Arsenal and Man City give the title the softest ‘stop down’ but the Gunners will have no worries

Erling Haaland endured a frustrating day in Manchester (Martin Rickett/PA Wire)

It wasn’t exactly the game to justify a rise in ticket prices from Manchester City, it wouldn’t be anything. It’s definitely not a game to defend the build up. That should come as no surprise. The Major Leagues actually have a pretty substantial history of these supposed circumstances being terrible games, where the tension prevented expression.

The real surprise, however, was how bad this 0-0 draw between the champions and Arsenal was. Regardless of the performance, there were areas of play where some of the best players in the world couldn’t seem to kick a ball properly. City’s attackers were struggling with their touch on the edge of the box. Arsenal’s defenders were hacking hard clear. Even someone as sublime as Martin Odegaard played one of the strangest balls you will ever see from such a player. As for his international teammate, was there even a moment when Erling Haaland touched a ball properly? That one was surely followed by another bad miss against Manchester United, although this time it was more consequential.

Much of that had to do with William Saliba, one player who rose above all others. He was excellent, he always knew exactly where to be to bring Haaland into areas he didn’t want.

The brief confrontation between the two after the match was the only time the Norwegian was not quiet. A highly disciplined defense helped Saliba, and Gabriel was often instrumental in dealing directly with Haaland on a one-on-one basis.

This indicates what was the biggest influence on how and why the game played the way it did. It was about more than tension. It was down to set-up.

Although it was up to Arsenal to finally make that “statement”, the stat was that they became the first team to prevent City from scoring at home in nearly three years. Saliba said after the game that they can’t be satisfied with any game they don’t win but they felt very satisfied with this one.

William Saliba was extremely effective in stopping Erling Haaland (Getty Images)William Saliba was extremely effective in stopping Erling Haaland (Getty Images)

William Saliba was extremely effective in stopping Erling Haaland (Getty Images)

A win would put Arsenal back on top and probably clear title favorites but this is still City, even City who are now third with less than 10 games to go. Even Liverpool didn’t go their best there and win. It is something you would expect but cannot aim for. They are still the best team in Europe and the best at what they do, which has meant that Mikel Arteta has had to adapt around Pep Guardiola’s approach. Such a game itself was never implemented here, in the way they naively did in the past.

It shows the further maturation of the team, even if there are serious doubts about whether there is enough growth to make them champions.

Arsenal have now done this a few times, once against Liverpool away from home and now twice against Manchester City. This time they conceded ground in the title race, as Jurgen Klopp’s side went two points clear on their own, but the important point is that they still have that similarity and so much to play for. Even Arsenal draws at this stadium aren’t exactly common. Ultimately Arteta did something sensible.

They didn’t go for it, the way they did for that humiliation in April and the way they might have been tempted by that increase. Even Declan Rice talked about needing a win. The invitation was there to “prove” themselves, and try to go to City. The result would almost certainly have been similar to last season’s 4-1 win, if it wasn’t so humiliating.

Arsenal held off Man City and emerged with a creditable draw (Getty Images)Arsenal held off Man City and emerged with a creditable draw (Getty Images)

Arsenal held off Man City and emerged with a creditable draw (Getty Images)

Arsenal fans might point out that they didn’t have Saliba for that game but he was here, and it showed how vital he is. There was more to him than that.

This performance showed how Arsenal have learned from last season, how it has made them even better. That has been the pattern with this team, in a way that has often been forgotten.

They followed a perceived mental farce in 2020-21 and a poor start to the season after that with a challenge for Champions League places in 2021-22. When they finished fifth there, after another humiliation but this time to close rivals Tottenham Hotspur, they only came back to challenge for the title.

There was a lot of criticism of Arteta for “bottling” and not being there, but the truth was that a young team was performing and finally running out of steam. This whole season, right down to the evolution of Kai Havertz, was the answer to that. They are obviously closer to the finished article.

Can they continue Arteta’s pattern of second place last season by going one better… well, that’s where it gets even more difficult. The hardest part is yet to come. Going from eighth to fifth or fifth to second is not as punishing as crossing the line. That’s the real test of mettle, especially when you’re up against City.

Arsenal deserved a hard-fought point but there are even bigger tests to come (EPA)Arsenal deserved a hard-fought point but there are even bigger tests to come (EPA)

Arsenal deserved a hard-fought point but there are even bigger tests to come (EPA)

That’s what a lot of this performance was about. It was underground to stand rather than lose it. One of the reasons Arsenal had more of an obligation going into this game, though, is because they have a much more difficult run in than Liverpool or City.

The feeling is still that they will drop only more points. That’s why everyone talked about this being a very good day for Liverpool, and it might have been even better if Arsenal had won. City still the standard. Arsenal, however, have found a way to meet them. That in itself is important.

That’s also why Saliba seemed to shake his head when it was suggested that Liverpool might now have the advantage. As the centre-half has shown at City, he is willing to do his best to make sure that no-one gets past this rising Arsenal easily.

That is perhaps the most important thing about this. It was never going to be a showdown, or at least one that decided anything. It’s just an extra setup and maybe keeps it more interesting.

The run-in will probably be much more visible than this.

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