The entire season I had believed that we could still win the league yet before the game I belatedly admitted that had we fallen to Arsenal, I might have to fully concede the Premier League title. It’s funny then that following our win, when the margins between a victory and no victory was one goal, that I could be so convinced that we could pull off the title from Chelsea. In a sense, this victory truly felt like a watershed moment for Manchester City.
A tale of two halves
It was quite a pitiful first half from both teams, devoid of any structure or tactics, it was similar to that of a playground match up between different classes. City crumbled to give Arsenal the lead before attempted to crawl back in the game with a few close attempts of their own. In truth, City were poor in both boxes, keeping possession with little purpose. Arsenal themselves were even poorer yet looked dangerous when breaking.
The second half was startlingly different with City out the blocks quickly, bamboozling Arsenal’s soft core and overriding their team completely. In particularly two wingers and two ‘reserve’ midfielders caught the eye.
City’s star wingers
At twenty and twenty-two years respectively, Leroy Sané and Raheem Sterling could form the basis of City’s side for years to come. The two flashy wingers finally started together again against Arsenal and both performed brilliantly.
While initially starting on the right, Sané fluidly swapped wings with Sterling throughout the match and grabbed his goal coming in from the left side. Sterling meanwhile started on the left but got his goal from the right. Pep’s belief in giving his forwards the freedom to express themselves and play wherever they like works wonders with players like Sterling and Sané.
While many called for Nolito to be drafted in (City haven’t lost a game of which Nolito has played at least 30 minutes of), Pep made the correct decision by electing speed and directness over considered creativity. Sane hasn’t made the best of starts in England after his £37m move from Schalke but that was always going to be the case for a player so raw and with so few professional appearances under his belt. Against Arsenal, he bullied Monreal and knocked the wind out of him for Sterling to exploit later on. His explosive pace means he is a devastating player on the counter and his calmly-placed goal is testament to the confidence he now exhudes.
As for Sterling, he seems to go from strength to strength this season, demanding the ball and proving himself to be the real focal point of our attack. He has already bettered last season’s league numbers and if he continues his excellent form, he can be sure of a well-deserved PFA Player of the Year nomination.
City’s reserve midfield stake a claim
I had predicted back in the summer that Yaya Touré still had a major part to play in Guardiola’s plans and a few months down the line I did feel a little silly. But as our form dropped, suspensions and injuries kicked in, Pep had no choice but to draft in the City legend when, let’s remember, his agent still hadn’t apologised for his comments on Pep – which was the basis of his exclusion for so long.
Pep might be slightly arrogant, like all great coaches should be, but even he isn’t willing to go as far as derailing City’s season when midfield options had become so light in the hope of saving blush. So in he called Yaya and what a return on his investment that has been. Everyone who had wrote him off last year has been forced to eat their words by some sublime performances. The King of Africa has seriously rolled back the years this season and produced arguably his best performance so far against Arsenal. 111 touches, 98 passes with a 90% completion rate, 12 times possession gained; the stats paint a picture of a throwback dominant performance from the Ivorian and it certainly was so. While City originally struggled in both boxes, they smothered the Arsenal midfield from the go and Yaya dictated play with ease as the game went on.
It wasn’t all a one man job thought as he was helped by another reserve midfielder, Fernando. The Brazilian started his first league home game of the season and at first, it was easy to see why. He doesn’t move the ball like Fernandinho, not with the same quality nor with the same pace which is so vital for someone playing in that position. He more than anyone let the team down in the first half. But Pep clearly had a word at half time, as he instructed him to move away from the ball and follow Ozil or Sanchez around the pitch in the second half. He shielded Yaya Touré and let him get on the ball more which in turn meant City passed the ball around quicker and more incisively.
Fernando wasn’t a major part of Pep’s plans this summer but I doubt Yaya Touré was either. The two have showed they still have a lot to offer and while Yaya might be pushing for a regular first team role, Fernando has proved he can be a capable reserve option.