3 Hot Takes: Arsenal beat Man City, Brighton hold Liverpool, FIFA put the "World" in World Cup
More thoughts on what we've been seeing.
Ok, it’s a day later than I normally want to put these out by, but it’s not like anything new is happening with the international break. Still figuring out how much of these hot takes to put out for free so, for clarity, the first of these takes is the longest and most detailed. Let’s get into it.
Stats are from FBRef unless stated otherwise.
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1. Arsenal beat Man City to make title race statement
This was a really tight game Arsenal did just enough in to get the three points.
I’m told it was nail-bitingly tense then deliriously thrilling for Arsenal fans. As a neutral, this game was pretty disappointing, to be honest. Both teams had a few key injuries, meaning Mikel Arteta and Pep Guardiola made a couple of tactical surprises. Arteta’s biggest decision was about replacing injured Bukayo Saka on the right. Arsenal don’t have another left-footed natural winger, so he had to tweak the system a little bit. Gabriel Jesus was moved out to the right, though he got some support with Martin Ødegaard drifting over to that side even more than he normally does. Eddie Nketiah played as the nine. In a classic “big game” move, Arteta switched to a double pivot midfield with Jorginho joining Declan Rice. In a different sort of game, that might give Rice more license to get forward. But this was not a day for midfielders pushing up, and Rice actually dropped into the defensive line at times to fill in for Oleksandr Zinchenko moving into midfield.
Guardiola’s main concern was also in midfield. “The fact that we didn’t have Rodri”, he explained after the match, “I wanted to put more protection with the ball, players who are really good with the ball: Bernardo [Silva], [Mateo Kovačić] and Rico [Lewis], and have players in the middle who have the ability to turn and attack”. He surprised everyone by playing Silva in the “Rodri role” as the deepest midfielder, clearly for that passing quality. Julián Álvarez started on the right with Phil Foden on the left, but both were pretty narrow. Without his usual dual number tens in possession (as I touched on last week), he needed to pull his wingers in more narrow to attack those half-spaces.
As you’ve probably heard by now, City took just four shots against Arsenal, their fewest in a league match since Guardiola took over. What you might not know is that two of those four shots came from a single corner in the first five minutes. Foden’s ball swings all the way to Joško Gvardiol, who would’ve scored with his left foot if Rice hadn’t cleared it off the line. Arsenal do a poor job of clearing it, letting City get it straight back in front of goal only for Nathan Aké to put it over the bar when he should’ve at least hit the target.
That was four minutes in. At minute 33, Ederson launched it straight to Erling Haaland, who held up the ball well and played in Álvarez, only for the Argentine player to blast it way too high from outside the box. At minute 57, City work it from back to front pretty quickly, only for the sequence to end in Álvarez shooting straight into a sea of Arsenal defenders.
Those were all the shots Man City took.1
For as tight as the expected goals were, Arsenal dominated the shot count pretty comfortably and, outside of that one corner, City created just 0.10 xG. As in, you run the simulation over and over, and City only score in one of every ten simulated matches other than that corner. Arteta really scaled back the press and was happy to have his team sit in a block for long stretches. When they had the ball, they were always looking to get it down the right flank, attacking City’s left channel of Kovačić, Gvardiol and Aké. They kept launching chipped balls into Jesus and others on that flank. Kovačić in particular had a bit of a nightmare and should’ve been sent off before halftime.
This was a pretty straightforward game. Arsenal launched it into that right channel, while City launched it towards Haaland looking for him to bring others into the game. Arsenal got a late winner against a tiring defence. It was not the most aesthetically beautiful football either team have ever played, but it worked for Arsenal.
“That’s three of City’s last four league games with at least some attacking issues”, I wrote last week. Make that four of the last five now (yes, I know they beat Fulham 5-1, but they scored those five goals from seven shots!). In all fairness, they did look very good against RB Leipzig. I still don’t think the midfield fluidity is quite right. A lot of that is down to missing Rodri, who will be back soon, and a fit Kevin De Bruyne obviously makes a huge difference. But I still think Ilkay Gündoğan’s exit is underappreciated. His replacement, Kovačić, is one of the best in the world at retaining the ball under pressure. But he can’t pass it forward with such fluidity or break into the box like Gündoğan. Guardiola has been instead moving Foden inside from wide positions a lot, and using Álvarez as a box threat arriving from midfield, but I don’t think it’s as fluid as it was last season. This was the first game in a hard run of fixtures, and they can’t afford to fail again.
Keep reading after the break for my thoughts on Liverpool’s draw with Brighton and FIFA’s unusual plans for the 2030 World Cup.