17 February 2023

Arteta out-classed Guardiola. Sadly, our squad didn't out-class theirs...

For as much as the loss to Man City smarts, one thing became clear: Arteta had prepared his inferior squad more effectively than Guardiola had prepared his superior—or, at least deeper—squad. For the better part of an hour, in fact, Arteta had proven himself a better tactician than Guardiola, one of of the most successful managers of our generation. On multiple fronts and by most metrics, we outplayed our supposed betters...but we were undone by our own callowness and our own mistakes. On any other night, the scoreline could have and perhaps even should have gone the other way. Those who know me know I'm not prone to hyperbole, so take those measured words at face value.

For one, our pressing in that first hour was superb. A 3-2-4-1 man-marking press thoroughly discombobulated City to the point that Ederson was pinging long balls up toward midfield, a marked departure from their typical play-out-from-theback/tiki-taka hybrid. It got so bad at one point that Ederson even got booked for time-wasting...in the 36th minute. Saliba and Gabriel were strong enough in the air to win most of the aerial duels againstt Haaland. 

On those occasions when City were able to work their way up the pitch, we would retreat a bit into more of a 4-4-2 and were effective at stifling their attack in the final third. In fact, their only real chances of note came from our own misplaced passes (such as Tomiyasu's ill-fated half-hit back-pass upon which de Bruyne pounced) or from set-pieces. That's rather remarkable for an attacking side that included Haaland, de Bruyne, Mahrez, Gundogan, and Grealish.

From the other direction, Guardiola made the, um, unorthodox decision to ask Bernardo Silva to play as a left-back. I don't know if I've ever, ever heard of a manager playing his best right winger as a makeshift left-back, but Guardiola is nothing if not innovative. Maybe Arteta will steal this idea to try with Saka someday. At any rate, the decision very nearly backfired, with Saka rinsing Silva just about every time he had the ball at this feet. If Anthony Taylor had booked Silva on the second or third foul rather than on the fifth, we might have had a very different match. Silva would have had to give Saka more space, play more tentatively, or risk getting sent off. In the meantime, our attack funnelled through Saka to exploit Silva's clumsiness to near-lethal effect.

Speaking of that change as well as the broader tactical approach, Guardiola himself admitted that he "decided something new and it was horrible." Going further, he added. "we put Bernardo in the middle, not stupid enough to keep him lef-back".

On the other side, Martinelli's willingness to keep his heels on the touchline stretched City's defense and caused all sorts of problems for Kyle Walker, all the more so when Martinelli would move centrally to drag the defense out of shape and to create space for Zinchenko, forcing Walker to choose between Zinchenko on the ball out wide or Martinelli moving into the 18. All of this was to plan. Arteta's plan.

If it hadn't been for our own wayward passes, whether these were careless backpasses or overhit through-balls (how many times did Xhaka aim a howitzer at a teammate in a threatening position when a well-weighted ball could have led to a shot?), we might have gone into halftime defending a clean-sheet lead. In the end, though, we were undone by those unforced errors and not by anything Guardiola had planned or his players did. A savvier, more-experienced squad would have made good on Arteta's tactical masterclass.

The good news is that they'll get there...eventually. The better news is that it shows that we have a manager who's ready to put a young, desperately thin squad, one shorn of one of its most vital members on short notice, in a position to battle with if not beat one of the world's most-expensive, most-experienced squads. In the end, that's a lot of pretty words that don't earn any points. 

After all, the planning wasn't enough to overcome our own shortcomings, and Arteta ran out of time. On the hour, Guardiola made the adjustments he needed to correct his own miscalculations and account for Arteta's upper hand. He replaced Mahrez with Akanji and moved Aké to left-back to shore up the defense and restored Silva to his natural position, and it was within ten minutes that the tide turned and City found that second goal and ten minutes more that they found the third to put the match out of reach. Even that turning of the tide had just as much to do with us shooting ourselves in the foot as it did with them shooting the ball into the net.

We lick our wounds and we move on. It ain't over 'til the fat lady sings. It'll soon be water under a bridge. In other words,  don't make a meal of it.

While this wasn't quite a coming-of-age moment for the squad, it may yet represent a turning point. Many will point to it as a potential nadir or at least a tipping point when a season that felt filled with so much potential and so much success went sideways instead. At a risk of doing what I usually do—get overly optimistic, that is—I choose to see it differently, and I do so, I believe, for good reason. It's less than ideal to drop points in three consecutive matches and to let an eight-point lead evaporate along the way, but those who are writing our post-mortem are doing so far, far too early. 

This is a galvanising moment. For the second time inside of three weeks, we've lost to Man City. We've now lost 11 straight Prem matches to them. On the other hand, we had the upper hand against this squad for almost an hour because our manager out-classed theirs. Give us back one of Jesus or Partey, take away one of Haaland or de Bruyne, and we're six points clear with a game in hand instead of level on points with a game in hand. 

We have ten very winnable matches between now and when we face City again. Let's see where things stand then rather than rue where they stand now. Something tells me we'll be feeling quite a bit better...

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