No De Bruyne? I see you and raise with no Saka. No Rodri? Again, I see and raise with no Partey. No Stones until late on? Get bent. We went without Martinelli for that first half. The less said about Kovačić, the better. We can all agree that he should have been sent off for that foul on Ødegaard, and if not for that one, then surely for the second one on RIce. You know what, though? None of this matters because we put one past you lot. A little bit of a smash-and-grab, eh? As in Martinelli smashed the ball into Aké’s face and we grabbed all three points. As for managers, the pupil punished the master.
I’m sure by now that we’ve read our share of headlines—Arsenal’s first win in this fixture since December 2015 (12 tries, zero points), Man City hadn’t lost two consecutive Prem matches since December 2018, yada yada yada… but one headline that may not get as much attention is the one your correspondent led with. Guardiola decided to deploy Bernardo Silva as a sort of #6 behind RIco Lewis and Mateo Kovačić as more-advanced, #8-ish types (although the latter did his level best to reprise the Rodri role, conjuring unpleasant memories of Martin Taylor, Ryan Shawcross, and Dan Smith). For as much as was made in the build-up of the absenses of De Bruyne and Rodri, there was scant talk of the tactical and formational changes Arteta would have to anticipate. With Saka a late scratch, his selection dilemma only grew more acute.
Against that uncertainty, Arteta opted to play Jorginho almost opposite to Silva with Rice and Ødegaard playing roles similarly opposite to Lewis and Kovačić, with Rice flourishing in that more-advanced role (indeed, he’s a MOTM candidate in our post-match poll). Arteta’s instructions to Raya to play it short in the first half did lead to some nervy moments, with Julian Alvarez twice coming close to forcing Raya into a costly error. Those first-half tactics seemed to set the stage beautifully for Raya to start spraying long balls over the top of City’s press, and those long balls forced City to start reconsidering their press.
It’s perhaps no accident then that the substitutions of Partey, Tomiyasu, and Havertz led directly to Martinelii’s game-winner. Partey played a long ball from midfield to Tomiyasu. who knockedit down at the edge of the area (amid three defenders) to Havertz, who, considering his strugglese in front of goal, might have felt massive pressure to shoot. Instead, he shrugged off a clumsy clatter from Aké’ to collect the ball and calmly lay it off to the onrushing Martinelli, whose shot (taken from almost the same spot that Tomiyasu first collected Partey’s pass) might have beaten Ederson on its own but certainly did after deflecting off of Aké’s face.
There will be those who continue to insist that Arteta is little more than a cheque-book manager (as if Guardiola isn’t) or Pep’s coneman, but he outclassed that Megamind on this day. While we might lament the wastefulness of Trossard and Nketiah, and while Raya probably gave us a few frights, Arteta seemed to get everything just about right. I’m sure a few pundits were poised with poisoned pens at the ready to condemn us for failing to prance past a City side shorn of De Bruyne and Rodri (as if Guardiola didn’t have weeks to adjust to their absences). While it was a bit shaky in the early going, we grew into the game, weathered the early storms, and controlled the second half well enough to deserve the result.
The early tactics felt a bit tetchy, but they paid off in the long run despite those two or three hiccups. By the time Partey, Tomiyasu, and Havertz came on, we had been knocking on the door for quite some time, and Martinelli had frittered away a few other chances while causing Kyle Walker all sorts of problems.
Long story short: Arteta outdid Guardiola, at least on this day. We all know full-well that Man City are hardly a slain dragon on the basis of this one result. At best, they’re a wounded and enraged Smaug, ready to lay waste to Lake-town. I seem to recall Smaug getting the short end of the stick in the end.
All the same, it’s significant and perhaps even symbolic that we’ve finally scuppered our superiors. There’s still quite a lot of football to be played, and anything can happen between now and the end of the season. Still, it’s hard to overstate the potentially seismic imlplications of this one result. A result as famous as this one could very well fuel the kind of self-confidence, mettle, and steel that we lacked during the run-in last season.
We’re seeing everyone come of age after ripening on the vine a season ago. Whether it’s Martinelii or Saliba or Ødegaard, Magalhães or Saka or Arteta himself—this is a squad that is just now starting to get a sense of what it’s capable of. Going toe-to-toe with the best club that (legitimate) money can but and coming away with all three points? Priceless.
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