One can only hope the Arteta residence has thick walls. Arsenal’s manager, absent after testing positive for Covid-19, had said he would “need a big room” before watching this fixture from home and it would be a wonder if there was much of it left by the time his players walked off.
This should have been a moment of arrival for his young team and, when the dust has settled, may still feel like one: they outplayed a flat Manchester stad for sustained periods, leading at the break through Bukayo Saka, but ended up with nothing after Rodri’s added-time winner. Arsenal had been dominant until two rushes of blood in the 15 minutes after half-time, Granit Xhaka conceding a penalty that Riyad Mahrez dispatched and Gabriel almost instantly being dismissed for two stupid bookings. City pickpocketed their 11th straight win but, had Arsenal managed to keep that many players on the pitch, Arteta’s frustration would surely have been minimal.
It was a measure of Arsenal’s first-half performance that Saka’s goal, the end product after 15 minutes of intense pressure, was overwhelmingly deserved. After a tentative start they had grasped the initiative and bested City in a way rarely seen: their tempo and aggression were matched by smart, pinpoint passing between the lines and an increasingly agitated Pep Guardiola must have sensed his players were being overrun.
The sequence that picked the lock was characteristically sweeping, beginning when Ben White won possession and continuing with a precise ball from Martin Ødegaard out to Kieran Tierney. With City backing off, the left-back had time to assess his options and slid a considered pass across to Saka, who swept in first-time from 15 yards.
Saka was mobbed by his teammates and serenaded by a crowd who, from the moment a guttural roar greeted his first run at Nathan Aké, appeared to sense it could be his day. His performance had been irrepressible and so had that of Gabriel Martinelli, a whirl of energy and application out on the left. The Brazilian curled inches wide six minutes before half-time, quickly following that with an electric run and angled shot past the far post. City could have faced a mountain to climb at the interval.
That was all the more notable given the opposite is usually true. By the 20th minute Arsenal could have chosen to take succour from the fact they were not behind. It is no secret that they have struggled in this fixture for the best part of a decade and, on City’s previous six visits, they had been in front at that point. The mood music around this meeting had been markedly more optimistic and the happier tone was justified.
Both teams could have scored in those initial skirmishes but it was the hosts who had greater encouragement. They bayed for a penalty when, at the end of a brilliant move, Ødegaard was tackled by Ederson. The City keeper had, as VAR correctly determined, taken the ball before making contact with the playmaker’s leg but it was a close-run thing. On the quarter-hour an offside-looking Martinelli was sent away by Thomas Partey but Ederson repelled his toe-poked effort.
City had twice forced Gabriel into important defensive interventions before ruing Rúben Dias’s waywardness when, beating Aaron Ramsdale to the ball, he headed wide. But from then on they were swamped: Arsenal, driven on by Thomas Partey, had begun forcing them into hacked clearances long before Saka’s breakthrough and the pattern had not shifted by the change of ends.
Nor did it alter until City were gifted their equaliser. Arsenal had continued to force errors from the moment proceedings restarted, Lacazette robbing Dias and forcing Rodri to salvage the situation with a thundering challenge on Martinelli. When a slow, bedraggled away side finally managed an attack, it paid off. At first glance Bernardo Silva had crumpled too easily as he looked to wriggle past Xhaka, but the City player’s protestations were particularly vehement and the video technology bore them out. Xhaka had needlessly taken a chunk of his shirt; Stuart Attwell eventually awarded the spot kick, via a look at his monitor, and Mahrez dispatched it without fuss.
A cue for things to settle down? No chance. Seconds later Arsenal should have been back ahead when Laporte headed over a stranded Ederson and demanded a heroic last-ditch clearance from Aké, only for Martinelli to be following up. Somehow he shot over and, from the resulting goal kick, the scales tilted firmly towards City. Gabriel had been booked for attempting to scuff the penalty spot amid a spate of handbags before Mahrez stepped up; it was a daft offence and meant his next one, clipping Gabriel Jesus after he had controlled Ederson’s clearance, was simply exasperating. Attwell had no choice but to dismiss him; Arsenal would have to hang on and, in an increasingly furious atmosphere, the referee faced a battle to maintain control too.
City probed without looking like scoring but, with the clock past 90, Rodri squeezed an undeserved winner past Ramsdale after Aymeric Laporte’s shot was blocked. Arteta may need to get the cleaners in.