LONDON — Are Arsenal’s players giving everything for their manager? The evidence was mixed when Arsene Wenger’s side drew 2-2 with Manchester City at the Emirates Stadium on Sunday.
For long periods of the game, Pep Guardiola’s visitors threatened to destroy the Gunners, but Wenger pointed to two equalizing goals as illustrations of his team’s character: “We have shown some mental strengths and that will help us back to our natural fluency.”
That seems overly optimistic on Wenger’s part, and City will feel they let Arsenal escape with a point. The result suited neither team in the battle to secure a top-four place.
Both managers have been groundbreakers during their careers but are too tied to their own methods, even when those processes undermine their teams’ ability to win games. Wenger’s idiosyncrasies are well-established, but Guardiola’s thought processes can appear more incorrect.
Here, City began the game with Jesus Navas at right-back, Fernandinho as a lone midfielder and Kevin De Bruyne sitting deep. Once that alignment was clear, this game was going to be anything but sterile, and it started like a shootout.
First, Raheem Sterling was released by De Bruyne only to be foiled by Arsenal goalkeeper David Ospina’s legs, and then, at the other end, Danny Welbeck shot just wide. De Bruyne then tore Arsenal’s defence apart with a slicing ball to Leroy Sane, who rounded Ospina and slotted home with contemptuous ease to open the scoring. Just five breathless minutes had passed.
Perhaps Guardiola knew that you don’t need a midfield against a Wenger side these days, especially one with such little appetite for battle. Whatever the Arsenal manager chooses to do at the end of the season, this team needs rebuilding.
Granit Xhaka and Shkodran Mustafi have been expensive disappointments, but the malaise runs deeper. In this game, Hector Bellerin was lackadaisical for City’s opening goal and Alexis Sanchez pulled out of a 50/50 challenge in the middle of the pitch. The forward’s demeanour was so downbeat that Wenger was asked about it after the game.
“I didn’t see Sanchez’s negative body language,” Wenger said. “That’s just him.”
That may be true, but players such as Sanchez, Bellerin and Mesut Ozil, who should be the heart of the team, are instead performing like men with one eye on a future elsewhere.
In the early exchanges, Arsenal allowed too much space, which gave Guardiola’s flair players time to think, change gears and turn on the afterburners. It was not until halfway through the first half that the home side carved out a chance to equalise: Sanchez found Ozil, who swivelled in the box, but the shot was as tame as the team’s approach.
Even during Arsenal’s best spell, when they established a foothold in the game, all their recurring issues remained. Both full-backs pushed forward, leaving the central defenders isolated; the side were wasteful in possession, allowing City to break into acres of space; even when Arsenal reached the edge of the opposition’s box, Sanchez was liable to shoot from preposterous positions.
There is a predictability about Wenger’s team, and Xhaka put another tick on the checklist when he was booked for a challenge on Nicolas Otamendi. Even the equalizer, when it came, reflected the haphazard nature of Arsenal’s play.
After a short corner, Sanchez’s cross was deflected and Gael Clichy had a chance to clear. However, the full-back’s header had neither the strength nor direction to get the ball clear. Mustafi nodded back into the area, and the City defence, with the exception of Clichy, charged out with hands raised, claiming offside. Three Arsenal attackers were onside and Theo Walcott poked the ball into the net.
With Arsenal back in it, a burst of fervor and optimism swept through the stadium. For two minutes. Then it all fell apart again.
Ozil lost the ball 30 yards from his own goal and Wenger’s team were immediately in trouble. De Bruyne drove into the box and exchanged passes with Sterling. Arsenal’s Laurent Koscielny slid in to clear, which should have been enough to make the situation safe, but the Arsenal defence had been so fixated on the ball that they did not notice Sergio Aguero standing alone in the corner of the area.
The clearance looped to City’s David Silva, whose pass found Aguero with all the time in the world to pick his spot and shoot low, across Ospina. With City back in the lead, there was a sigh of anger, resignation and pain. The fury had not subsided when Walcott shot over the bar in first-half stoppage time.
Yet City always give their opponents a chance. After an unmarked Aguero headed wide from 6 yards at the start of the second half, Arsenal responded to the stay of execution. From a corner, Mustafi rose above the crowd to head home the equalizer after 53 minutes.
Guardiola’s side woke from their slumber, and Fernandinho forced Ospina into a diving save from 20 yards. Aguero sent another free header into the goalkeeper’s hands. Despite being the better side, though, City were not playing with the same vigour.
Some players add pace to games, others subtract it. Yaya Toure, who replaced Sterling at half-time, lumbered around and, even more than Arsenal’s tactics, took the snap out of City’s counterattacking play. The 33-year-old appeared to be in a different game to the speedsters around him.
Guardiola, though, felt it was a wider problem. “I am not happy. We forgot to play with the ball,” he said.
City still had the edge, even though Otamendi made a complete mess when attempting to control a Sanchez long ball and gave Ozil a chance to win the game for Arsenal. The German international was too slow to seize the opportunity, though, and City goalkeeper Willy Caballero killed the danger.
City’s defence and midfield will require a serious overhaul in the summer. Toure, Otamendi and Clichy are not good enough to carry out their manager’s plans, and the overall paucity of the squad was highlighted by Navas’ use at full-back.
Meanwhile, 6-foot-2 John Stones was beaten by Sanchez — some 7 inches shorter — when competing for a header. The Arsenal player won the contest simply by timing his jump correctly, whereas Stones had already landed by the time the ball arrived. Such simple errors can no longer be excused by youth: Stones has not improved since moving to the Etihad last summer.
While City missed the opportunity go above Liverpool into third in the Premier League table, the draw means Arsenal must rely on other teams to falter if they are to finish in the top four. To claw back ground, Wenger will need to find unity and cohesiveness from somewhere.
The message to both managers from this game is that these teams need significant surgery if they are to compete for the biggest prizes. Keeping the focus until the end of the season of those players who are surplus to requirement will take all the management skills Wenger and Guardiola possess.
Tony Evans has been a sports journalist for more than 20 years. He writes for ESPN FC on the Premier League. Twitter: @tonyevans92a.