Arteta’s anti-football may cost Arsenal the Premier League

Sam McGuire
Mikel Arteta, Erling Haaland, Pep Guardiola, Arsenal

Arsenal’s 0-0 draw with Manchester City at the Etihad has divided opinion.

Some believe Mikel Arteta and his team should be lauded for their approach to the game after ending Man City’s 57-game streak of scoring at home. The Gunners put in a defensive masterclass to limit the reigning champions for the second time this season. Erling Haaland, the leading goalscorer in the Premier League this term with 18, finished the game with an Expected Goals total of just 0.31.

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The 0-0 draw meant Arteta has masterminded two clean sheets against his former employers while claiming four points. The result did see them lose top spot to Liverpool but they remain within striking distance of the Reds with just nine matches left to play.

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Arsenal did what they felt they had to do to get a result at the Etihad.

Their approach to the game, however, was quite eye-opening. The Gunners had the opportunity here to create a four-point gap between themselves and the champions if they managed to pick up a victory. And if there was ever a time to go for it against City, it was probably now.

Pep Guardiola was without Ederson between the sticks while skipper Kyle Walker was also ruled out and John Stones was only fit enough for the bench. To complicate things further for the hosts, Nathan Ake was replaced inside the opening 23 minutes with an injury. It was a weakened City backline up against an Arsenal team with reinforcements.

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Arteta named a front three of Gabriel Jesus, Kai Havertz and Bukayo Saka with Leandro Trossard and Gabriel Martinelli coming off of the bench in the second half.

Despite this, Arsenal seemed content with defending deep and looking to frustrate their hosts. They finished the game having had just 28% possession. Arteta has been praised for his pragmatic approach. The Gunners didn’t play into City’s hands and instead looked to contain their hosts. They were well organised, compact and the players seemed to appreciate that this game was about controlling space rather than dominating the ball.

It was very much a performance 2004 Jose Mourinho would’ve been proud of. And this is what is rubbing people up the wrong way.

Arteta is regularly praised for, well, everything. He’s lauded for turning this young Arsenal side into title contenders. The way he’s gotten them playing is analysed to the nth degree on social media and heralded by the masses.

The narrative is that Arsenal are so good tactically that they’re able to impose themselves on any team. They’re able to play their game and play it well, no matter the opposition.

Their system is fluid, their approach is meticulous and everything about their style is controlled. And yet here at the Etihad, they went into safety mode. You can dress it up however you want but the fact is, Arsenal went into that game looking to not lose rather than looking to win.

Arteta clearly didn’t believe his team, his tactics and his style could beat the champions at the Etihad. It doesn’t exactly send out the right message, does it? They showed too much respect to a weakened City team and they are rightly being criticised for it.

Because while City are unbeaten at home this season in the Premier League, four of the 14 matches ahead of Sunday’s clash with Arsenal had been draws. The champions had drawn almost 30% of their home fixtures. Not just that, though, they had conceded goals in those games.

Chelsea took a point off them in a 1-1 draw and racked up an Expected Goals haul of 1.44 at the Etihad. Crystal Palace scored twice, albeit one of those was a penalty, in a 2-2 draw. Spurs, somehow, hit the champions for three while also finishing the game having had 45% of the possession. Liverpool salvaged a point with a late strike in November. The Reds weren’t perfect but did finish the game with 40% possession. They also carved out some decent openings against City.

The point is that Chelsea, Spurs and Liverpool all played their normal game at the Etihad and got something from the game. Palace adopted a defensive approach but looked dangerous in transitions. Arsenal shelved their normal game and looked blunt during transitional moments, allowing City to regain possession with relative ease.

Should a team with an opportunity to land a blow in a title race really be praised for a defensive performance? Should a manager be lauded for turning his back on his famed and favoured style of play when it matters most? Will the Gunners look back at this draw as a missed opportunity in a couple of weeks? There are lots of unanswered questions following this game. Arteta needs to answer them moving forward.

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