While Arsenal ran Manchester City close for most of the campaign last season, when the chips were down in the spring they got mauled by the Citizens twice, as well as other boneheaded results that eventually left them up the track. It was this version of Arsenal’s first crack at a title challenge, so some indiscretions were expected, but they were a little too gung-ho at times, a little naive at times, and just a little too unstable to hold on.
We’ll have to call them a quick study, as in their first game with City this season they were far more cagey and controlled, and waiting for the chance to take a 1-0 victory, which didn’t come until Gabriel Martinelli bank-shotted one off Nathan Ake for the game’s only goal.
“Cagey” can often be a word for boring…and this wasn’t all that different. While the tactical battle wowed some, Arsenal were clearly wary of falling into the same trap they did in last year’s game in North London, where they get a little too out over their skis, and City disemboweled them on the break. It was pretty much the same story for the title clincher back in Manchester later in the season. Jorginho and Declan Rice stayed on top of their back four for most of the match, all too aware of what City might do if they got space on the counter. It also led to something of a passive opening from Arsenal, who didn’t manage a shot on target in the first half.
City weren’t exactly putting a foot to their throat either though, wary of what might happen to them on the break without Rodri. The two teams didn’t combine for even 1.0 xG for the match, and there were three shots on target the whole match.
Or maybe the difference was that Arsenal have Rice now, where they didn’t last year. While City tried to weave their pretty patters through midfield, Rice was usually there to break it up, and also somehow get to the other end too to aid in attacks. It was thought that moving to Arsenal would see Rice calm his all-action ways, and focus more on being a defensive shield, and a table-setter for their array of attacking talent. But it’s probably silly to spend that much money on a player and not ask him to do all the things he can do.
Rice is certainly a stat-sheet filler, with four interceptions, 90 percent accuracy on his passing, created two chances, four recoveries, should have gotten Mateo Kovacic sent off (more on this later) and a partridge in a pear tree. Especially without Rodri, City were susceptible to someone bending the midfield to their will. They ran up against a player up to the task in Rice.
Arsenal’s chaos-tendencies aren’t completely gone. Their 2-2 draw against Spurs proves that. Their loss in Lens in the Champions League earlier in the week showed that too. But without their best player (Bakayo Saka), and facing the sternest test, they showed that maturity, and control are now in the holster.
What else went down this past weekend?
4. Chris McTominay bails out United…for now
One never knows where a turning point in a season will come, and United will hope that Scott McTominay’s Hail Mary double in injury time to rob Brentford of any points could be it. It could also be merely a diversion, with their problems simply reappearing as soon as they swing back into action after the international break.
Because there was serious Ten Hag face going on all match before they just started punting the ball into the box in the dying minutes. Once again, United were Rashford-centric, and with him off-form they weren’t all that threatening. Casemiro was once again a disaster, culpable for the goal Brentford did get, and hauled off at halftime. Sofyan Amrabat was better once he didn’t have to carry around Casemiro’s carcass in the 2nd half, but still not grabbing the game by the throat.
McTominay got them a win and at least kept the headlines from being the same for two weeks. But the structure still seems faulty. They’ll get two games against Copenhagen in the Champions League to pad the stats, as well as two of three Premier League games against Sheffield United, and Fulham out of the break. The third one…is against City. Can’t have everything.
3. VAR continues to confound
Fans and players complaints about VAR, much like any player’s in any sport, is about consistency. Somehow, Mateo Kovacic stayed on the field after these two fouls:
Both of these contain the same elements that got Curtis Jones sent off last week after a VAR review:
Players and fans would be excused for not knowing what’s going on. But as has been repeated ad nauseam, the problem with VAR is that it’s still run by people. And two people are going to see these three tackles differently. It’s still rolling the dice.
2. Chelsea appear to be close to upright
Chelsea actually looked like a real live soccer team, even if they’ve gotten to beat up on Fulham and Burnley in the last two matches. Can only play who’s on the schedule and all that. Most of the work was done by Raheem Sterling, who scored or assisted/created all four goals. Sterling has been one of the league’s best players to open the season and appears to be on a personal revenge tour against Gareth Southgate who hasn’t named him to the last two England squads. Enviable depth on the wings when a team doesn’t require Sterling at all.
At least Cole Palmer seems to be at least thinking about matching him on the other side. He netted a penalty and had an assist, and will be more effective when he can combine with a left-back who can overlap him when he cuts inside instead of Cucurella who always wants to pass on his left foot from the right. Needs must, however.
Given their injury crisis, Mauricio Pochettino had to improvise with Marc Cucurella, perhaps the most left-footed player you’ll find, playing at right back. That’s life sometimes. We’ll find out more about Chelsea coming out of the break, as they face Arsenal, and Spurs in the three games after the break.
1. Fulham pull a homer?
Does Fulham’s Tom Cairney do exactly what Magic Johnson did in the “I Pulled A Homer” episode of The Simpsons?
Sheffield United aren’t very good but it feels like just about everything is going against them. When a player can reference something over 30 years old against you for the win, it’s probably not your year.
Follow Sam on Twitter @Felsgate and on Bluesky @felsgate.bsky.social
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