As the fifth meeting of Manchester City and Arsenal in 2023 ended like the first, with the only goal going in off Nathan Ake, there was a significant difference. This time, unlike in January’s FA Cup tie, Arsenal were the victors. Ake may have bookended a year where rivalries were renewed with greater frequency with an unfortunate touch, heading Gabriel Martinelli’s shot past Ederson, but it was enough for the majority present to revive a chant from George Graham’s days. One-nil to the Arsenal? It was, and the eventual significance may only be measured in May.
If stalemate had beckoned, if much of the match had the feel of a phoney war, it was nevertheless the case that Arsenal had lost both the battles and the wars beforehand. They had 12 consecutive Premier League defeats against City, no win against them in the division since 2015. The unlucky 13th came for Ake. And if Arsenal’s Community Shield triumph came on penalties and this courtesy of a deflection, there are times when the ends justify the means, when even purists like Mikel Arteta and Pep Guardiola have to focus on the pragmatic impact of the result.
And this was huge for Arsenal. Had City won, the temptation would have been to say that they could not catch City. Arsenal topped last season’s table for 248 days, boasted an eight-point lead at one point and were still overhauled. So then try playing catch-up against the treble winners.
And at times it feels as though Arteta has tried everything in his bid to outwit Guardiola. He has tried playing possession football, only to be beaten when City went direct. Arsenal had 64 percent of the ball at the Emirates last season and City scored 75 percent of the goals. He has tried signing Guardiola’s players, in Oleksandr Zinchenko and Gabriel Jesus. He has tried signing the player who got a Champions League final winner against City, in Kai Havertz. He has tried signing a major target for Guardiola, in Declan Rice.
And, ultimately, each strategy contributed. It was Havertz, whose initial omission from the biggest game of the season to date had seemed a sign that Arteta did not know what to do with a £65m signing, who set up the winner, laying the ball back to Martinelli. It was Jesus, deputising for Bukayo Saka on the right wing, who was the most persistent and influential attacker on either side until that point. It was Rice who had made the early goal-line clearance, denying Josko Gvardiol and, after his late goal against Manchester United, making a decisive contribution against each Manchester club.
It was Arteta, though, who made the game’s more crucial changes. For 75 minutes, arguably, neither side deserved victory and Arsenal’s case for claiming they did would have rested on the reality that Mateo Kovacic should have been sent off for two bookable offences before the break. Yet after a triple substitution, including Havertz’s introduction, they showed the more ambition and exerted the greater pressure.
Until then, Arsenal were curiously unsure of themselves, wondering whether they had to win or if a draw represented a good result, suffering an identity crisis in the absence of Saka, the winger for all seasons. Two-and-a-half, to be precise, as he had been involved in each of Arsenal’s 87 league games. The sense was that Saka would have to be missing several limbs for Arteta to consider omitting him.
The pensive Saka ruminated on the bench, for once powerless to influence proceedings; Arsenal seemed shorn of some of their joie de vivre in his absence. But maybe they missed Martinelli’s sharpness, too, until Arteta summoned him at the break. Eddie Nketiah may have failed his audition in attack but a glimpse at the respective benches suggested Arsenal had more in reserve. So it proved, even in the absence of Saka.
And Arsenal were rewarded for playing a game of patience. There were whole passages of play before the break when they stood off Ake and waited for him to pass the ball, each side waiting to see who blinked first. Yet a side ripped apart by Kevin de Bruyne and Erling Haaland last season did not have to face the Belgian and denied the Norwegian a shot of any description. Arsenal may wonder what would have happened had William Saliba been fit to play at the Etihad Stadium in April. Six months on, they got an example of how to keep the Norwegian quiet.
And yet the central defender to making the telling contribution was the luckless Ake. It was both misfortune and a case of Arsenal making their own luck. As City were too passive, they seized the moment. If Martinelli’s was a goal that could give the division a title race, it could furnish Arsenal with belief they could win it.