When Mikel Arteta and Pep Guardiola square off, you always get the sense that the two great friends have spent hours in the build-up to the game trying to work out how to outfox one another.
The pair were joined at the hip for three years while Arteta was Guardiola’s assistant at Manchester City and each knows exactly how the other’s mind works.
So it was perhaps no surprise to see Arteta try something new at the Etihad Stadium on Saturday night, but from the moment you saw Willian operating as a false nine it felt like the Arsenal manager had tried to be a bit too clever.
The tactic would have been something the team had worked on extensively throughout the week at London Colney and, as is always the way with Arteta, there would have been plenty of science behind the experiment.
But it just didn’t work when the plan was put into practice, with the Brazilian struggling to make any sort of impact as Arsenal fell to a 1-0 defeat. Raheem Sterling’s first-half goal proved decisive for the hosts.
Willian, who has struggled to make his mark at his new club since his impressive debut at Fulham on the opening weekend of the new season, couldn’t get into the game at all and was comfortably seen off by the impressive Ruben Dias before eventually being replaced by Alexandre Lacazette with 21 minutes remaining.
“I believed that it was a game for him, the way City play, the way they attract opponents and the spaces that can be used,” said Arteta, when asked about his decision to lead the line with the Brazilian.
“He was really convinced as well. It was obviously hard to leave two strikers on the bench, but it was a tactical decision.
“[It worked] in some moments better than others. I think he will grow and understand better that position as we use him on other occasions, maybe surrounded by different players as well. But I am happy with the game he had.”
This felt like an opportunity for Arsenal to have a go at a Manchester City side who were without Kevin De Bruyne and Aymeric Laporte and who have started the season in somewhat tentative style.
But, as has been the way for some time now outside of north London against the ‘Big Six’ in the Premier League, the Gunners fell short.
There were still some positives to take from the performance, especially in the first half when Ederson was forced into making three good saves, but it’s 29 games now since Arsenal went to the home of one of their top-six rivals and won.
And if Arteta’s improving side are to challenge for a Champions League spot this season, that is a run that is going to have to come to an end sooner rather than later.
When the starting XI was announced, and Lacazette was on the bench, the assumption was that Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang would be starting as the central striker in Arteta’s 3-4-3 formation for the first time this season.
But once the game kicked off it was soon apparent that Aubameyang was on the left once again, with Willian occupying the central role and Nicolas Pepe on the right.
It was a system that certainly allowed Arsenal into the game and, prior to Sterling’s 23rd-minute goal, the visitors had frustrated their hosts and would have been happy with how they had settled.
But Riyad Mahrez’s excellent pass to Sergio Aguero suddenly gave City a chance to attack with numbers and when Hector Bellerin allowed Phil Foden to cut inside, the danger signs were there for all to see.
Bernd Leno kept out Foden’s shot, but could only parry it back out into the danger area and Sterling was on hand to slot home his now-customary goal against Arsenal.
From that point on, Arteta’s side were always chasing the game. They did have chances to get back on terms before half-time with the excellent Bukayo Saka and Aubameyang both being denied by Ederson.
But after the interval they never really looked like getting the equaliser. It was just all a bit too passive from the visitors at a time when you felt City might have been there for the taking.
Even when Lacazette came on to replace the ineffectual Willian, he played in a deeper role rather than sitting right on the shoulder of Dias and trying to push the City defence back. It was just another example of Arteta’s side perhaps paying their hosts a bit too much respect.
There was no late charge for the equaliser, no barrage at the City defence. In the end Guardiola’s side saw the game out relatively comfortably and that will have been a disappointment for Arteta.
There were, however, positives to take from the defeat for an Arsenal side that are clearly far more competitive now than they were when Arteta picked up the pieces left by Unai Emery less than a year ago.
Saka was impressive, Gabriel was exceptional once again in defence and Thomas Partey was brought on for the final stages to make his debut.
The Ghana international will soon be a regular in the starting XI and his presence will more than likely see Arteta shift to a more attacking formation with a back four.
That should make Arsenal more of a threat in an attacking sense as things develop over the next couple of months and it’s doubtful – given what we saw at the Etihad – that we will be seeing the Willian false nine experiment again.
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