Manchester City were accomplished in a victory in which they virtually shut Arsenal out in the second half. Before the break Pep Guardiola’s side were almost as dominant, though an oft-cited defensive fragility was again evident that will continue to offer hope to opponents.
That, however, is for the future. This game ended with the FA Cup semi-final defeat avenged by stretching to 18-2 their aggregate over their visitors in the last seven league meetings, and with Liverpool earlier drawing with Everton, here was a good day all-round for City.
With Aymeric Laporte and Benjamin Mendy late injury exclusions, Sergio Agüero was back after four months following a knee problem, while Kevin De Bruyne’s muscle strain allowed Bernardo Silva to make a first league start. A Rob Holding hamstring tweak during warm-up meant David Luiz was drafted in by Mikel Arteta as he named Arsenal’s £45m deadline day buy Thomas Partey on the bench.
Guardiola’s strategy was to have Sterling and Agüero rotate off the front, with Phil Foden and Riyad Mahrez the nominal wide players behind. It was Mahrez who twice penetrated the Gunners’ rearguard along the right, the Algerian’s feet bamboozling Kieran Tierney enough to allow a shot, then cross.
Silva also illustrated an ability to dance through, one balletic run claiming a corner on the right. Mahrez took this, and it led to another delivered by Foden on the left. Arsenal broke from it, City stymied the counterattack and a pattern for the opening period was established.
This meant the contest was compacted and there were zero frights for either Ederson, the home goalkeeper, or his opposite number, Bernd Leno. Then, Arsenal were breached. This was classic City fluid tap-and-run stuff. From the right Mahrez collected, turned infield, and found Agüero. The striker roved forward and fed Foden. A shoulder-dip manoeuvred the ball to his right foot and though Leno engineered a save, Sterling made no mistake.
Further quality followed via João Cancelo, instructed by Guardiola to drift inside from right-back. He recycled the ball to Mahrez and suddenly he was in, his shot forcing another corner. The No 26 was enjoying himself – tormenting Arsenal along the right – and after yet another effort was repelled, he was part of a sequence that took in Agüero and again had Foden unloading, with Leno again saving his side.
Yet when City had to defend they were fragile. A rare Arsenal corner was hit in by Willian from the left, no light blue shirt rose to head away, and Ederson beat the ball from under his bar. The Brazilian was as brilliant when Tierney outmuscled Silva, Bukayo Saka swapped passes with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, and the No 7’s attempt was parried away by Ederson.
Arsenal’s start to the second half was bright: Aubameyang was passed to down the left by Granit Xhaka and his cross was aimed at Nicolas Pépé, Nathan Aké doing enough to put the wide man off.
City’s response had the effervescent Sterling scampering through Arsenal’s midfield and then passing to Foden, whose delivery was overhit – though a less-rusty Agüero might have killed the ball rather than see it spin away.
Arsenal’s hunger was illustrated when Aubameyang charged down an Ederson clearance. Yet more of this was required to disrupt a City side who were again hogging the ball and thus protecting their lead. This meant that in a stadium already empty of fans, tempo and atmosphere dipped. When Agüero was replaced on 65 minutes – by Ilkay Gündoğan – the No 10 riffed on this, offering a jesting faux-handclap of appreciation to the missing crowd for their (non-existent) appreciation of his effort.
A David Luiz 20-yard free-kick that sailed off-target was as close, as Arsenal threatened an equaliser as the closing phase approached. From this juncture City looked to high-press whenever possible, Cancelo, Foden and Silva leading the charge.
When Walker conceded a free-kick 20 yards out, this time Pépé stepped up. But his left-foot effort went wide of Ederson’s right post. This did, though, signal how City had been pushed back in what was an anxious last few minutes for Guardiola and his men.