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  • Writer's pictureBy Kaz Mochlinski

The run-in starts here. Well, almost. Long way still to go in title race after Arsenal's Etihad draw

Picture: YTJourno

By Kaz Mochlinski at the City of Manchester Stadium

The Premier League unveiled its latest branding campaign this weekend by starting to market “The Run In”. It was timed to coincide with Manchester City playing Arsenal in the last of this season’s summit matches between the title contenders. But, instead of a titanic clash, it made for a slightly inauspicious beginning.

The decisive segment of the season is always the part after Easter - and this year the annual long bank holiday weekend comes earlier in the calendar than usual. Plus it made sense to present “The Run In” now after the recommencement of league matches following the recent international break.

With nine rounds of games remaining, plus rescheduled fixtures, there was a degree of randomness to the duration of “The Run In” that was chosen. But the scoreless draw played out by Manchester City and Arsenal leaves the main prize still fascinatingly within reach of all three potential champions at this stage.

Liverpool, who took over the top spot in the table, will have been happiest of course with the outcome in East Manchester. But, for the Premier League, having both Arsenal and Manchester City still competing with them for the title coming into April will ensure that the interest levels in the competition are heightened.

Even a relatively dull 0-0 stalemate between Pep Guardiola and Mikel Arteta’s sides, with few goalmouth incidents, was to an extent absorbing tactically, as the visitors delivered a defensive plan to counteract their dangerous opponents, getting players behind the ball and not allowing any clear openings.

Arteta again used Kai Havertz as a false number nine, with Gabriel Jesus wide on the left - in a role the Brazillian often filled during his last season under Pep, playing in City’s big games on the right when Phil Foden was asked to be the nominal striker up front.

Although both teams set up in a basic 4-2-3-1 formation, Jesus quickly found himself playing at left-back, while, up against him, Manuel Akanji made a decent attempt at being a right winger. Inevitably, from the outset, City had most of the ball, ultimately reflected in overwhelming possession statistics of 73% v 27%.

As Arteta explained afterwards: “Before the game, we said: ‘Are you ready to follow 30 passes?’ If it’s yes, then okay, you can play against Manchester City. It’s so important. If you are not ready to do that, you cannot play against them.”

Arsenal’s approach was effective enough to yield a precious point away to the defending champions. However, Arteta could be criticised for being overly cautious and restricting their own attacking to fast counters plus set-pieces, when doing more to win may have taken them a significant step closer to the title.

City unequivocally seemed vulnerable this time at the back. An attractive painting on the front cover of the official matchday programme showed Kyle Walker leading out his teammates, but the England defender was actually absent with injury, along with Ederson, while John Stones was only fit enough to be a substitute, eventually unused.

Nevertheless, City’s defence was hardly tested by Arsenal, and conversely, in contrast to the pre-match predictions, it was the host’s attack which let them down on this occasion. Oddly, despite all the opposition defensive chaos he causes, Erling Haaland has now failed to score in 12 of his past 17 appearances for club and country.

The solitary City attempt on target came early in the game, when a corner swung in from the left by Kevin de Bruyne fell to Nathan Aké in front of goal, but, with more of a connection from his right shoulder than his head, he could only direct the ball straight at David Raya on the goal-line.

And in the 17th minute that was the last of the home side’s goalbound efforts. When Aké went off with an injury midway through the first half, with it departed his team’s only goal threat. It was especially disappointing for the Dutch defender as he had been hoping to make amends for the reverse fixture earlier in the season.

It was Aké’s deflection of a Gabriel Martinelli strike in the 86th minute of the match at Arsenal which was responsible for the winning goal that day. Coincidentally, in the 86th minute this time the Gunners again had their best chance of the return game, with Martinelli suddenly finding unexpected open space.

Leandro Trossard led a quick break down the left wing, but unfortunately he failed to look up and see his fellow substitute unmarked in the middle. Trossard instead went for glory himself and hit his shot straight at Stefan Ortega in the Manchester City goal. It was the first save of any note in the whole of the second half.

