Man City's win over Arsenal suggests they can get even better in title-defending season
LONDON -- Three quick thoughts from Manchester City's 2-0 Premier League win over Arsenal at the Emirates on Sunday.
1. City demonstrate they're prepared to title defence
Not since 2008-09 has the Premier League title been retained, but it's difficult to remember any previous champions looking as dominant as this Manchester City at the start of the following campaign.
There is serious competition at the top of the division this season: Liverpool will improve from last term, Chelsea have recruited arguably Europe's most exciting manager and Tottenham and Manchester United should figure too. But City, fresh from their record points total last season, started 2018-19 with an incredibly dominant victory at the Emirates with goals in either half from Raheem Sterling and Bernardo Silva.
Unai Emery's debut on the Arsenal bench was the main talking point, but his introduction to English football was overshadowed by the side coached by two of his compatriots, Pep Guardiola and Mikel Arteta. The latter, of course, was briefly considered favourite to succeed Arsene Wenger, and it was notable that Guardiola embraced him warmly after City's second goal.
More than anything, City looked -- inevitably -- more comfortable in their system: Their passing was slicker, their pressing more integrated. There was no David Silva, and Kevin De Bruyne only appeared as a second-half substitute, yet the likes of Ilkay Gundogan and Silva are better than Arsenal's first-choice options. The 2-0 score line, in truth, doesn't demonstrate City's superiority.
This was a reminder that last season, in points terms, Arsenal finished closer to bottom than top, and that Emery's job in transforming Arsenal's tactical and technical approach is very much a long-term project.
2. Arsenal have room for improvement under Emery
From the moment the 2018-19 Premier League fixture list was released in June, it was clear Arsenal would be starting their campaign with a thoroughly difficult test. So it proved. For all the undeniable optimism around the Emirates before kickoff, the first 45 minutes demonstrated that Arsenal have plenty of room for improvement under new boss Emery.
There were some positive signs. Arsenal pressed in a more intelligent manner than last season, their attackers hunting in packs to shepherd Manchester City sideways in an attempt to win possession. Of course, against centre-backs as composed as John Stones and Aymeric Laporte, and a goalkeeper as confident as Ederson, actually winning possession is somewhat difficult. More often than not, Manchester City happily played around the pressure.
Arsenal's real problem, though, was at the other end.
Emery has clearly placed a big emphasis upon playing out from defence, but goalkeeper Petr Cech -- slightly surprisingly preferred over newcomer Bernd Leno -- looked consistently nervous at goal kicks, at one point hopelessly scuffing a simple pass backwards, almost into his own net. That incident made the crowd nervous, and Arsenal's subsequent attempts to play forward were consistently unsuccessful. This charade ended with the home supporters sarcastically cheering when Cech finally decided to thump the ball forward. Greek defender Sokratis Papastathopoulos, a surprise signing, was vulnerable against the pace of Sergio Aguero and was booked for fouling him on the edge of the box.
Arsenal didn't involve their attacking players enough. Aaron Ramsey, playing at the top of the midfield trio, had some bright moments in the early stages but struggled to get on the ball after City's dominance had become established. Mesut Ozil and Henrikh Mkhitaryan performed their defensive duties diligently in wide positions but their passing inside the final third was often wayward. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang's movement was excellent, particularly when drifting right, but he simply wasn't found often enough.
Problems continued after the break, when newcomer Matteo Guendouzi misjudged an aerial ball on the halfway line, which allowed Aguero a one-on-one chance. Cech saved well, but moments later Arsenal were 2-0 down anyway, and City already out of sight.
3. Evolution of Pep's tactics suggest City can get even better
Manchester City played with the same level of control and authority as last season, dominating possession throughout the game, pressing well and involving their forwards regularly. But Guardiola always attempts to evolve his tactics from season to season, and this felt like a slightly different City.
Whereas last season Guardiola used advanced wingers stretching the play and going in behind, often with more conservative full-backs, here his approach was different. Sterling was on the left cutting inside onto his right foot, Riyad Mahrez on the right drifting inside onto his left. In turn, the full-backs were more aggressive than last season, with Kyle Walker overlapping regularly.
Benjamin Mendy, the archetypal "like a new signing" after missing almost his entire debut campaign through injury, sometimes overlapped and sometimes drifted inside to form a midfield diamond.
The latter tactic actually proved more effective, creating obvious one-versus-one battles for Sterling vs. Hector Bellerin, on one occasion cutting inside and slamming home the opener. The second goal came from a traditional Mendy overlapping run followed by a clever pull-ball to Silva, who smashed the ball into the top corner.
City's centre-back combination was also something of a step forward: Only once, on the final day of last season, did Stones and Laporte start together. It's City's most technical combination, lacking the power of Vincent Kompany or the aggression of Nicolas Otamendi, but enabling them even better ball control, and allowing them to play a calmer and more intelligent style of defending.
Otamendi comes for too many aerial balls he can't win, Kompany is turned too often on the ground. Here, City kept a high defensive line and yet largely kept Arsenal in front of them; only one early incident, when Laporte should have been booked for a cynical hack on Aubemeyang, suggested indiscipline.
Guardiola has suggested City can become even better this season, and on this evidence, it's hard to disagree.