The beef with Manchester City that shows Arsenal are being taken seriously

Kevin De Bruyne hands off Mikel Arteta
Kevin De Bruyne gives Mikel Arteta a shove during last season's match at the Emirates - REUTERS/David Klein

Until recently, the trials and tribulations of Arsenal were of little significance to Manchester City. Pep Guardiola and his players had bigger things to worry about than the long-term rebuild taking place in north London, and matches between the two sides were often laughably one-sided.

From Guardiola’s appointment in 2016 until the start of last season, City played Arsenal 12 times in the league. Guardiola won 11 of those meetings, by an astonishing aggregate score of 30-6. Arsenal were simply not a concern, and they certainly were not a danger to City’s pursuit of Premier League and Champions League glory.

Around 18 months ago, however, the dynamic between these two contrasting clubs – the new money in Manchester, the old money in London – began to shift. Not necessarily in terms of results (that change only took place at the start of this season), but in terms of attitudes and perceptions.

For a rapidly developing young Arsenal side, buoyed by the signings of Gabriel Jesus and Oleksandr Zinchenko from City, the feeling grew that Guardiola’s team might, at last, be beatable. For City, it soon became clear that Mikel Arteta, their former coach, was beginning to pose a danger.

In other words, City started to take Arsenal seriously. Their matches took on a new edge, and in the past year an acrimony has taken hold of this fixture. City and Arsenal are competing for the same prizes again. As a result, there is now a level of rancour and resentment that did not previously exist between these sides.

During last season’s league match at the Emirates, for example, Kevin De Bruyne angrily shoved Arteta on the touchline after the Arsenal manager prevented him from taking a quick throw-in. De Bruyne then jabbed a finger in the face of his former coach.

Arteta and Guardiola laughing on the City bench
Mikel Arteta helped Pep Guardiola win his first two titles as Man City manager in a three-year spell as his assistant from 2016-19 - Action Images via Reuters/Jason Cairnduff

A few months later, at the end of their league match at the Etihad Stadium, Ben White tussled with Phil Foden. White, evidently furious, grabbed Foden at the back of the shirt. The two England internationals argued until they were separated by team-mates.

And earlier this season, in the moments following Gabriel Martinelli’s winner for Arsenal at the Emirates Stadium, Kyle Walker clashed with Nicolas Jover, Arteta’s set-piece coach and another former City employee. Walker later explained that Jover had refused a handshake when the teams met last season, and that he therefore “did not take it lightly” when Jover approached him for a handshake this time around.

Off the pitch, too, there has been a sense within Arsenal that they are now viewed differently by City and their chief decision-makers.

In the summer of 2022, despite their well-publicised unhappiness at the nature of Arteta’s departure a few years earlier, City happily sold Jesus and Zinchenko to Arsenal, for a combined fee of around £75 million. Last summer, Telegraph Sport understands, they were significantly less co-operative. Arsenal were interested in signing Joao Cancelo but City were not willing to strengthen Arteta’s squad again.

The scrap for Declan Rice, too, was another indication of Arsenal’s progress. Firstly, because it showed that City and Arsenal are now competing for the same players. Secondly, because Arsenal were victorious. City made a bid worth £90 million to West Ham but Arsenal always felt in control of the situation, with Rice enthused by the prospect of moving to the Emirates.

If the signing of Rice marked the first blow in Arsenal’s battle with City this season, then the Community Shield soon became the second. Arsenal won on penalties, having struck a late equaliser through Leandro Trossard, and their players later spoke of a psychological hurdle being cleared.

“It is a statement,” said Aaron Ramsdale. “It is a marker to know we can go and beat City in a big game when it matters. I am not sure what it will be like this season but that mental block is gone. We are ready to push on now.”

The next time they met, in October, Arsenal triumphed again. Two wins in a row for Arsenal, after so many years of humiliating defeats (aside from the FA Cup semi-final in 2020), and the fear of old appears to have been replaced by a genuine sense of belief.

The Etihad on Sunday, of course, will represent a different challenge altogether. And the obvious riposte to all this, from City’s perspective, is that Arsenal have won nothing of real significance yet. Last season, in a two-man title race, City won both matches and also knocked Arsenal out of the FA Cup. Their dominance remains but, when it comes to Arsenal, it is being tested more strenuously than at any point in the last decade.

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