Manchcester City claimed an 18th straight victory as they eased to a routine 1-0 win over Arsenal in North London.
City wasted little time getting into their stride at the Emiraes Stadium and scored the winning goal inside the opening two minutes.
Pep Guardiola’s men had already served notice of their intentions in the opening 60 seconds, only for Raheem Sterling to mis-kick when an opportunity opened up.
But the England star made no mistake second time round, rising to nod home a pinpoint Riyad Mahrez cross having found space just six yards from goal.
City look like they’re playing a different game to their Premier League rivals right now, and they dictated and dominate the opening 20 minutes, a period in which they created opportunities to double their advantage, but lacked the killer touch.
Gradually Arsenal played their way back into contention, but failed to test Ederson before the break.
The returning Kevin de Bruyne almost floated home a wonerfully impudent chip to double the lead early in the second half, only for the Belgian’s effort to drift the wrong side of Bernd Leno’s left hand post.
Yet while City continued to offer more threat, their performance level noticeably dropped during the second period, the midfield rotations and passing not as sharp as it had been. It was sloppy and gave Arsenal greater belief that they could halt City’s winning run.
Emile Smith Rowe and Alexandre Lacazette entered the fray with 17 minutes remaining, replacing the quiet Martin Odegaard and Nicolas Pepe, Arteta turning to his bench in his quest for more punch and incision.
But City kept them at arm’s length throughout and ultimately, claimed another win.
The champions-elect keep marching on. Here are six talking points from the Emirates…
1. Arteta’s pragmatic move
Having been in Europa League action on Thursday night, Mikel Arteta made five changes to the Arsenal side that drew 1-1 with Benfica in Rome.
They meet the Portuguese side in Athens this week in the second leg of their Last-32 tie, and while he won’t admit it, the changes here suggested that that much more winnable encounter played a reasoning in his changes.
And, in truth, such is the quality and the form of this City side – who themselves rung the changes ahead of their return to European action this week – can you blame Arteta for taking the more pragmatic approach?
Arsenal started the game 11 points off the top four. Yes they want to be back in the Champions League as soon as possible, but perhaps the Europa League is their best bet.
2. Of all the Arsenal defenders to exploit, City go for Tierney
When you watch Arsenal and Kieran Tierney starts at left-back, opponents usually focus attacks down their right side. That’s how good the Scot has been (when fit) since arriving from Celtic in 2019 and because sides’ pretty much fancy exploiting Hector Bellerin.
City didn’t do that here and just went at Tierney from the off.
Four times in the opening five minutes, raking diagonals went from left to right out to Mahrez; each time, the Algerian was able to bring it down and run at his man, with one of those leading to Sterling’s opening goal.
Tierney is, defensively, something of a throwback to old-fashioned full-backs who, as play develops on the opposite side, cover round the blind side of their centre-backs.
Seemingly, that is something City had noticed and, as he perhaps over-compensated and got too close to Pablo Mari, Mahrez was able to hold the width – as he does so well – and stand free in space to receive the switches of play.
After his recent injury, perhaps Tierney isn’t fully up-to-speed just yet. Maybe that period playing as part of a back three has had a previously unseen impact on how he positions himself.
Perhaps that impact went unseen by everyone… except Pep Guardiola.
3. De Bruyne’s back
Nothing else. No witty words required. It’s just good to see him back doing what he does best: Playing football.
A solid 63 minutes under his belt on his comeback.
4. Arsenal change leads to familiar issue
I wrote at the beginning of January about how Arteta had solved Arsenal’s creativity issues, partially by switching Bukayo Saka from the left side over to the right wing.
It had taken them from being in a relegation battle at Christmas – in Sam Allardyce’s eyes at least – to three successive wins with eight goals scored, and back upto 11th.
Effectively, the move had spread Arsenal’s threat and ability to progress the ball up the field across the pitch, rather than focusing everything down the left – because Saka and Tierney are their best players when it comes to building attacks.
So it was strange to see the pair starting in conjunction down the left once more here. It was unsurprising to see a familiar issue rear its head.
In the opening 45 minutes, Saka and Tierney between them received 17 passes in the final third. Between them, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Nicolas Pepe and Martin Odegaard received only six.
The two are major strengths to this Arsenal side individually. But when paired together, it makes opponents’ lives easier, as they know that, if you stop the left side then you pretty much stop Arteta’s men having any major attacking impact.
This encounter, particularly in that first period, merely offered further proof.
5. Bernardo’s back to his best
During his first two years at the Etihad – as City won back-to-back titles – Bernardo Silva was outstanding.
Week-in, week-out, he was one of Guardiola’s most trusted on-field lieutenants, his performances never dropping below a 7/10, but more often than not an eight or nine. He mixed his ridiculous ball-on-a-string talent by being an absolute pressing machine.
However last season, he had quite the dip. Yes, City as a collective did, but he perhaps suffered more than any other individual. He was never really injured – he played 52 games last term, after 51 and 53 in the previous two years – but just wasn’t quite the same.
Make no mistake about it though, he’s back to his very best now. The little touches and body swerves, the ability to work through tight spots and then found the ball that opens up the entire game – it’s all there again.
As City press on for more domestic and European glory in the coming months, having the very best version of the Portuguese may well prove crucial.
6. Rock solid Ruben
Let’s be honest here, City never really looked like conceding.
They scarcely gave up a chance worthy of being described as one. They kept Arsenal at arm’s length throughout and Ruben Dias was once more outstanding in defence.
What a signing he’s been, not just for his own abilities, but also for what has happened alongside him with John Stones.
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