The visitors secured a 3-1 victory in a close match, but there are huge questions at left back
The supporters were streaming towards the exits well before the final whistle. The action on the field had petered out to such an extent that the 60,000 in the stands were of far more interest than the 22 on the pitch. Oh and Manchester City had scored three goals as they eased past Arsenal 3-1 on their way to the top of the table.
But woe betide those who assume that this was a rerun of so many recent meetings between these two. This was not your slightly older brother’s Arsenal vs. Manchester City. Pep Guardiola might have won again, his side claiming top spot in the Premier League until Saturday lunchtime at least, but this was a contest where his victory did not always seem guaranteed. Last season’s loss in this fixture was a January thriller that hit north London like a bolt from the blue. Rodri’s late winner in a 2-1 match did nothing to quell the optimism it engendered. This was different. There was expectation this time. It wasn’t met. But, while supporters might have been crushed, nothing about this game ought to disabuse them of the belief that they can at least stay in this race.
Certainly it will help Arsenal if Guardiola perseveres with the side who started this contest. Ultimately this game was turned when the head coach concluded that it was worth patching up the gaping hole that he had crafted in his side’s defense. Bernardo Silva might have lost City this game. He would ultimately have a sizeable hand in them winning it.
Selling Joao Cancelo certainly presented Guardiola with an intriguing conundrum, how to find a left back in a squad whose only option was Sergio Gomez, a youngster that looks like he will benefit from quite a lot of development. Few assumed that the solution to this particular problem would come in the slight form of Bernardo Silva, a player who seemed to personify his head coach’s famous line “what is tackles”?
At a push there is a case to be made that Bernardo could do a job in the games where City expect to dominate territory and possession; if Cancelo was drifting into midfield to create chances and play key passes why not replace him with a player who does exactly that? When their opponents have the ball, however, it is as if Guardiola has placed a giant neon sign on the left corner of his pitch, “ATTACK HERE”.
Bukayo Saka needed no second invitation. From the first minute Bernardo seemed to have little idea how to stop the England international but by fouling him, his eventual yellow card just before the break greeted with ironic cheers. It was no great surprise that Bernardo couldn’t defend Saka, much better players than him have come up short this season. But it was not as if in possession he was freed to aid City’s build up. With and without the ball he functioned as far more of an orthodox left back than even the likes of Cancelo or Nathan Ake do.
There had to be logic to this, something that convinced Guardiola not to simply roll out the same approach to defending Saka that had been so supremely effective a month less than a month ago in City’s 1-0 FA Cup win. On that day Ake shut down one of the Premier League’s most deadly operators. Had City persevered with Bernardo for more than the 60 minutes they gave him before Manuel Akanji replaced Riyad Mahrez then further chances would surely have come. And yet, by way of explanation all Guardiola really offered was praise for the character of his repurposed full back.
“I used it many times in our career here, Fabian Delph played in that position, Oleksandr Zinchenko played in that position,” he said. “I just say thank you for the commitment to try to do it.
“Bernardo has something special: personality and character. He started as a left back, finished as a right winger. It shows how good they are as a player. Normally a player thinks ‘I’m center back’. He plays football. He understands to play in any position because he’s so smart.”
Bernardo certainly understood how to play when he was moved from the defense into his more natural right wing role. It was the switch that allowed City to crunch through the gears, the Portuguese international showing that footballing intelligence to apply pressure to former teammate Zinchenko, drawing more of the mistakes from Arsenal that would ultimately decide this game.
As Mikel Arteta noted after the game, there were spells when Arsenal “had them.” Saka was devastating down the right, while Zinchenko, Jorginho and Martin Odegaard seemed to relish drawing the press only to slide through it.
When Eddie Nketiah drew a clattering from Ederson and Saka converted the penalty just before the break, City looked rattled, wasting as much time as possible in an attempt to reach the halftime whistle all square. Had Nketiah taken the other chances that came his way, this game might have pivoted. Twice he had found himself unmarked for headed chances in the box. Neither was so easy that they should have been considered guaranteed goals, but he should have hit the target at least once, punishing City for their errors.
Whilst Arsenal as a whole are running slightly better than their expected goals (xG) it is less than ideal that Nketiah is following in Gabriel Jesus’ footsteps by scoring fewer than the value of his xG. The pair have had shots worth 14.4 xG. They have scored nine goals and while over the course of a season one might assume that they will progress towards the mean. It would have been a welcome boon if Nketiah had done so tonight.
Because while he left goals on the table, City were remorseless in punishing every Arsenal misstep. “It’s exceptionally difficult to play at the level they require you to play to have a chance to win,” said Arteta “I thought in many moments we did and we had them, but if you give three goals the way we did and don’t put away the big chances that we had, the margin for error is almost zero. It’s a shame because we really had them.”
That version of City look every inch the prohibitive title favorites, a team locked into a groove with every player in a spot that heightens their talents. Keep that up and it will take a momentous effort from Arsenal to even keep pace, let alone pip them at the post.