With four out of the new season’s predicted top six in the clubhouse with maximum points, the stage was set at the Emirates Stadium for the remaining two to slug it out to keep parity with the others.
Tottenham and FC United of Stretford laboured to secure their wins whereas Chelsea, lambs to the slaughter at Wembley last week disposed easily of Huddersfield Town and Liverpool fancied by many as City major challengers this season, even more so hammered the Hammers in a 4-0 trouncing that sees them sitting at the top of the early bird tree.
Arsenal, resplendently minus Arsene Wenger as the new era dawns, welcomed in a new manager in the shape of Unai Emery, a selection of new players, new shapes and, no doubt, new tactics.
Would they be enough to disturb a side, in Manchester City, Centurion Champions last season, who have already stated that last season’s efforts are only the starting point for this season?
Guardiola sprang a couple of early surprises keeping De Bruyne and Sane on the bench and David Silva out of the squad as he is not 100% ready for the new season following a difficult period in his personal life followed by the World Cup.
No matter that, we saw last week that Bernardo Silva is stepping up to the plate as a more than adequate replacement. Would we see that again today?
Ederson returned to guard the goals, with Walker, Stones, Laporte, and Mendy providing a mobile-looking back line. Captain for the weekend was Fernandinho playing alongside Gundogan and Bernardo, with new-boy Mahrez and returning Sterling flanking Aguero. It was a strong-looking side although eyebrows were probably raised at the absences of De Bruyne and Sane.
It was clearly a different set of Gooners that started the match. Gone, to an extent, was the comfort zones of the latter stages of the Wenger era as Arsenal looked to get off on the front foot and present City with issues. It was a while before City took control of the ball and during this period Sterling blotted his copybook by collecting a yellow card for a foul on Arsenal debutant Guendouzi.
The much-maligned England forward, panned almost daily during the World Cup, without justification, did, however, continue with the energy he showed in that competition and interacted at once with Mendy, like a new signing in himself. There was a series of neat overlapping football between the two to lay the foundations for a scintillating opening 20 minutes.
Within that time period Raheem put the caution behind him and after 14 minutes he received a pass from Mendy, wide-out. He looked up, nothing on. He stepped into the next channel, nothing on, he drove into the centre slot and bingo. His low curling shot found the corner of the net and City’s season was up and running.
The Blues should ideally have gone on and rubbed the redo noses in the dirt, but fair play to Arsenal, despite Petr Cech probably having more touches than almost any other of their players in the first half, they stuck to their task and after City scorned several chances, Bellerin got on the end of an error that started at Mahrez’s door and with Mendy caught out of position, he got a free shot on goal which Ederson did well to keep out.
The effect of Mendy pressing ahead gave Laporte quite a bit to do at the back, not only having to do his job to quell Aubameyang, but also to keep an eye out wide where Mendy was, at times, missing. Laporte gave quite a masterly performance in the first half and was unlucky not to put City 2-0 ahead.
Arsenal, however, 3-0 down at this stage of last season’s match at the Emirates would have been happy to get to the break only 0-1 down. It was sad to see their young prodigy Maitland-Niles forced off through injury following a tangle with Walker. Playing out of position, he was given a torrid first half an hour by the combination of Mahrez and Walker. He made way for Lichtsteiner, a seasoned Swiss international, who would need to use all his experience against the threat of Mahrez and Walker.
There were changes at the break as City prepared to set the second half in motion.
As much as he would have loved the opening part of the first half, I’m sure Pep would have been disappointed with the last fifteen. Two or three times Mahrez was sloppy, inviting pressure and although City dealt with it, it did leave Arsenal with some optimism for the second period.
In the early exchanges City had Arsenal penned-in their own half and first Mendy and then Aguero were presented with opportunities. City didn’t make the most of them.
Whatever Arsenal were doing in a positive sense was largely born out of City’s lethargy, which couldn’t be pleasing Guardiola. Following a caution for Zhaka, Emery had seen enough of the ineffective Ramsay and introduced a new threat in the shape of Lacazette, an absentee from the French World Cup squad. This meant a change as Aubameyang went out wide left to accommodate the Frenchman.
