28th August, Etihad Stadium
Manchester City 5-0 Arsenal
Everyone knows Arsenal have been just awful by any standards in their start to the 2021/22 Premier League campaign. But what hardly anyone has yet dared to mention is that they have been the worst team in the division so far. Their football has been weak, over-complicated, slow, and when under sustained pressure, spineless.
Perhaps the most damning indictment of their dismal defeat at Manchester City was that no one was in the slightest bit surprised by it. People were openly predicting it to each other up and down the country all week. Think back fifteen, even as little as ten years ago. A 5-0 walloping for Arsenal by City would not have been unthinkable. But it would have at least raised eyebrows. But after this meeting, most neutrals were sniggering to each other, “Told you so…”
Arsenal’s relieving thumping of West Bromwich Albion in the League Cup fooled no one.
Let us take nothing away from City, who once again demonstrated that they have a dimension to their attacking play that no other English side can even set foot in, let alone match. The smoothness and variety of their passing game was full of its usual crispness. Their dribbling in heavy traffic, especially from Gabriel Jesus and Jack Grealish, was almost too easily successful.
But unlike Arsenal, they also knew when to keep it simple. City were unafraid of going long when the Gunners’ defence pushed up to compress space in the midfield. They were competitive in the tackle. They were assured in defence under the high ball. In Raheem Sterling, they have one of the deadliest creative forwards in the world. And above all, they always had someone willing to take responsibility in front of goal.
Arsenal have none of these attributes. They are goalless from their first three matches. They were comfortably outbattled by Brentford, brushed aside with expert superiority by Chelsea at home, and now they have been flattened with embarrassing ease by the defending champions.
Here, Arsenal were not helped by the sending-off of Granit Xhaka late in the first half. But that seemed almost incidental; the Gunners were already 2-0 down even at that point, thanks to early strikes by City captain Ilkay Gundogan and Ferran Torres, and were clearly headed for a drubbing regardless. And Xhaka can have no real complaints about the red card. While there was not a lot of contact, his lunge on Jaoa Cancelo was reckless. The current laws of the game require a player to remain in control of his own body when attempting a challenge.
With Jesus adding the third just before the half, the match was already done and dusted, and City never needed to get out of third gear after that. They added a fourth through Rodri Hernandez shortly after half-time, then more or less played out time, adding a fifth late on through another Torres finish.
All of this was agonising enough for Arsenal’s followers. The fact that if City had wanted to, they could have run up double-digits will hurt even more. But what will hurt most is that their team was this ineffective with star player Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang back in the side. New signing Martin Odegaard was also anonymous between midfield and attack. Having arrived from Real Madrid, he may be wondering what he has let himself in for.
Arsenal may not finish bottom. They may not be relegated. They may even recover and surge up the table. But from the first three games of the EPL season, they have so far played the worst football.
City are breathing down the necks of the top four. Arsenal are breathing fumes rising from the relegation trapdoor.
On the evidence of the first month of the season, both teams are where they deserve to be.
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