It is only one win and three points, but the impact on Arsenal of Sunday’s 1-0 victory over Manchester City could be profound. The Gunners had not beaten City in 15 previous Premier League meetings dating back to January 2015. They had suffered a staggering 12 consecutive defeats in that run including two last season, when they were outclassed and outmuscled as Pep Guardiola’s side secured a fifth title in six seasons.
In that context, there was a cathartic element to the celebrations greeting Gabriel Martinelli‘s deflected 86th-minute winner: eight years of pain and suffering exorcised in a moment that felt like the shattering of a glass ceiling.
City were well below par — more of that later — but Arsenal were without talismanic winger Bukayo Saka for the first time in 88 consecutive league games and still found a way to beat English football’s leading side and end a hoodoo that has inevitably chipped away at their self-belief. Instead, they now have a positive reference point for future challenges, memories of an experience to rival any Arsenal have enjoyed inside Emirates Stadium which was a picture of euphoria at the final whistle.
“I don’t know if it was a barrier but obviously it was something we needed to go through,” said Arteta. “To beat them we have to lose against them, we have to lose probably the way we lost at the Etihad. We lost in two different ways last season, here where we were the better team. The team showed a real maturity today, that comes from experiences. Sometimes you need that to become a better team. Certainly it sends a message to the team to keep believing in what they’re doing because they’re a fantastic group of players. They way they try and the chemistry that they have, you need it to be there. So I’m really proud.”
For long periods, Sunday’s game was a cagey, tactical affair. For periods of the second half, it was plain dull.
Almost ludicrously given the calibre of opposition, this was Arsenal’s first clean sheet at home in the league this season. Arteta explained that porous record by his team struggling to handle the emotion of certain occasions, trying to attack too quickly and leaving themselves exposed. They were much more balanced here, restricting City to four shots and only one shot on target, which came in the fourth minute as Josko Gvardiol turned an effort toward goal which Declan Rice cleared off the line before Nathan Aké blazed over moments later.
It was the most threatening City were all afternoon, a testament to the manner in which William Saliba and Gabriel Magalhaes kept Erling Haaland quiet as well as Rice making 13 defensive interventions — a figure only surpassed by Gvardiol on either side. Haaland ended with an individual expected goals figure of 0.00.
Arsenal goalkeeper David Raya faced frustration from home supporters on multiple occasions as he waited in possession to play the ball, something Arteta took responsibility for.
“It’s my fault, all my fault,” he said. “They can boo me. I asked him to do that. Especially against this team, you start to do other things and you get in big, big, big trouble. He was excellent, the way he dominated his box, the way he came up for crosses in set pieces. He’s got big ones. The crowd go like this, other players start to kick balls everywhere. I said to him make sure you don’t do it.”
But this defeat also raises questions about City’s ability to cope without Kevin de Bruyne and Rodri after slipping to back-to-back league defeats for the first time since December 2018. De Bruyne was instrumental in both City victories over Arsenal last season. There remains no other midfielder in the league capable of matching his ingenuity in possession.
But given the combative nature of this game — particularly away from home — Rodri’s absence felt equally significant. They have now lost five of their last eight league away games in which Rodri hasn’t started. Their overall win record since his league debut in August 2019 is 74 per cent. That drops to below 60 per cent without him and they have now lost to Newcastle in the Carabao Cup, Wolves last weekend and Arsenal here as he serves a three-game suspension.
“Rodri is a really important player like the other ones, for the fact that the last years he played a lot of games,” said Guardiola. “The Carabao Cup game was a little bit different but the game against Wolves was important, today as well. We know it. It doesn’t matter, but when he is not there, we need to find a way to do it.”
Spare a thought for Kalvin Phillips, who was told he came back from the World Cup last season overweight, then hearing Guardiola admitted he can’t get the best out of him after City made a late move to sign Rice before he joined Arsenal from West Ham and now unable to get on the pitch — even as a substitute — when Rodri is out for the biggest game of the season so far.
“The fact we didn’t have Rodri, I wanted to have more protection with the ball. Players that are really good with the ball — Bernardo, Kovacic and Rico — players in the middle that had the ability to turn and attack,” Guardiola said.
It could have been a much easier afternoon for Arsenal had Kovacic seen red, either for his first bad tackle on Martin Odegaard — for which he was booked — or the second on Rice, for which he escaped censure entirely.
But the fact they won 11 versus 11 will have more meaning for them in the long run, although Guardiola will hardly panic given they overhauled an eight-point deficit to Arsenal at the beginning of April. The gap now is just two points to the Gunners and Tottenham — who top the table going into the international break courtesy of their north London rivals beating City.
“No team has ever won four [titles] in a row,” Guardiola said. “Defeats can happen, but we are in October. Sometimes it is good going behind. It is not the first time going behind for the contenders up front last season we were much, much behind. The season is long. We recover people coming back, try to break [the losing run] immediately as soon as possible against tough opponents like Brighton and United. You know the situation and continue.”
City know they can last the course. But Arsenal now have more belief than ever they could yet do the same.