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The signs of the times were everywhere. The minute of silence for the victims of the COVID-19 pandemic that had halted the Premier League for more than three months. All of the players and referees on the field taking a knee in support of Black Lives Matter; the jerseys bearing that creed as well, in place of the players’ names. And then there were, of course, the jitters and miskicks we’ve seen all over Europe as soccer teams that spent months sitting at home got back to playing.
Otherwise, things weren’t much different as the world’s most popular sports league resumed in earnest Wednesday when Manchester City beat Arsenal 3-0, following the earlier dud between Aston Villa and Sheffield United.
Manchester City was still a very good soccer team. Arsenal still has the makings of one, without appearing particularly close to making good on that promise. Liverpool’s lead at the top remains insurmountable, no matter how many of the last 10 games second-place City wins. And a soccer game in Manchester was beset by teeming rain.
Yet the biggest thing that has remained consistent in the 100-day layoff is the singular strangeness of the 2019-20 Premier League campaign. This season was irredeemably weird before it was forced into a three-month hiatus by a global pandemic. That includes Liverpool’s utter domination of its competitors on its way to a first title in exactly 30 years, a drought stretching past the entire history of the Premier League. And it includes City’s two-season suspension from European competition — although the club has appealed and a lengthy legal battle looms — which will afford a Champions League ticket to the league’s fifth-place finisher. There’s also City’s sometimes shocking inconsistency against the big opponents. And the collapses of Arsenal, Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur.
If this game was sentient, it would clearly have been eager to demonstrate that for all of the things that had changed, like the empty stands, the artificial crowd noise, the face masks on those not playing or managing, and the fourth and fifth substitutions, things were somehow also still the same. Because Arsenal’s capitulation bordered on the comical, a reassuring confirmation of stereotypes, unless you support the Gunners.
Two players stumbled off with injuries in the first half hour. Then defender David Luiz came on and gave away two goals and got himself sent off before 50 minutes had been played. Luiz was not culpable, however, on City’s third when Phil Foden pounced on the rebound from Sergio Aguero’s finish off the post in the 91st minute.
It’s not like City was undeserving. It was inarguably superior. Were it not for Leno in Arsenal’s goal, denying Sterling and Mahrez several times, the score could have gotten ugly. Never mind that City finished the game with 10 men as well, after a nasty collision between goalkeeper Ederson and defender Eric Garcia.
In a sense, this game brought things full circle, as it had been Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta’s positive coronavirus test that triggered the league’s shutdown. And now he was back managing the first marquee game upon the restart. It was fitting that he should face Pep Guardiola’s City, since Arteta had walked away from his role as Guardiola’s assistant after 3 1/2 years in December to take over Arsenal, where he’d played in his prime.
But in spite of all the time Arteta had to connect with his players during the layoff, giving him opportunity at last to bring his ideas across once practice was finally allowed, his side looked feckless in every line but Leno’s. What’s worse, the Gunners made no progress toward the European places when even a point would have put them level with eighth-placed Spurs.
Questions will be asked over Arteta’s decisions to leave out regulars like Alex Lacazette, Mesut Ozil and record signing Nicolas Pepe. But then Arsenal’s issues didn’t feel like individual personnel problems. They were badly outplayed as a collective to suffer, rather remarkably, their first domestic loss of 2020, ending a run of eight league matches without defeat, including three straight wins.
Post-pandemic Arsenal is the same as pre-pandemic Arsenal.
Post-pandemic City is as well. And now it will have to start winning the harder games, unlike before the interruption to this long, strange season.
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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