The Rebound: the unexpected real losers of Arsenal’s ‘root canal’ win over Man City
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If there’s one phrase in the football lexicon that really damns a game, it’s “like a chess match”, and few descriptions could be more apt for Arsenal’s win over Manchester City, which may turn out to be one of the most pivotal games of the season but was certainly one of the least exciting.
Some gratitude should probably be offered up to Kyle Walker, at least, for ensuring that the game ended up closer to an exhibition of the noble sport of chess boxing when he sparked a petty touchline row at the end of the game – a vaguely entertaining diversion at the end of ninety drab, cagey minutes.
Shorn of the suspended Rodri, the injured Kevin de Bruyne and the departed Ilkay Gündoğan, Manchester City’s midfield lacked purpose and penetration, while Mikel Arteta’s side seemed to be terrified to try anything too venturesome. The scars of the Gunners’ two terminal defeats to City last season were apparent, although quite why a visibly spooked David Raya should bear them is unclear.
Such a game was always likely to be decided by either a stroke of genius or a stroke of luck, and it turned out to be the latter when Gabriel Martinelli’s long-range effort flicked off of Nathan Aké’s head and past the a helpless Ederson. Arsenal fans will likely observe, not unfairly, that their slice of fortune balanced out City’s own when Michael Oliver declined to show Mateo Kovačić a second yellow card when he lunged into a tackle just moments after giving VAR some work with a bad challenge on Martin Ødegaard. Had the Croatian been sent off, it could have changed the course of the game – which would have been a mercy, given the tepid waters it sailed into thereafter.
How big of a dent does the defeat put in City’s title defence? Probably a fairly small one, for now. It is, lest we forget, entirely characteristic of Pep Guardiola’s recent sides to have a wobble at some point in the season (usually involving a defeat to Crystal Palace) before hitting their straps again and winning about 16 games on the spin. Rodri and De Bruyne will both be back before too long, and no doubt they’ll start churning points out once more – but Arsenal have at least earned the kind of edge that they never achieved last season.
As for the Gunners themselves, it was a great result and one that allows them to spend the international break looking down on everyone except Spurs, after Ange Postecoglou’s side scraped a win at Kenilworth Road despite Yves Bissouma’s entry into the British Diving Championships, which earned him a second yellow card and the tutting of half the watching public.
Tottenham seem to have acquired the habit of picking points up when they could so easily be dropped, something alien to any Spurs side that has come before. Postecoglou celebrated sending his side top of the league by attending the American football game being played at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium the following day, prompting pundit and former NFL defensive end Osi Umenyiora to say that if he’d managed Spurs to the top of the table, he’d “be walking around like Jesus Christ himself”, which is probably a better summary than any commentators specialising in our version of football could ever manage.
Speaking of miraculous figures, mention must also be made of Scott McTominay, who rose from the grave – or at least the Manchester United bench – to save Erik ten Hag’s skin with a stoppage-time brace against Brentford. The second was even teed up by fellow outcast Harry Maguire, who played pretty well. It’s a bit early to describe it as a second coming, perhaps, but his showing likely gave Gareth Southgate a warm and fuzzy feeling for the afternoon.
United started in typically inept fashion – a backline made up entirely of Mr. Bean clones could scarcely have committed more errors in the build-up to Mathias Jensen’s goal – but eventually got enough control of the game to give the team psychologist sufficient time to talk McTominay into believing he was playing for Scotland before bringing him on to win the game the way he always does for the national team.
The 2-1 win over the Bees gave United fans a weekend off from life as the laughing stock of the league, and also sees Thomas Frank’s side slip dangerously close to the bottom three – after a strong start, Brentford have quietly slid down the table and now find themselves on the same points total as Everton, which may just set a few alarm bells ringing in their corner of London.
The same bells will be clanging a little more loudly on the south coast, mind you, after Bournemouth took a 3-0 tonking at Goodison Park, leaving them winless after eight games. The free-flowing and piratical football promised under new coach Andoni Iraola has yet to materialise, while the defence has become distinctly porous. Something has to give, and it’s beginning to look like it shouldn’t have been Gary O’Neil.
As for the rest of the league? Well, draws for Liverpool and Newcastle United will see them lose a step in what looks likely to be a very tense battle for the top four, a big win for Chelsea over an admittedly awful Burnley side gives Mauricio Pochettino a little bit more breathing room as he looks to resuscitate the West London side, and near-neighbours Fulham might be a bit mediocre but are at least better than Sheffield United, who are looking distinctly ‘Derby County circa 2008’. The scrap for Champions League qualification may be tense, but the race to the bottom is really heating up down at the business end of the table.
There really are quite a lot of very bad teams in the Premier League right now, and watching them flail ineptly at each other for the rest of the campaign isn’t a very appealing prospect. It says quite a lot about the teams currently clogging up the relegation zone that none of them have even been able muster a better points total than Luton, who hover just above the drop right now. Watching Arsenal and City might have been like pulling teeth, but some of those six-pointers down the stretch will feel like the root canals are being done at the same time.