If I have to think about it, then you shouldn’t be voted into the Hall is the paraphrased mantra of famous American Sports Broadcaster Skip Bayless whenever the topic of voting former players into the NFL Hall of Fame comes up.
When there is no thought processing involved in judging a player’s worthiness for the title Hall of Famer to be bestowed on him, then that player deserves to be voted into the famed Hall according to Skip.
While controversial, there are several examples that give credence to this argument considering former Indianapolis Colts and Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning got voted into the NFL Hall of Fame just 14 seconds after his name came up.
Ask the average football fan about Manchester City’s chances of winning its outstanding games to move to the English Premier League summit and there is very little hesitation.
On the other hand, many an Arsenal fan will ponder and stutter about the Gunners chances of winning the English Premier League title. Even for a solid stretch of time when Arsenal held an eight point lead over Man City, Gunners fans couldn’t say it with their chest that they were winning the league title.
If you have to think about winning a title even when all factors point in the affirmative, then you aren’t built strong enough to win it. Since football is a team sport, there are several variables to consider that makes one doubt a team’s title winning credentials. It could be player quality, injuries, a superior opponent (as Liverpool found out last season) or coaching.
Manchester United lost the 2011-2012 title to Man City on goal difference and in the final phase of the season, two Manchester teams faced off in a quasi-title decider that Man United lost to a Vincent Kompany stunning strike.
There is a legitimate case to make about Man United losing the title before falling to Man City after losing to Wigan and drawing 4-4 with Everton in the immediate prior games to the Man City matchup.
However, losing to Man City got the Red Devils to slip from first place to second place in the standings and the log stayed same to close out the season handing Man City the league title.
It almost feels inevitable Man City will win the title and Arsenal finish in second place but the latter won’t point to those drawn games against Liverpool, West Ham and Southampton as the stretch that hurt Arsenal. Losing 4-1 to Man City is the dagger to Arsenal’s league title chase but the loss at the Etihad wasn’t down to inferior player quality or bad luck or even injuries to an extent but coaching.
The main protagonist in that Etihad matchup was Arsenal coach Mikel Arteta and his setup for the Gunners showed as great as he has done with this North London side, there is still a layer above him. That layer has the likes of Man City’s Pep Guardiola, Carlo Ancelotti, Jose Mourinho, Zinedine Zidane and all your favourite coaches’ in there.
At a time in the season where his best player (Thomas Partey) is off colour and his best defender (William Saliba) is injured, Arteta still held on to his beloved 4-3-3 system despite its flaws and played it against the man who has maxed out the 4-3-3 system; little wonder he came up short. Rather than take a page from Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s defense first, counter attack heavy system or do a playback of his defense laden 1-0 win over Man City in the 2019-2020 FA Cup semifinals, Arteta set his team to play front foot football and press high up the pitch.
With Partey playing well below his standard and Saliba injured, adopting a conservative approach was the best option for Arsenal to get a win.
Beyond that, Arteta maintained Gabriel Martinelli and Bukayo Saka as inverted wingers that hurt Arsenal’s chances of playing direct and fast when it gained possession. Matched up against the slower Manuel Akanji, Martinelli’s speed would have given Arsenal a big advantage down the right with Martinelli as an orthodox wing-forward.
However, playing Saka on the right gave Man City time to recover when not in possession since Saka is heavily left footed has to move infield to get comfy and even in instances when he works the ball with his weaker right foot, it takes a couple of seconds to set himself up and those minuscule seconds are just what Man City needs to regroup.
Playing the speedy Martinelli against the speedier Kyle Walker neutralized the Gunners down the left flank and Arsenal’s wing play got further damaged by Ben White’s inability to stretch the field via an overlapping run whenever Saka cut inside.
While Saliba’s absence compromises Arsenal’s chances of playing with a high line due to Saliba’s brilliant change of pace in recovery, the Frenchman aides the Gunners to play out from the back. The modern style of building attacks is sexy and has its upside but it isn’t for everyone and every team. Man City excels in this and is closely followed by Roberto Di Zerbi’s Brighton and Hove Albion in this regard.
Guardiola’s men successfully lured Arsenal into a very high press but proceeded to deliver concise passes to beat the press and set up Kevin De Bruyne’s first goal in the seventh minute. It was disappointing to see Arteta not get his men to fall for this trap and get them to play a mid-block by crowding Man City in the middle rather than go after them deep into City’s half and leave their back exposed.
Minutes later, Arsenal tried playing out from the back but City’s press was so organized and Arsenal, missing Saliba and using Rob Holding and Aaron Ramsdale in the passing sequence, ended up conceding a throw in deep in its half.
On the contrary, Man City’s biggest scoring opportunities all came when Arsenal pressed high and played with a high defensive line that gave City a lot of openings for De Bruyne and the impressive Erling Haaland to run into.
Playing deeper and surrendering possession sounds crude and outdated but it does have its benefits especially when matched against a Pep Guardiola team in a must win game. Aside providing counter attacking opportunities, playing deep against Man City reduces space behind the defensive line and indirectly limits Haaland’s effectiveness.
Say Arsenal plays deep against Man City and grinds out a goalless draw to the 75th or 80th minute, Man City is bound to get anxious and commit even more men forward and play a higher defensive line even for its standards. Such a situation plays into the hands of Arsenal’s counter attacking fit players like Saka, Martinelli, Eddie Nketiah, Reiss Nelson and Gabriel Jesus.
Man City and Pep Guardiola didn’t even need to be at his absolute best to get past Arsenal and all but squash the Gunners title winning credentials.
They didn’t need to be at their best since a former disciple of Pep goofed in the biggest way on the biggest stage.
Arteta has got Arsenal to move past the disappointment of a Champions League miss last season to all but guaranteeing the team’s best finish in almost a decade but top level tests are a constant reminder Arsenal and its Manager still has a a couple of steps to surmount to become elite.