It might just be that, quietly, Manchester City was rather looking forward to Sunday’s away game at Arsenal. That would have been inconceivable not so long ago. But this is an incarnation of the Gunners, of course, that until Monday’s victory at West Ham United hadn’t won a game in more than two months.
After all, Arsenal can be relied upon not to bunker in and absorb pressure. It will venture out and try to make the play, no matter how foolhardy it might be to attempt to play City on equal footing. So there would be space to exploit, the kind of space City rarely gets anymore as it has risen into one of Europe’s preeminent powers.
And Arsenal could equally be depended on to make mistakes and leave wide gaps in defense. Now operating under interim manager Freddie Ljungberg following the firing of Unai Emery, Arsenal has a world-class attack, a middling midfield and a derelict defense.
City, meanwhile, isn’t the team it was last year. That is to say, it physically is, with a squad virtually unchanged from last year’s record-setting title romp, the second championship in a row and a fourth in eight years. It still includes fully 14 players acquired for 30 million pounds or more. The addition of Rodri for a club-record fee was the only significant move, as the trade of Joao Cancelo for Danilo was pretty much a like-for-like swap and neither played (or plays) all that much.
Yet the results have been very different. During last year’s enormous 98-point haul, City lost just four times – three of them coming in a four-game span in December. During the first 16 games of this season, it had lost exactly as many, and dropped the same number of points as in all of last year.
So on the back of City’s derby loss to United last Saturday, an away game at Arsenal might have actually been a happy prospect.
Sure enough, Ljungberg’s setup, or whatever passed for one, left vast swaths of real estate for City to saunter through on its way to a 3-0 win that could have been much larger. Kevin de Bruyne scored twice and teed up Raheem Sterling for another, all in the first half, as the two-time defending champions had the easiest of afternoons, narrowing the gap with runaway leaders Liverpool back to 14 points.
City scythed right through the Gunner lines almost right away. Gabriel Jesus cut back for the streaking de Bruyne, whose sublime finish would have been unstoppable even to a competent defense.
A quarter of an hour in, de Bruyne combined with Jesus again to set himself free. He laid off for Sterling, who shook off his defender all too easily and whacked in the second from close range.
Before halftime, de Bruyne found a pocket of space at the edge of the box and curled the ball out of the reach of the outstretched Bernd Leno for the third.
Leno prevented more goals, like when he managed to tip a spinning shot from de Bruyne (of course) off the post. But more remarkable was how little work his opposite number had. Other than Gabriel Martinelli’s early look, the closest Arsenal got to another chance, let along a goal, in the first half was when Matteo Guendouzi flopped desperately in City’s box, fooling no one.
Striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s heat map told the entire tale of Arsenal’s half.
8 - In the first half of Arsenal's game against Man City, Pierre-Emerick Aubamayeng had just eight touches, three of which were from kick-offs and none coming in the opposition's box. Anonymous. #ARSMCI pic.twitter.com/qcwm371ObW
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) December 15, 2019
The Gabonese would get his head onto a cross right after the break but miss the target, and that, again, was pretty much the Gunners’ entire offensive output for the second act. City scarcely bestirred itself to attack anymore, so complete and unassailable was its dominance.
City’s victory felt inevitable from the moment it had scored its first goal because Arsenal offered up so little resistance in an Emirates Stadium with lots of empty seats that only emptied further as the game went. And since Ljungberg took over, the Gunners have now won just once in five games, taking a mere four points from four games in the league.
Ljungberg clearly doesn’t have any answers for how to plug the many holes in this sinking ship. His side has fallen to ninth place and Crystal Palace could yet cast it back into 10th place with a win at Brighton on Monday. It hasn’t won a home game in the last six attempts.
This is the worst Arsenal team in a generation. And there aren’t any bright spots to suggest that a turnaround is imminent, or coming at any other time either.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.
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