the first ten minutes surprising fans and pundits alike, so much that the League Cup defeat seemed an unfortunate aberration.
As the likes of Kevin de Bruyne and David Silva fluffed passes and diagonal long balls early in the match, Aaron Ramsey on the contrary orchestrated counter-attacks from the base of Arsenal's midfield. His late runs into the box and Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s guile as Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Danny Welbeck pegged back Vincent Kompany and Nicolas Otamendi into their own defensive third, resulted in a few half-chances for the home side, providing their fans with a glimmer of hope.
After all, Manchester City had not tasted victory at the Emirates since 2013 when they were helmed by Roberto Mancini, but Arsenal, as always, flattered to deceive.
Just when Arsenal seemed to be getting out of their shell, Leroy Sane, receiving the ball on the left flank, galloped through the channel between Arsenal's midfield and backline, pulling as many as four Arsenal players towards him, only to set up Bernardo Silva at the opposite edge of the penalty area. The former AS Monaco playmaker, who has enjoyed a bit-parts role under Guardiola’s tutelage this season, shattered Arsenal’s hopes with an exquisite finish into the top corner.
Less than thirteen minutes later, Sane with yet another inch-perfect low cross from the left flank allowed Sergio Aguero to lay off the ball for David Silva, whose run into the box wasn't read by Hector Bellerin and Manchester City were leading by two goals with effortless ease. If Sunday's League Cup display was an example of the sheer impregnability of Manchester City, last night was a testament to the fact that the league leaders can produce intricate moments of football even when they aren't on the top of their game.
Sane would soon cap off the night with a goal of his own after some fine link play between Aguero, de Bruyne and Kyle Walker as City's pace and precision demoted Arsenal's showing to that akin to a lower division side. The young German, often flying under the radar, has notched up nineteen goals and assists in less than 1700 minutes in the league this season — his aura glowing on the cold evening in London as the far more experienced Mesut Ozil looked on haplessly in the opposite corner.
The second half brought more of the same for the stricken Arsenal fans with each and every Manchester City attack threatening to result in a goal — that Petr Cech denied Aguero his 200th goal for Manchester City on a night when the former Chelsea keeper himself was left stranded on 199th Premier League clean sheet for the umpteenth time in the last three months would count as Arsenal's only triumph of the night.
"I must say we lost against a top-quality team who are at the moment the best team in the country. A combination of their quality and the fact that they are high on confidence and we are low in confidence played a big part in the game tonight," acknowledged Wenger after the game. The Frenchman was right; Arsenal did have chances early on through Xhaka and Mkhitaryan, the Swiss’ free-kick even troubling Ederson but the gulf in class between the two clubs was prominent for the second time within five days.
As speculations intensify regarding Wenger's future, his wish to honour his contract at the club (which runs through next season) has been met with exasperation and resentment from increasingly disillusioned Arsenal supporters.
Wenger, however, is resolute that the Gunners can turn things around. "We focus on performances and when the pressure is on like this you have to show that strong organisation and unite, not divide. You have to stay together, focus and work even harder to get the confidence back," the 68-year-old Arsenal manager proclaimed but just like Arsenal's surrender at the hands of Manchester City last night seemed a foregone conclusion, the culmination of Arsene Wenger's tenure as the Arsenal manager seems inevitable.
Updated Date: Mar 02, 2018 11:11 AM