Almost immediately the warning signs were there for City as Lacazette shot on sight and should have evened it up. This changed the mood around the Emirates and the silent thousands were suddenly roused. There was more of a press from the Arsenal front men. It was rapidly becoming time for Kevin De Bruyne.
Sure enough, ahead of the hour where there had been some controversy between Lichtsteiner and Laporte, Mahrez was sacrificed. Enter KDB.
By this time Arsenal looked most likely to score but Aguero did get clear and with De Bruyne open to his left he hit a poor shot straight at Cech, to the chagrin of the Belgian. However, in the next move, the Mendy-Sterling axis came to the fore, exchanging passes down the left. Mendy looked up saw his ex-Monaco team-mate Bernardo drifting off the defence. He squared the ball and Bernardo hit a screamer into the net. Would this dishearten the Gooners?
Well, no. Arsenal tried to put themselves about and attained their first corner after 66 minutes. Mendy was lucky to get away with garrotting Mustafi, on offence that would have been picked up if the Premier League subscribed to VAR.
City’s overall performance was lacking the cohesion of last season, but they looked to be stuttering towards the line. Arsenal look a bit stronger than of recent seasons, but they too looked a little ring-rusty. They did, however, start once again to press the Blues, but made some poor decisions when ideally placed to reduce the arrears. They sent on Torreira to add more bite, but it was De Bruyne who bit first and was cautioned for his trouble.
But City continued to be a bit sloppy. De Bruyne couldn’t find his passing range and time and again the ball was coming back. The Blues nearly paid for this after 77 minutes when Aubameyang was left in the clear and although his shot found the net via Walker and the post, he was ruled offside.
It was starting to look like a red tide rather than a blue one. Lichtsteiner was making a difference, Lacazette was looking more of a threat and Aubameyang was finding more room out wide than he was getting from Laporte down the centre.
The withdrawal of the profligate Aguero for de Jesus looked as though it would add more pace to City’s attacking effort. Indeed, the Brazilian is always more likely to charge down from the front and keep the pressure on the hosts. The movement of Bernardo added to this and his neat and tidy football showed exactly why he is here.
Ederson put City’s hearts in their mouths with a misplaced pass, but Ozil couldn’t capitalise and a golden opportunity was gone.
It had become end-to-end stuff. First Mendy could have put City 3-0 up but his shot was blocked, then down to the other end and Aubameyang once again ran offside as another good chance presented itself to reduce it to 2-1.
This prompted Guardiola to replace Sterling with Sane to inject a bit more life into City who had really been dragged into the lethargy stakes, looking to secure the 2-0 scoreline. Ederson was called on a bit more than he would have liked as chances came Arsenal’s way, but there was a lack of deadliness about the Gooners which was costing them the match. Indeed, another Ederson error let in Lacazette, but once again there was no good news for Unai Emery. A last-minute missile from De Bruyne flew over the bar seconds before Michael Oliver, who refereed this game with a calm authority, blew the final whistle.
I suppose this was a typical post-World Cup performance for a first match of the season. It wasn’t slick but it was enough to dispose of Arsenal, who during the course of this season will become more difficult to beat, especially if their forwards can get among the goals. Today their bullets were soft-nosed, but you could sense thing will become different.
For their part, it wasn’t quite business as usual for the Blues, but to collect a 2-0 away to Arsenal is a good result no matter what. Sterling and Mendy kept the Arsenal defence in a nervous condition and the exquisite football of Bernardo, in addition to the toil he puts in without the ball, Ozil take note, are rapidly turning the Portuguese into the next “must-have” midfielder. When you add to that the sheer class of the goal he scored, no wonder Ronaldo wanted Juventus to sign him.
We will no doubt see more of Bernardo this season as Pep has said he will rotate David Silva. Even two seasons ago that would have signalled a weakness in the City team. Not any more.
Over the weekend Liverpool looked in great shape, but playing cannon-fodder at home is always a better place to start than away to a top-six contender. Fair play to Klopp’s boys, they were relentless in their pursuit of victory earlier today and rightly sit top of the pile following their 4-0 destruction of Pellegrini’s new men, West Ham United.
City now continue where Chelsea left off. The London Blues eased past Huddersfield 3-0 and it is the Terriers who visit us at the Etihad next weekend.
Read all about it in the Ped Report.