When Mikel Arteta and Pep Guardiola come together, it always feels like the two great friends spent hours preparing the game trying to figure out how to beat each other.
The duo joined the hip for three years while Arteta was Guardiola’s assistant at Manchester City and they each know exactly how each other’s mind works.
So it might not have come as a surprise to see Arteta try something new at Etihad Stadium on Saturday night. But from the moment I saw Willian acting like a liar nine, I felt the Arsenal coach tried to be a little clever.
This tactic could have been something the team worked on intensely throughout the week at London Colney, and as always with Arteta, there was a lot of science behind the experience.
But it didn’t work out when the plan was put into place, as the Brazilian struggled to make any kind of impact when Arsenal lost 1-0. Raheem Sterling’s first-half goal proved decisive for the hosts.
Willian, who has struggled to make his mark at his new club since his impressive debut at Fulham at the opening weekend of the new season, was unable to get into the game at all and was comfortably witnessed by the wonderful Robin Dias before finally becoming a substitute for Alexander. Lacazette with 21 minutes remaining.
“I thought it was a match for him, the way City plays, the way they attract opponents and the spaces they can use,” Arteta said when asked about his decision to lead the attacking line with the Brazilian.
He was really convinced too. It was clearly difficult to leave two strikers on the bench, but it was a tactical decision.
“[It worked] Some moments are better than others. I think he will grow and understand this situation better as we use it on other occasions, and he might be surrounded by different players as well. But I am happy with the match he played. “
This seemed like an opportunity for Arsenal to beat the Manchester City side that had been without Kevin De Bruyne and Emeric Laporte who started the season in a somewhat principled manner.
But, as it has been the road for some time now outside North London against the “Big Six” in the Premier League, Arsenal has failed.
There are still some positives to be gained from the performance, especially in the first half when Ederson had to make three good saves, but it’s 29 games now since Arsenal went home to one of their top six competitors and won.
And if Arteta’s advanced team wants to challenge qualification for the Champions League this season, this is a series that must end sooner rather than later.
When the starting line-up was announced and Lacazette was on the bench, the assumption was that Pierre Emerick Aubameyang would start as a central striker in Arteta’s 3-4-3 formation for the first time this season.
But once the match started, it quickly became clear that Aubameyang was on the left again, with Willian taking the central role and Nicholas Pepe on the right.
It was a system that definitely allowed Arsenal to get into the game, and before Sterling’s goal in the 23rd minute, the guests frustrated their hosts and were happy with the way they settled.
But Riyad Mahrez’s excellent pass to Sergio Aguero suddenly gave City a chance to attack with the numbers and when Hector Bellerin allowed Phil Foden to cut, the danger signs were there for all to see.
Bernd Leno kept Foden’s shot, but was only able to block it back into the danger zone and Sterling was on hand to score his now-usual goal against Arsenal.
From that moment on, Arteta’s team has always chased the match. They had chances to come back on terms before halftime, with excellent Bukayo Saka and Obamyang both rejected by Ederson.
But after the interval they never looked like they were getting a draw. It was quite negative from visitors at a time when I felt City might be there to take it.
Even as Lacazette came to replace the ineffective Willian, he played a deeper role instead of sitting directly on Dias’ shoulder and trying to push the City defense back. This was just another example that Arteta’s team might be giving their hosts a lot of respect.
There was no late attack on the equalizer, and no barrage of attacks on City’s defense. In the end, Guardiola’s side saw the match relatively comfortably and that would be a disappointment for Arteta.
However, there were positives to be gained from the Arsenal defeat that is clearly more competitive now than when Arteta picked up the pieces left by Unai Emery less than a year ago.
Saka was impressive, Gabriel was once again exceptional in defense and Thomas Party was brought to the final stages to make his debut.
The Ghanaian international will soon become a key player in the starting line-up and his presence will likely see Arteta transform into a more attacking formation with a four back.
This should make Arsenal a bigger threat offensively as things unfold over the next couple of months and it is doubtful – given what we’ve seen in the league – that we’ll see Willian’s false nine again.