Well, shucks. Both sides named rotated but strong sides, and we spent most of the first half as the better team. Chances were remarkably few and far between for both sides, and it wouldn’t stretch the situation to say that our host’s only goal came somewhat against the run of play or at least out of nowhere. Grealish collected a shot off the post and found Nathan Aké, who managed to put his shot just out of Turner’s reach. That was really it, to be honest. They seemed surprised to have scored and didn’t work very hard to find another, perhaps unnerved by how well we had played to that point. Still, despite the result, we came away with one of those so-called moral victories, knowing that we can go toe-to-toe with this side. It’s disappointing to crash out, but we’ll take come confidence from this into our other two clashes. It was a brave effort. Keep that in mind as you get to the poll to rate the lads. Real-time results are here; a pretty l’il graphic should be available some time tomorrow.
Ahead of our FA Cup fourth-round clash, Pep Guardiola has levelled some rather incendiary words at his protégé/prodigy, saying “we’re going to fight” and “I want to beat him” and “it’s going to happen sooner or later”. Those, my friends, are fightin’ words. Those are also words taken out of context. In reality, Pep was practically gushing over Arteta’s development, which, of course, reflects back on the him as if everything Arteta has accomplished thus far is a direct result of the 3.5 years Arteta spent at Man City rather than the product of a lifetime that has built to this moment. We’ll get to the full context of Pep’s words in a moment. In the meantime, I hope you don’t mind my bait-and-switch.
Here’s what Pep actually had to say in his pre-match presser:
Anything can happen on the touchline in the moments of the game. He’s a rival, of course. Tomorrow he wants to beat me and I want to beat him. I know in defeat we are not the best friends in the world. From my point of view, I have a huge respect as a person, as a manager. That’s not going to change.
If we’re going to fight on the touchline – it’s going to happen sooner or later I guess – it won’t change the respect. I teach him a few things, but this comes from himself, his mum and dad, his character and that was already there. Mikel, I know him, and I had the feeling during the time we worked together that what he is doing is not fake.
It’s genuinely rare to see this level of respect and connection between two would-be rivals, even if we can’t claim genuine rival status despite our, well, despite our current status as Prem leaders with a five-point gap and a game in hand. It’s almost enough to turn my skeptical head; I’ve been guilty of using the “Fraudiola” epithet, based on the notion that Pep’s tactics only work when he he has established world-class players at every position. It’s a far cry from Arsène’s ethos of not buying superstars but making them—something not too far off from Arteta’s approach, come to think of it, albeit with more financial backing.
Indeed, Arteta is doing something special here. He’s grafting the best of Pep’s vision to the best of Arsène’s. We’re playing exciting, dynamic football and doing so with the youngest squad in the Prem. With apologies to the injured Gabriel Jesus, it’s really only Thomas Partey who joined with more pedigree than potential.
There’s been a lot of talk about how much we should commit to this tie. The debate signifies a remarkable shift in our fortunes. For the last decade, the FA Cup has represented a pinnacle, the highest point we could hope to achieve in the absence of other honours or trophies. Here we are now, with an active if ill-informed debate over whether we should take this particular trophy seriously. The resolution to this debate lies just beyond our grasp, sad to say. If we could secure a few more signings, we could state with greater confidence that we should fight for this on our way to a domestic double. Should our reach then exceed our grasp? Should Arteta field a full-strength side here? Having signed Trossard and Kiwior, and with Smith-Rowe returning to fitness, it does start to feel like we’re deepening the squad.
Is this enough? Hell, yes. Winning the FA Cup adds just four more matches to our fixture-list. Defeating Man City on Friday would of course see us advance to the fifth round, but it would also send a plant a massive flagpole in front of our Prem rivals. If we go full-strength and lose, we shrug our shoulders and take it on the chin. We were away to Man City, after all. If we go full-strength and win? Well, that’s a horse of a different color. All of a sudden, we’re on the front foot in the FA Cup and the Prem, and I darseay that a few Europa League ears will prick up as well. For the second time in as many posts, damn the torpedoes. Full speed ahead!
Friday’s FA Cup fourth round tie sees us travel to the almighty Etihad, that perilous pitch, the stadium where hope goes to die, that…well, you get the idea. We haven;’t won at the Etihad since 18 January 2015, but who’s counting? Speaking of counting, wew haven’t scored in our last three trips, and we’ve been outscored by a total of 9-0, including that 5-0 shellacking back in August 2021. I have a theory about that match; we’ll return to that half-baked hypothesis in a bit. For one, we’re quite a lot better at this footballing than we were on that day. Due the postponement of our September match, we haven’t faced Man City in over a year. We didn’t do half-bad, losing 1-2.
