In a dominant evening of football, Manchester City mangled Arsenal 0-3 at the Emirates.
Arsenal almost scored in the first minute, Man City did score in the second. After that it was a formality and in end it was five home league games without a win for the Gunners. What did we learn?
1. We Need To Talk About Kevin
Kevin de Bruyne is plainly ridiculous. One of the best midfielders in the world, even on a bad day he can produce great chances for his team-mates. Today he set-up his side’s second goal with a wonderful run up the left-flank and a precise cross for Raheem Sterling. It was the kind of assist Leroy Sané used to get so many of, and the kind of thing Man City have been crying out for at times this season.
But, of course, the more spectacular De Bruyne contributions to the match came at the start and end of the first half, where he scored two stunning strikes. The first goal came just minutes into the game, catching a cross bouncing off the turf with an absurdly good half-volley straight into the back of the net.
This is Kevin De Bruyne's world and we're just living it.
What a 45 minutes. 💥 pic.twitter.com/T1I1F6ZY2Y
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) December 15, 2019
The second goal was a curving left-footed finish around a defender from the top of the box, it was the kind of strike you would expect from Leo Messi, not De Bruyne. It was his 16th combined goal and assist this season (six goals, 10 assists); only Jamie Vardy has more. Those gaudy numbers perfectly exemplify the brilliant Belgian, a player who can thrive in midfield or attack, the best player in the league right now.
2. Arsenal are mouldy bread
People often assume that football teams are like trees. When something is going wrong, causing a problem, you can simply lop off the infected branch and the rest of the tree will heal itself. This can often be the case for sides, and is best exemplified by the fabled ‘New Manager Syndrome’.
However, sometimes a club is so far gone, so far damaged, that the better analogy is mouldy bread. Common wisdom often leads people to simply cut off the mouldy bits and eat the rest – but bread is not like a tree. Mould appearing on bread means the entire loaf (or slice) has become infected. You can’t simply cut off one bit and hope the rest recovers.
So Arsenal were poor and they got rid of Arsene Wenger, thinking that would change things. But really it didn’t; so they got rid of Unai Emery as well and hoped it would change things – but of course it didn’t. And when they replace Freddie Ljungberg that won’t fix things. The problem at Arsenal isn’t the manager, or rather, it isn’t just the manager. It isn’t just the players either (although Alexandre Lacazette looked depressed sat on the bench). Or the owners. Or even the toxic fans whose sense of entitlement is 15 years past its sell-by date.
It’s everything. Arsenal are infected from top to bottom.
3. City need this Mendy
When Man City won the Premier League in 2017/18, they did so without their £50m left-back Benjamin Mendy who missed the whole season with injury. The Frenchman was part of France’s World Cup win and then started 10 of the first 12 games for Man City in 2018/19. He registered five assists in those games, showing just what a gamechanger he could be.
Then he missed the vast majority of the season through injury. And he’s been out for most of this season too as Pep Guardiola has expressed his frustration with Mendy’s lack of discipline which has perhaps contributed to his lack of physical hardiness.
Today against Arsenal, Mendy got the start and showed just why Man City paid so much money for him and why they are desperate for him to stay fit. Mendy’s ability to create pressure and pin opponents back with his crossing is almost unparalleled across the league. The league may be gone, but if they can keep Mendy fit then their chances to go on a cup spree this season will be greatly improved.
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4. Martinelli gives hope
One way to escape the creeping mould that is Arsenal is quite simply to be new. Gabriel Martinelli is an 18-year-old Brazilian forward who joined the club in the summer and has been a real surprise contender so far this season.
Martinelli has eight goals in his first 16 Arsenal games. That’s a truly impressive return for a teenager in a new country, club and league. Especially given the mess Arsenal are in. Martinelli is a fearless presence, a daring attacker full of great runs into space, some decent skill on the ball and a predatory instinct when it comes to scoring goals.
He didn’t score today, but came close to it in the opening seconds of the game. Martinelli’s quick thinking and fearless drive could make him (and fellow youngsters like Bukayo Saka, Emile Smith-Rowe and Joe Willock) very important in getting Arsenal enough moments of quality and belief that they can make things happen.
5. Pep finds the solution to his European woes?
Guardiola‘s Man City can’t help but get smashed in Europe. It’s not that they forget how to play, but their inability to control the tempo of games exposes them to unnecessary pressure and allows opponents to blitz them on the break. That happened against Monaco, Liverpool and Spurs. For three straight years the same flaw has been exposed.
Today we saw that perhaps injuries have helped Guardiola accident his way into finding a solution.
With players unavailable, Guardiola had to put Ilkay Gundogan alongside Rodri, instead of playing one or the other. Then the third centre-mid was Phil Foden, the teenage attacking mid who nevertheless works relentlessly in defence. This made their midfield much, much more defensively solid. Giving them an ability to control the tempo of games and better handle Arsenal’s transitions.
For all his genius, De Bruyne is not a great defensive player and cannot control the tempo of games. By putting the Belgian into the front three, he reduced the defensive weakness of the midfield, and by employing a genuine central midfielder in Gundogan and having just one “free 8” in Foden instead of two, meant that there was much less space for Arsenal to raid into.
They still need to practice and refine the trio, and perhaps put Bernardo Silva as the third midfielder ahead of Foden, but this could finally unlock Man City‘s Champions League potential.