In the end all it took was 77 seconds. Manchester City stretched their winning run in the Premier League to 13 games and maintained a 10-point lead at the top with a 1-0 win that looked, after Raheem Sterling’s early goal, like it might become a spree but which ended up a slow-burn affair against a resilient Arsenal.
Losing by a single goal against Manchester City: this counts as progress right now, and Arsenal were impressive after a somnolent start.
Mikel Arteta has worked hard to instil a greater solidity in this Arsenal team. It was apparent here, although they also struggled to create any clear openings. Martin Ødegaard looked undercooked against opponents of this quality, a man struggling to find the right page in the manual. Pierre‑Emerick Aubameyang was a fretful figure, easily marshalled by John Stones.
It has become fashionable to talk about this City team as a machine, a piece of beautifully high-grade engineering without waste or frippery. This was the machine in pared-back mode: another clean sheet, and another fine away win to cap a two‑week run during which City have glided their way through Liverpool, Everton, Tottenham and now Arsenal. This is a team in one of those imperial phases where even the warmups, the pre‑match hugs, have an air of command.
Here Pep Guardiola reunited the Cancelo-Stones-Dias-Zinchenko backline, and continued to mine the strengths of that three-man attacking midfield frontline. Kevin De Bruyne started for the first time since 20 January. In that time City had won eight in a row and scored 24 goals. Kev, long time no see. Of course we’ve missed you.
In reality it was De Bruyne’s supreme turn as a false nine at Stamford Bridge in November that really announced this new-model City team. Here he started in the middle again, with Riyad Mahrez to the right and Sterling to the left. It was a combination from this attacking trio that brought the only goal, expertly worked, but with zero resistance from the red shirts.
Perhaps it was the breath of spring in the air. The Emirates Stadium was a balmy, soft place at kick-off, a powder-blue sky peeping in over the lip of that vast empty main stand. Arsenal looked sleepy too, the midfield passive, centre-backs thrown by the lack of bodies to mark.
City’s players stroked the ball around between themselves for the opening minute. Eventually De Bruyne rolled a pass out to Mahrez. His deep cross found Sterling – who is just under 5ft 7in tall – soaring unmarked to plant a centre-forward’s header past Bernd Leno. Inside the stadium there was a shout and a fond white-shirted team hug, but no real sense of surprise. On it went as in those early moments as Arsenal seemed intent on “playing dead” faced with a superior predator, refusing to engage with the game at all, like a splayed hedgehog who has, on this occasion, forgotten to curl himself up into a ball.
Mahrez continued to dance a lone Charleston on the right. With seven minutes gone the score could have been 4-0. Shots were saved or deflected wide. Sterling almost walked another one in. “Communication,” Mikel Arteta yelled repeatedly from the touchline.
And steadily Arsenal did claw their way back into the game. Progress came down the left. Bukayo Saka found some space, took the ball from Kieran Tierney and saw his shot hit Aubameyang in the six-yard box.
With half an hour gone a kind of uneasy equilibrium had been reached, Bernardo Silva and De Bruyne gliding around between the lines, Arsenal defending in a deep red block, both sides keeping their guard high.
Saka led Arsenal’s brighter moments. Five minutes before the break Nicolas Pépé scuffed a shot into the side netting from an unpromising angle. And by half time there was a sense of City letting their levels drop, dozing slightly as Granit Xhaka began to get a grip in midfield.
City came out early for the second half and began at a sprint. De Bruyne might have made it 2-0 with an inventive chip from a fine angle. Sterling carried the ball deep into the Arsenal box, but was skilfully covered by Rob Holding, who had a good game after dozing off for the opening goal.
Again Arsenal found some traction. Silva was booked for a hack at Pépé. Ødegaard began to find some of those half-spaces in which he likes to lurk. For a while Guardiola stalked his touchline, fumbling anxiously at the strings of his baggy grey cotton hoodie.
Still, City always seemed to have another gear. The Poacher, Ilkay Gündogan, found some space for a shot that Leno palmed behind. With an hour gone this had become an absorbing, finely poised game of possession and swift breaks.
Gabriel Jesus came on for a tired-looking De Bruyne with 27 minutes to play, but Arsenal refused to wilt, with Xhaka impressive in midfield and the left flank still their best route to goal.
With 10 minutes to go João Cancelo combined nicely with Gabriel Jesus, swayed inside Pablo Marí like a man in a cummerbund shimmying his way across an oiled parquet floor, then poked a shot millimetres wide.
Arsenal had distant glimpses of the City goal in those final minutes, but the Stones-Dias axis remains a formidable obstacle. Arteta will take heart from the sense of parity in the second half. That blue and white machine rolls on.