In that match, we actually took a lead and looked to have something loosely resembling control until Stuart Atwell awarded a penalty for Xhaka pulling on Silva’s jersey as he dove (wouldn’t the jsrsey pull help Silva stay up?) and then issuing two quick yellow cards against Gabriel, one for scuffing the penalty spot before Mahrez could step up and another fo a foul on Jesus. The first was a technicality; the second one was harsh for a match of this stature. Dozens of similar fouls go uncalled not to mention unbooked. It was, to put it mildly, one of the more-controversial matches we’ve been involved in. Despite being a man down for a solid hour, we battled fiercely and looked likely to keep a point against the best squad money could buy…until Rodri poked home in the 93rd minute to complete an almost entirely undeserved smash-and-grab.
That brings me back to that infamous 5-0 demolition. We never looked likely to be competitive here, having already lost to newly-promoted Brentford and then pre-midtable Chelsea. Indeed, we went behind early, 2-0 inside of 13 minutes. By the time Xhaka get sent off, the outcome was established. That brings me back to my half-baked hypothesis. Here it is: despite going a man down, despite already trailing, it felt like Arteta instructed his charges to do their best to continue with the original plan. Damn the torpedoes. For as much as was possible while keeping just 19% possession, we didn’t really seem to park the bus. Rather, we continued to look to get up the pitch to create chances. While it backfired spectacularly regarding the scoreline, it sent a message to our players. We’re not going to quit. We’re going to fight.
I’m not saying I’m right. I will say that the difference in how our squad responds to conceding has changed dramatically. We used to see our players hang their heads or gaze skyward, shell-shocked either way, as the capitulation cascaded into calamity. Fast-forward to this season, and our lads seem to take getting scored on as a personal affront to which the only response is to score right back. We’ve spent a grand total of 90 minutes trailing our opponents all season. For as good as we’ve been, we seem to get better after conceding (and that may be a good thing against Man City, if I’m being honest).
“The Brawl to Win It All” might be a bit hyperbolic, given that this is a fourth round tie and the winner still has to win four more matches, but these two clubs are currently the prohibitive favourites to win this competition as well as the Prem. It’s also a bit of a dry run for the two Prem matches in which the two of us will grapple with potentially cataclysmic consequences. Still, whoever does win might just gain a psychological advantage going into the other two rounds, as it were. It’s anyone’s guess how Guardiola will approach this. He’s only one the FA Cup once, suggesting he doesn’t rate it all that highly. Then again, he’s won the League Cup four times, so wno knows? We do know of course that Arsenal have dumped Man City out of this competition both times the two have met.
Let/s hope then that past is prologue.
Okay, so it was “only” the League Cup, a trivial trophy that most big clubs with the same respect and consideration that they reserve for a weeks-old sandwich found at the back of the fridge, but there’s still something to consider in Man City’s surprise loss to Southampton in last night’s quarterfinal. Yes, Southampton were certainly up for it, as they’re in the basement and penciled in for relegation already. However, for as eager as they might have been, they are, well, in the basement and penciled in for relegation already. As if the scoreline wasn’t damning enough, consider this: Man City had more foul throws than shots on target. Has this squad gotten so tired of winning that they can’t be bothered anymore?
They did dominate possession to the tune of 72%, but there was no edge, no hunger, no desire. It was sterile. Guardiola didn’t mince his words:
Today was not even close to what we are. We were not prepared to play in this competition to get to the semi-finals. We were not ready. The better team won. We didn’t play good, we didn’t play well in the beginning. There are many games you can start not good and overcome and we didn’t do it. When you are not prepared to play this game you arrive one inch late and don’t score a goal. When you are prepared you score the goal.
Guardiola does not take this competition lightly. Man City have won it five times in the seven years since he took the reins. Yes, he rested de Bruyne and Haaland, but he threw them on in a desperate attempt to fight back. Despite the vast chasm in class between each side’s starters, City never looked interested, much less able, to overcome their overmatched hosts. That’s obviously not an issue of skill or tactics; it’s an issue of desire.
Man City have glutted themselves on silverware for years, all the more so under Guardiola: four-time winners of the Prem, five-time winners of the League Cup, and just one FA Cup (thanks in no small part to us). That has to breed a certain diffidence or ennui among the players. Perhaps admitting as much, Guardiola took uncharacteristic steps during the summer, selling several key players to direct rivals (with us taking Jesus and Zinchenko and Chelsea settling for Raheem Sterling) and actually turned a net profit on transfer fees for the first time since 2006. Guardiola admitted that “the market was strange for us. Normally we are a team that buys and didn’t sell much. This summer for different reasons, we sell some players.”
