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Ken Early: Arsenal and Manchester City have produced three appalling matches this season

Guardiola’s team are sluggish and have won only three of their last six in the league. This is not the kind of surge you expect from them at this point in the season

It makes sense that the coaches – who else? – should star in the defining images of this terrible game. The first was the glazed look on the face of Leandro Trossard as he stood waiting to come on, with Mikel Arteta gripping him tightly and speaking urgently into his ear for what seemed an extraordinary length of time.

Twenty minutes later a version of the same hollow-eyed stare could be seen on the face of Jack Grealish as Pep Guardiola marched over to him and, in full view of the stadium and the millions watching on TV, shouted and gesticulated in his face for what must have been 20 of the more galling seconds of his life. Guardiola then turned away to start another altercation with Gabriel Magalhães.

Grealish, plainly deemed an unworthy cog in the Pep machine for the 30 minutes he had been allowed on the pitch, took his verbal beating without arguing back (he’s not Kevin de Bruyne, he doesn’t have the numbers to get away with it). When Pep is in your face like that the best course is to withdraw into your mind palace, there perhaps to remember a time when football used to be fun.

Grealish wasn’t the only one feeling that way after 90 minutes of City v Arsenal, in which Arteta and Guardiola served up their latest helping of hyper-systematised, state-of-the-art shit on a stick.


Clearly these teams are a few generations more evolved than the José Mourinho and Rafael Benitez sides of the mid-2000s that prompted Jorge Valdano to coin that ugly yet indispensable phrase. To give a basic example, today’s City average nearly 700 passes per game; S.O.A.S.-era Liverpool and Chelsea averaged around 450. As people often say, it might as well be a different sport.

But different doesn’t always mean better. Arsenal and City – two of the best teams in Europe – have come together to produce three absolutely appalling matches this season.

The first was the Community Shield, won by Arsenal on penalties after a turgid 1-1 draw. The first 45 minutes of that were an almost surreal spectacle as City stood around at the back baiting the press and Arsenal stubbornly refused to comply, resulting in a bizarre kind of null outcome, a non-match.

The goals that day came courtesy of deflections that fouled the coaches’ carefully-constructed defensive mechanisms. It was the same in the dire league game at the Emirates in October, when Arsenal had two shots on target and City had zero. Towards the end of that one Gabriel Martinelli’s speculative shot was deflected past Ederson by Nathan Ake’s face for 1-0.

Maybe that was the problem at the Etihad on Sunday: no deflections. Even deflections are powerless to influence the outcome when you have a striker like Gabriel Jesus, who refuses to buy a ticket for the deflection lottery. Watching Jesus fake and fake and fake his shot again on the edge of the City box, having been set up by Declan Rice, you wondered what kind of invitation he would require to actually shoot.

Maybe he was worried about what his manager would say if he gave the ball away in such a dangerous position. The areas in which players are encouraged to take risks have evolved, along with everything else. There was a good example on 26 minutes when Stefan Ortega rolled a sideways ball to Mateo Kovacic, who had retreated into the back line to commence the play-it-out flowchart. Bukayo Saka closed him down, cutting off the options. Kovacic dropped the shoulder and jinked past Saka, sitting him down, to cheers from the crowd.

It was pretty much all anyone had to cheer in what was one of the most stagnant halves of football of the season. It’s so rare to see players take on their opponents one-on-one, but when it does happen it’s in the defensive rather than the attacking third. Until Jeremy Doku appeared in the second half hardly anybody in the game even tried to beat an opponent in an attacking area.

As the players rinsed and repeated the same sterile passing patterns you longed for a flash of spontaneity or surprise... but who knows how the coaches might react to what they might take to be the wrong kind of risk.

A satisfied-looking William Saliba insisted after the game that Arsenal were “not satisfied” with the draw, but their true intent was obvious from the behaviour of their keeper David Raya. Raya spent the second half setting up his goal kicks as though he was about to play it short, then “changing his mind” and ushering everyone forward so he could kick it long. He was eventually booked for timewasting in the 79th minute, but it was worth it.

Arteta had sent his team out not to lose. Somewhere out there George Graham must have been weeping with pride at the sight of his old team’s defensive organisation. At times in the second half the action on the edge of their box looked like a game of five-a-side in a lift. With de Bruyne, Erling Haaland and Phil Foden all below par, City were not sharp enough to find the way through. Arsenal could have taken the win with better finishing, but Havertz, Jesus and Trossard wasted the opportunities when they came.

The tiny spaces seemed to be crying out for Julian Alvarez, but Guardiola didn’t use him, maybe because Alvarez had been playing for Argentina against Costa Rica in Los Angeles in the early hours of Thursday morning.

Whatever the reason there is something uncharacteristically sluggish about City, who have won only three of their last six in the league. This is not the kind of surge you expect from them at this point in the season. Afterwards Guardiola kept referring to Arsenal’s “physicality”, and maybe there was a hint in this repetition of what he knew his side had been missing.