In London Long before the last whistle, the fans began to swarm the exits. The activity on the field had dwindled to the point that the 60,000 spectators held significantly more interest than the 22 players on the field. Oh, and on their route to the top of the league, Manchester City defeated Arsenal with ease, 3-1, scoring three goals in the process.
But woe to those who believe that this was just another of their many recent encounters. This wasn’t Manchester City vs. Arsenal, your somewhat older brother’s match. Even though Pep Guardiola’s team claimed the lead in the Premier League until at least Saturday midday, it wasn’t always certain that he would win this match. The defeat from this match from the previous campaign came in a nail-biting January match that came out of nowhere in north London. In a 2-1 game, Rodri’s late victory did little to dampen the confidence it had inspired. This was unique. This time, there was anticipation. It was a failure. While fans may have been disappointed, nothing in this game should make them doubt their ability to at least remain in the race.
Arsenal will undoubtedly benefit if Guardiola sticks with the team that began this game. This game was ultimately decided when the head coach decided it was worthwhile to patch up the huge hole he had created in the defence of his team. It’s possible that Bernardo Silva cost City this game. He would eventually have a significant influence on their victory.
Selling Joao Cancelo undoubtedly gave Guardiola with an interesting challenge, namely how to find a left back in a group where Sergio Gomez, a young player who seemed to have a lot of room for growth, was the only choice. Few people anticipated that the little Bernardo Silva, a player who appeared to personify his head coach’s famous remark “what is tackling,” would be the answer to this specific issue.
In situations when City expects to control the ball and the territory, there is a case to be made for Bernardo. If Cancelo was drifting into midfield to set up goals and make crucial passes, why not swap him out for a guy who does that? But when their rivals get the ball, it’s as if Guardiola put a huge “ATTACK HERE” neon sign on the left corner of his field.
Inviting Bukayo Saka once was plenty. The England international was difficult for Bernardo to contain from the first minute, but after fouling him, he eventually received a yellow card soon before halftime, to ironic applause. Given that far better players than Bernardo have struggled this year, it wasn’t shocking that he couldn’t stop Saka. But it wasn’t as if he was free to help the city’s development while in his control. He performed significantly more like an orthodox left defender with and without the ball than either Cancelo or Nathan Ake.
This had to make sense; there had to be some justification for Guardiola to refrain from using the same defence of Saka strategy that had shown to be so extraordinarily successful in City’s 1-0 FA Cup victory less than a month before. On that particular day, Ake stopped one of the Premier League’s deadliest players. Further opportunities would have undoubtedly materialised had City stuck with Bernardo for longer than the 60 minutes they afforded him before Riyad Mahrez was substituted by Manuel Akanji. But all Guardiola actually provided as an explanation was appreciation for the personality of his converted full back.
“I utilised it several times in our experience here, Oleksandr Zinchenko and Fabian Delph both played in that position,” he said. “I simply wanted to thank you for trying to accomplish it,” Character and charisma make Bernardo unique. He played right flank in the end after beginning as a left defender. It demonstrates their skill as a gamer. Typically, a player believes they are a centre back. He is an NFL player. He’s so intelligent that he can play in any position.
When Bernardo was switched from the defence to his more natural right wing position, he clearly knew how to play. The Portuguese international displayed football acumen to put pressure on former teammate Zinchenko, causing further errors from Arsenal that would eventually determine this game. This adjustment enabled City to push through the gears.
After the game, Mikel Arteta observed that there were times when Arsenal “had them.” While Zinchenko, Jorginho, and Martin Odegaard seemed to enjoy dragging the press just to slip past it, Saka was lethal down the right.
Just before the interval, Saka converted the penalty after Eddie Nketiah was fouled by Ederson, and City were spooked. They wasted as much time as they could to try to tie the game before halftime. He had twice found himself in the box unguarded for headed opportunities.
It is not ideal that Nketiah is following in Gabriel Jesus’ footsteps by scoring less goals than the value of his anticipated goals (xG), even if Arsenal as a whole is doing somewhat better than their expected goals (xG). The two have fired 14.4 xG worth of bullets. They have scored nine goals, and although one may anticipate that they will move closer to the mean over the remainder of the season. If Nketiah had done so tonight, it would have been a pleasant relief.
Because City were merciless in punishing every Arsenal mistake while he left goals on the table. It’s quite difficult to compete at the level needed to have a chance of winning, according to Arteta. “I believed we had them in many instances, but the margin for error is nearly nothing if you give up three goals the way we did and don’t convert the significant opportunities that you have. We truly did have them, so it’s a pity.
However, teams who win championships don’t relinquish control at any point, as Thierry Henry said of Manchester City on the UEFA Champions League Post-Match Show (which you can watch on Paramount+).
Kevin De Bruyne may have had a chance as a result of Takehiro Tomiyasu’s underhit backpass, but it would take something spectacular for him to beat Aaron Ramsdale with a first-time shot while running and out of position. Naturally, he delivered. Bernardo also did so, intercepting a poor Gabriel pass. A few seconds later, Jack Grealish was rolling a crisp shot into the bottom corner thanks to Erling Haaland and Ilkay Gundogan. Once City had regained their rhythm thanks to Arsenal, it was only a matter of time until Haaland scored his 26th Premier League goal of the year.
A squad in a groove with each player in a position that highlights their skills, City seem to be the overwhelming championship favourites in that incarnation. If they keep doing that, it will be very difficult for Arsenal to simply stay up, much less beat them to the finish line.