What did we actually expect? Arsenal 0-1 Man City
By Alfie Cairns Culshaw (Chief Editor)
Raheem Sterling's 2nd minute header was enough for Manchester City to secure a comfortable victory at the Emirates, in which the gulf in quality between the two sides was certainly not reflected in the scoreline. This was a timely reminder of how far off we are from the best side in the country, but should by no means resurface a negative narrative around our side's blatant progression in recent months.
This was City's 12th consecutive win in the league as they moved 10 points clear at the top of the pile. In that run of 12 wins, they've conceded just two non-penalty goals and only four 'big chances' (xG > 0.2). This isn't the same Manchester City side that romped to the title two seasons in a row between 2017 and 2019, where they breezed past teams with attacking flair, scoring goal after goal but also being reasonably vulnerable on the counter at times with their high line. Guardiola has adapted this season, to being a team so incredibly good at controlling the game and completely shutting out the opposition, limiting them to virtually nothing offensively. This is reflected in their total xGA being significantly lower than anyone else's in the league with 19.3, compared to Chelsea's second best defence with 24.7. They don't concede good chances, particularly in the past two months.
City smother the opposition by retaining possession relentlessly and winning it back immediately on the few occasions when they lose it. If you don't have the ball, you can't build attacks and thus won't score. Arsenal arguably managed more than a lot of teams have this season against the soon to be champions, purely based off the fact we did manage 45% possession and were able to progress the ball into the final third on several occasions. Our issue was our use of the ball in these forward areas, which was too often wasteful or indecisive.
It must be said that City certainly took their foot off the gas somewhat after they opened the scoring. However, this is a common theme with their approach this season. Due to the fluid expansive football we've seen from them in prior years, there's a perception that they're a relentless attacking team that never stop trying to create opportunities. But this City team is far more pragmatic. Once they score, they generally focus on containment. They've scored fewer goals than Manchester United this season, and created fewer big chances than Liverpool. Their general levels of creativity have significantly declined this season, even compared to last. Guardiola clearly identified their issue last season as teams too regularly exposing their high line, and has thus rebuilt his side as one that focus' on defensive foundation.
The main frustration that has surfaced around our performance yesterday was our so called inability to take advantage of a relaxed City display after the first 15 minutes. However, two things must be noted to caveat this idea. One, surely there must be some level of recognition that maybe we played a part in negating their threat? After the 6th minute, City created just one big chance in the game. It's not as though they just decided not too attack- they had plenty of attacks which broke down through good defending from our backline and sitting midfielders. Two, this is what City are now. They control games in a way which appears they're stepping off it, but in reality they're just seeing it through, using their plethora of talented pressers and technical players to shut out the opposition. Our inability to break their control is not a unique issue to Manchester City's opposition. They've arguably done it in every single match they've played this season, barring a penalty-hot Leicester in September and a buoyant Leeds in October.
My general point is that the meltdown from certain sections of the fanbase based off of this one performance against the best team in Europe at the moment feels very unjustified. If you were expecting more from us, I feel as though you were being unrealistic. This isn't accepting mediocrity, it's having a sense of realism for where we are as a team. No-one thinks it's acceptable where we are as a club at the minute. For a club of our stature, we should be competing for major honours and be in and around the top four. However, due to the way the club has been run over the last 5-10 years, this is the position we unfortunately find ourselves in, and thus expectations must be tempered somewhat. Just because we shouldn't be here, it doesn't mean we aren't and that we should expect more than what we're capable of.
Don't let the mainstream media's dramatic narrative after a narrow loss to the team 10 points clear deflect from the obvious signs of progression in our performances over the last two months. Our metrics have improved drastically. We look much better on the eye. Certain players are improving dramatically. It may have taken huge amounts of suffering, but we do appear to be heading in the right direction.
Before this game, the fanbase almost entirely accepted this would be a game we'd likely lose. After this game, despite matching those expectations, people are in meltdown about it. Very strange.