In the 15 excruciatingly long years between 1991 and 2006, Manchester City registered not a single victory over Arsenal. To say the Gunners had become a bogey team was to underestimate the state of affairs quite radically.
Between 2006 and 2011, ten wins have fallen City’s way and it is impossible to ignore the evidence that the tide has turned. So irrevocably has it turned, in fact, that these days Arsenal show up at the Etihad as plucky underdogs.
Those that remember the
5-1 defeat to Arsene Wenger’s side at Maine Road will recall a match so one-sided that City were four down after 19 minutes, staring bleakly at a complete and utter pulverising.
Arsenal were applauded off at half-time by a home crowd brought to their feet by the brilliance they had witnessed. The match remains one of the outstanding performances by a visiting side to Manchester City over the last 30 years.
These days it is City who possess in Kevin de Bruyne, the passing range of Dennis Bergkamp; in Sergio Aguero, the goal power of Thierry Henry; and in Gabriel Jesus, the light touch of fantasy supplied by Robert Pires.
Even more frighteningly they can add to that the wide running of Raheem Sterling and Leroy Sane, the powerful bursts of Kyle Walker, and the metronomic balance of Fernandinho.
Despite this cavalcade of talent, it is further back that one of the greatest differences can be seen. In Ederson Moraes, Pep Guardiola has, at last, found himself a goalkeeper capable of carrying out his ambitious plans. The Brazilian has had such a galvanising effect on the pair in front of him that Nicolas Otamendi is unrecognisable from the horizontal projectile of earlier years and John Stones looks more like a marriage of Franz Beckenbauer and Bobby Moore as the weeks go by.
With Fernandinho growing into — in his manager’s words — one of the world’s top three holding midfielders, it is hardly a surprise that the records are falling: 52 goals in all competitions; unbeaten since an FA Cup semi-final defeat to Arsenal last April; Aguero beating Eric Brook’s record of 177 City goals, which has stood since fans arrived at a poorly lit Maine Road by penny farthing. To top it all, this win gave Guardiola himself, king of myriad Barcelona and Bayern victories down the years, his best-ever start to a season.
Here, the dizzying interchange of passing did not work quite so well, the high-energy high press did not faze Arsenal as much as it should, the runaway train had to stop to take on water, and even the immaculate Ederson let Lacazette’s straightforward shot flip through his hands.
Still Arsenal — masters of the grand pass, purveyors of the beautiful game — were swatted away like a minor irritant.
At the centre of it all, two players, who are the heart-beat of this wonderful side: De Bruyne, Chelsea’s infamous €60m misfit, plays it long, plays it short, plays those tricky little curled-with-end-of his-toe short passes that ripple pass the outstretched boot ends. The passes may not quite have found their laser tracking on this occasion, but the Belgian remained a thorn in Arsenal’s side and ripped in a lovely left-footed opener.
There among the maelstrom of tippy-tappy midfielders stood a familiar face, long now in experience and perhaps slightly unheralded alongside some of his more fancied new team mates.
David Silva’s hair has gone but his skills remain: Now adorned with the captain’s armband, the little Spaniard finished this punishing game head and shoulders above the rest, dancing through a clogged midfield with no one able to dispossess his twinkling feet. With Arsenal’s uncustomary black shirts left in his wake, he trailed three through the middle, then mesmerised four more on the right wing.
The old guard of Yaya, Hart, and Kompany may have been replaced, but little Silva remains indispensable.
So, City and Arsenal bid each other farewell, with the Blues heading out at the top of the table and Arsenal skulking back south to lick their wounds. Football’s great cycles continue to turn and — as we wait for 2018 to dawn — these two teams seem irrevocably to be heading in opposite directions.
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