Fresh blood should rejuvenate the squad, right? Hungry players should infect the rest of the squad with their hunger and challenge jaded members for time on the pitch. It hasn’t really happened. Despite Haaland erupting for 21 goals so far, City as a whole seem to have lost the aura of invincibility that on its own probably won countless matches before the players even left the locker room.
Now, they are still on a pace to take 87 points, enough to win the Prem in most seasons, and we underestimate them at their peril. Still, Guardiola himself seems to sense that something’s got to give. An obsessive, compulsive manager averse to unpredictability, he’s talked about “‘ridiculous ideas” and doesn’t have a clear lineup in mind for this weekend’s derby at Old Trafford. Those are not the musings of a notorious overthinker who likes to micromanage down to the last detail. In addition to a squad-wide sense of malaise, Guardiola has to suspect that his players, even the new-ish ones, may be tiring of hearing the same voice for so long. It’s something that’s been wondered aloud about other managers like Klopp, whose own squad seems disinterested at best.
Of course, we’ll find out soon enough just how much water this colander-esque theory of mine can hold when we go to the Etihad on 28 January for the FA Cup fourth round. It may not quite be as much of a white whale to Guardiola as the Champions League is, but it is a trophy that’s been almost as hard for him to grasp. Will our young, hungry, but thin squad have enough to defeat City’s deeper, more-experienced, but sated one? Time will tell, I suppose.
After learning that Man City will have to face Arsenal in the FA Cup, a visibly concerned Pep Guardiola was quoted thusly:
Arsenal frighten me…If you’re not at your best, Arsenal overrun you. It should be a fantastic game because we are two very similar sides. They are a very bold, daring team, a side that forces you to defend very well.
Okay, so that was him speaking after Barcelona drew Arsenal way back in the 2010 Champions League. Sorry to have deceived you there. Let’s get to the actual preview.
Once the fourth round draw was announced, there was, of course, a lot of hand-wringing and teeth-gnashing among the Gooner faithful, and for good reason. Although we lead Pep’s rag-tag band of cast-offs and misfits by five points, there’s this nagging sense that it’s only a matter of time before eash side reverts to form, with us slipping on every banana skin and them crushing everyone like so many peeled grapes. However, we do have a decent history against City in this competition, having beat them 2-1 on our way to winning it all in 2017 and again 2-0…on our way to winning it all in 2020. It’s a pity we don’t have a chance at facing Chelsea in the final, come to think of it. There’s always a fly in the ointment.
On the other hand, Prem results have offered somewhat less encouragement, but we’ll leave that alone. We now know that we’ll have three encounters with Pep’s side, and this one may serve as an interesting laboratory in which to test things out. I’m not suggesting for a minute that we send out some young lambs to the slaughter in order to crash out and save our resources for the Prem and Europa League—far from it. Winning the FA Cup is a high priority, and it’s a commitment to just six matches. We’ve played one, and the final comes after the Prem season has ended (although it does come just a few days before the Europa League final, complicating somewhat the treble we’ll inevitably be winning.
There are some who wish we could have gotten a more-favourable draw against a smaller side, say Stevenage or Accrington Stanley or Tottenham. However, we ourselves know full well that pup art of the magic of the FA Cup comes through the David & Goliath match-ups that allow David to slay (or at least knock out) his Philistine foe. One of two ways of looking at this draw is to see ourselves as that David, and why not? History shows us that we’ve done it before.
The other way, of course, is to remind ourselves that sheen from the FA Cup trophy shines all the brighter for the foes you despatched on your way to winning it. Our path to winning those last two FA Cups took us past Man City and Chelsea (remember when they were relevant? Crazy days). That wondrous 2014 FA Cup, the one that ended our trophy drought, we had to get past Tottenham, Liverpool, and Everton (back when they were relevant…ish) before facing somewhat-less large but no less tenacious Wigan and Hull. 2015 felt a little more like a cakewalk by contrast, with many fans having to look up some of our opponents (is it Reading like “feeding” or like “bedding”? Why do we say “Boro” when you’re meant to say “Middes-bruh”? There are two clubs from Manchester?” and so on…). We’ve been through 2017 and 2020.
So we’ll have get through Man City if we’re going to get to the final. So be it. Arteta has shown that he has enough nous and cojones to go toe-to-toe with Guardiola in the past. In the past, he didn’t have the squad he’ll have for this clash. Pep himself has spoken glowingly of his former coneman’s achievements, and that may reflect Pep’s own narcissistic pride at creating this prodigy, but it may also betray a smidge of concern. We’ll find out in a few weeks whether the student can defeat the master and, if we don’t, we’ll get another crack at that soon enough in the Prem.
On a last note, you may not have noticed, but this l’il blog of mine has put on its big-boy pants and moved to a proper domain. No more amateurish “blogspot” in the URL. I figured it was about time to take that step. Be proud of me.