For the first 56 minutes Arsenal were the better team. Arsenal’s plan to press high, and take the game to Manchester City was paying off. And but for a big miss by Martinelli and two crazy calls by Stuart Attwell, Arsenal would have won this game. And would have won it deservedly, because they were the superior team.
Arsenal traded early blows with City. They created a few chances in the first five minutes, with Raheem Sterling looking to get past Arsenal’s Tomiyasu. But the japan international managed to hold his ground and win a few crucial challenges, to keep Arsenal’s hopes alive. And then Aaron Ramsdale sent a huge kick up to Martinelli – who plucked the ball out of the air like a ripe cherry and then drove at the defense – and suddenly Man City looked very shaky. He passed the ball to Lacazette, who moved the ball on to Ødegaard, and the Danish midfielder just couldn’t get a shot off. But as he collected the ball and tried to turn in the box to see his options, City’s Ederson came flying out and made a rash tackle in the box, upending the Arsenal man. It looked a nailed on penalty for everyone with a brain but Stuart Attwell and the VAR referee didn’t see it the same way and Arsenal’s penalty appeal was denied.
But then credit to Arsenal for not letting that decision get under their skin. Arsenal started pressing in packs, led by Ødegaard – who was waving his teammates on – and forced Manchester City into numerous high turnovers which they were able to convert into dangerous chances. City were hemmed into their own half. It was the best football I’ve ever seen from an Arteta-coached Arsenal side. They were proactively winning the ball back, their counter attacks were rapier-like, and they were snuffing out every City chance.
It is a testament to Arsenal’s play that from the 18th and 56th minute, Manchester City had zero shots. Not zero shots on target. Zero shots.
And it was a bit of good defending which Arsenal turned into a counter which provided the go-ahead goal. Ben White nipped in and took the ball off de Bruyne, he then marched up and passed the ball to Tierney – a delightful big switch – and Tierney drove at the City defense before picking out a pass to Saka, who scored a jaw-dropping goal. I had been expecting a ball to Laca, followed by a couple more passes but Saka seemed to just want the goal and he ghosted around Lacazette’s screen and one-touch scored.
I’ve been keeping a notebook again this season, like many others, and one thing I decided this year was to keep track of all the controversial referee decisions. I try to be as objective as possible, though the laws of the game aren’t objective and I’m also obviously a Gooner so that’s not likely, but as an example of how I see these games: I noted three big calls in the first half that I thought the referees got wrong: the penalty, Xhaka’s wild tackle from behind on Sterling (it was so bad he missed everything, even the man, so I guess it’s not really a foul), and Xhaka’s intentional handball (no card).
Obviously the penalty is the big miss and these things aren’t equivalent but the point I’m getting at here is that this referee was having a nightmare the entire match. That continued in the 2nd half. Partey was lucky not to get a yellow for a poor tackle on Joan and Rodri wasn’t even called for a foul when he two-footed Martinelli in the act of shooting. The Rodri challenge was so dangerous that it could have been red. I know that he “slipped” but the reason he slipped was because he jumped in to block a shot with both feet.
And then the Nard dog made what, on first glance, looked like a hilarious dive in the 52nd minute. Attwell even vehemently waved Bernardo to “get up” before the VAR official decided that “uhh no actually, you should go look at the video.”
Attwell went to the TV and saw that Xhaka had made contact and awarded the penalty. The question here is why did he go to the video for that call and not the earlier one on Ødegaard? Wouldn’t it be better if the referee had not even seen the VAR at all? Either the referee gives neither penalty (no VAR intervention) or he should be going to the video for both calls. If us fans at home can see that Ederson clearly kicked Ødegaard, how come VAR can’t? And how come Attwell isn’t asked to go look? It’s infuriating but we see it every week with almost every game.
From that point on things unraveled for Arsenal.
Gabriel was incensed and ran over to Attwell and said something, for that he got a yellow card. They scored, the game was level.
I was listening to the BBC football daily podcast a few weeks ago when one of the presenters – a former pro – said something which surprised me: he said that he always made a point of being extra friendly to the referees before and after the games and that he thought it gave him an advantage. We would like to believe that referees are completely impartial but they are human beings and in a game where what constitutes a fouls and a card is completely up to the judgement of that human being, it’s a smart bit of gamesmanship to keep the refs on your side. As far as I can tell, you’re never going to convince a referee to change his mind by yelling at him, clapping at him when he makes a decision you disagree with, or being ultra confrontational. Judging by Mike Dean’s record with Arsene Wenger, I’d say it was just the opposite.
Xhaka also went into a rage at this point and I was surprised that Attwell didn’t give him a card. Instead, Attwell called the captains over and told them to calm the players down.
But the game was still a good contest at this point. Arsenal were still pressing and looking to go ahead. A nice chip over for Saka required Nathan Aké to clear off the line to save an own goal. And Martinelli should have scored on the follow-up because the goal was gaping, but he missed badly.
And just 20 seconds later, what was unravelling turned into a pile of string as Gabriel was sent off for a second yellow. I guess he can’t really complain about that call, after all attwell was bound to get one call right all day. Just for good measure Attwell also gave Saka a yellow card a minute later when Lacazette was fouled. I guess for asking for a yellow card for that foul.
Manchester City already have a huge advantage. They have a team which is valued at over £1bn and routinely spend £100m on players that they don’t even really start. Once you also give them a penalty and a man advantage, the odds of Arsenal getting anything from the match become incredibly small.
But credit to the coaching staff and the players. They played their hearts out for a point and nearly made it. In the end, Rodri got a bit lucky and shinned in the winner.
It was a heartbreaking result. But on the bight side, Arsenal outplayed the presumptive League champions for huge portions of this match and but for a lucky final goal and three huge referee decisions, plus one bad miss, Arsenal would have taken something from this match.
We should all get the frustration out, complain about the injustice of this match, but also keep an eye on how well we played. Arteta seems to have struck on a combination of players up top which give Arsenal real threat: the wide men are taking on the opponents now and they have huge goal-threat; the false nine and false ten have formed a nice mini-team in the middle of the pitch; Thomas Partey had his best game in an Arsenal shirt. Some familiar problems are still there but largely the team looks settled and ready to show what they can do.