In hindsight, the stalemate should not have been a surprise when looking back to the encounter in October. That time too Arsenal stopped City from scoring and identically limited them to just one attempt on target, while having only two efforts on goal themselves. The sole difference is that they scored from one of them then.

No goals conceded and solely two attempts on target allowed in the two Premier League games this season against such a clever and creative rival as Manchester City is unquestionably an outstanding outcome for Arsenal and a reflection of the continuing progress which they are making under Arteta.

Perhaps a goalless and somewhat soulless contest was unavoidable now after the 5-0 and 4-1 scorelines from the previous 2 Manchester City v Arsenal matches in the league, and the Gunners’ exceptional recent run of results on the road, winning 6-0, 5-0 and 6-0 in sequence in their past three away games.

It is two months and four matches since Arsenal conceded a goal on an opposition ground in the Premier League, the last one being at Nottingham Forest back in January. Although their 100% record of winning all eight league games in 2024 has ended, they remain unbeaten since the start of this year.

And it is an undoubted achievement to have brought to a close Manchester City’s remarkable record of scoring in all their home matches for two and a half years, after 47 games in the Premier League and 57 in total in all competitions, since Crystal Palace were the last side to keep a clean sheet away to City in October 2021.

The goalless game with Arsenal also ended Manchester City’s praiseworthy run of 75 consecutive league matches without a 0-0 result. A draw, and in particular a scoreless one, can feel like a victory, which will be especially familiar to Jakub Kiwior, the Gunners’ Polish defender, who repeated the feat twice in six days.

He helped Poland get a 0-0 draw with Wales in their UEFA Euro 2024 Play-off Final in Cardiff earlier in the week, with the Poles then winning the deciding penalty shoot-out 5-4. For Kiwior’s countrymen, the concept of a victorious stalemate dates back to 1973 and eliminating England from the World Cup after a 1-1 scoreline at Wembley.

It is perhaps a shame that the Manchester City v Arsenal game came immediately after an international break, as it is not unusual for the leading clubs to be adversely affected by the extended absence of their players, and for them to not perform optimally initially following the time away with national squads.

Alternatively, it may have been a less than gripping encounter simply due to the match being scheduled on Easter Sunday. Among several differences from a standard matchday, Manchester City had to keep their club shop closed because of UK trading laws. And travel there and back was much trickier than normal.

It felt as if a fair few fans had used up all their energy just getting to the ground. Despite Manchester City having their biggest attendance of the season at 53,533, the atmosphere inside the stadium was mostly subdued, and certainly it was not lifted by much of the action on the pitch.

The home supporters were roused by a brief protest against their club’s plan to increase ticket costs, with a banner being displayed stating “Record profits but record prices - Stop exploiting our loyalty!”, which was relatively rapidly removed by stadium security staff.

The away section provided a pleasanter soundtrack to the game through a tribute on seven minutes to the late David Rocastle, with singing and applause to mark the 23rd anniversary of the death of a footballer who also played for Manchester City in addition to forever remaining an Arsenal hero.

With it being Easter, the local support had their strange “And on the 6th Day God created Manchester City” banner visible, while the Arsenal end sang about Jesus being on their side. But the most telling chant was a reminder to the visitors about last season by the home fans that “You nearly won the league!”

Will there be a repeat this time? And, if so, how much will Arsenal regret not doing more to try and beat Manchester City in this clash? Was there too much satisfaction from the Londoners at having avoided defeat, when there should have been more disappointment about losing the top spot in the table?

There could well still be further meetings to come between Manchester City and Arsenal before the end of the season, with a potential Champions League semi-final in prospect, if they overcome Real Madrid and Bayern Munich, respectively, in the quarter-finals. Hopefully they would provide a better spectacle then.

On Easter Sunday, the Premier League trophy was pitchside for the Manchester City v Arsenal duel. It could be the closest that either of them get to it this year after the 0-0 draw which handed the league leadership to Liverpool going into the final quarter of the title race. But there is still so much of “The Run In” to come.


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