For much of the night, the Etihad Stadium was thick with the fog of war. Games between managers who know each other well can often grind themselves into stalemate. There was never any realistic chance of that happening with Pep Guardiola and Mikel Arteta. Their two previous meetings as coaches had been contrasting, highly evolved affairs, and for an hour this was no different: a coaching duel that more closely resembled a heads-up poker game, an exercise in inscrutability.
And yet in the end, this was not really a game won and lost on plans or schemes. That much became manifest in the anticlimactic closing stages, as Manchester City imperiously closed down a game that had spent much of its life teetering on the brink of chaos. Ultimately, they won because they had better players who had been coached together for longer. Sometimes it really is that simple.
That quality was evident in the difference between City’s goal – a deceptively tough finish by Raheem Sterling after a devastatingly intuitive attacking move – and Arsenal’s missed chances either side of half-time. That cohesion was evident in City’s superior creativity in midfield, completing three times as many passes into the final third as their opponents (152 to 51). Which is not necessarily to say City, still a capricious and curiously patchy team, deserved to win. But it’s why they did.
And yet there will be a natural temptation to explain this game away through tactics, given the identity of the two managers and the provocative peculiarity of their two starting systems. I’ll see your two left-backs and raise you Kyle Walker at centre-half. I see your Walker and raise you Willian as a false nine. I see your Willian and raise you Bernardo Silva as a box-to-box midfielder. I see your Silva and raise you Bukayo Saka in central midfield. I see your Saka and raise you João Cancelo in a free role. I see your Cancelo and raise you blue shirts. But we’re wearing blue. Well, so are we.
Thus the stage was set for an enthralling, disorienting and occasionally colour-clashing encounter, one in which nobody was ever quite where you expected them. Saka roved forward and back, from left to centre. City were a 4-3-3 in defence, a rough 3-3-2-2 in possession and a 3-4-3 in the press. The introduction of Ilkay Gündogan for Sergio Agüero on the hour shifted the pivot of their attack again.
Often you hear Guardiola accused of overthinking big games. It’s a curiously imprecise criticism – what, after all, is the optimum level of thought for a single fixture? – and one you sense is actually grounded in a good deal of underthinking. The truth is Guardiola rarely keeps the same tactics two games running. Bespoke solutions have always been part of his method. If overthinking has defined some of his biggest failures, then we should also acknowledge its role in his dazzling successes.
This was probably somewhere in between. Cancelo’s hybrid role often allowed them an extra body in attack, but it was instructive that their best players were those fulfilling their usual roles: Riyad Mahrez on the right, Rúben Dias in defence, Ederson in goal. And though it took a while for Arsenal to “suss them out” – as Sterling later put it – they actually looked more secure as the game became more conventional in the last half-hour.
Arteta, too, discovered the limits of his own tactical flourishes. Their best period came just before half-time, but just as the situation demanded greater thrust, their threat instead waned. As City dropped back and plugged the gaps, Arsenal looked increasingly bereft of ideas, struggling to move the ball between midfield and attack. Their front three of Willian, Nicolas Pépé and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang shared just 58 touches and two shots all night.
For Arsenal, still an emerging and incomplete force, this was a valuable lesson in how far they still have to travel. For City, a reminder that for all their flaws and their fatigue, they remain a team with multiple gears, even without Kevin De Bruyne. It was left to Guardiola to provide perhaps the soundest insight of the night. “We can have good ideas, both of us,” he admitted. “But this game belongs to the players.”