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Man City vs Arsenal stalemate highlights Premier League golden era myth

ETIHAD STADIUM, MANCHESTER — Sunday’s title Premier League title showdown between Manchester City and Arsenal fell well short of its blockbuster billing. City defender Manuel Akanji had no doubt as to where the blame lay after a 0-0 draw that endured a tenuous relationship with goalmouth action.

“We know why a lot of goals didn’t happen because they played really defensively and we weren’t able to score a goal up front,” the Switzerland international said, matter of factly.

Comprehension did not come so easily for Akanji when he was asked to assess the performance of referee Anthony Taylor, who awarded 20 free-kicks against Arsenal and handed out no bookings for any of those fouls, cynical or otherwise.

Gabriel Jesus and David Raya were the only players to see yellow cards for perceived time-wasting. In this era of referees being encouraged to “let if flow”, Taylor’s leniency led to a game of little to no fluency.

“I don’t understand. One in the first half [from Kai Havertz] was a very late tackle on Stefan [Ortega],” Akanji recalled, referencing the Germany forward’s late and faintly nasty lunge on his compatriot in the City goal. “For me, it is clearly a yellow card. I don’t want to say just against us. There were also some decisions against them that I didn’t understand.

“There are some rules and I think there are clear yellow cards. I remember the action with Jorginho when he’d already done a foul and did the second one and he didn’t even give a yellow card for [either] foul. I didn’t understand some decisions but, in the end, we still should be able to score a goal.”

MORE: Man City vs Arsenal final score, result, stats, analysis as stalemate hands Liverpool Premier League advantage

In the interests of balance, Guardiola insisted he had no qualms with Taylor’s performance in his post-match news conference. Maybe he was exercising diplomacy but there was none of the acerbic sarcasm that frequently demonstrates that the Manchester City manager should never take up poker. It seemed to be a genuinely held opinion.

Guardiola and his old assistant Mikel Arteta in the Arsenal dugout were far too wrapped up in a tactical battle that had absorbed them as completely as it turned off neutrals who tuned in for thrills and spills.

Arsenal had lost seven league games in a row at the Etihad Stadium, with a 1-0 FA Cup defeat last season thrown in for good measure. The game evidently at the forefront of Arteta’s thinking was last April’s 4-1 shellacking, where City ripped their rivals to bits and all but ended their hopes of the title in the process.

Whether the Gunners came to park the bus or were persuaded into a hasty parallel park by City’s authority on the ball is up for debate. But what is certain is that once Rodri looked at the accomplished midfield trio of Martin Odegaard, Declan Rice and Jorginho, took the measure of them and decided they’d have to find their own ball to play with, Arteta was not going to let last season happen again.

Few people know the intricacies of Guardiola’s City machine as well as the Arsenal manager, meaning he also knows better than most how to gum up the circuitry. This weekend he returned to Manchester with a month’s supply from the Wrigley factory.

“Clarity,” Arteta replied succinctly when asked how his team, which has outscored every team in the league this season, was able to survive on a largely joyless 27.5% of possession.

“Before the game are you ready to follow 30 passes? And after following 30 passes, lose the ball and follow another 30 passes? Yes? Okay, then you can play against Manchester City.”

Man City vs Arsenal stats 

Man City Stat Arsenal
12 Shots 6
1 Shots on target 2
0.95 Expected goals 0.68
73% Possession 27%
690 Passes 269
7 Corners 4
9 Fouls 20
0 Yellow cards 2

The contrast – in terms of Arteta’s prescriptive assessment and the match that duly unfolded — was stark when set against City and Liverpool’s latest barnstormer at Anfield and how Jurgen Klopp went for the throat in a 1-1 draw despite a weighty injury list.

Guardiola and Klopp have jousted for the last time in the Premier League, with the Liverpool boss committed to leaving at the end of this season’s three-way title race. As Sunday’s tepid fare unfolded, it was easy to already think wistfully about what we’d lost.

The glory of Klopp vs. Guardiola was their differences. Two light and shade versions of excellence, executed to near perfection. This is always where the best sport happens. Think Ali vs. Frazier, Federer vs. Nadal. 

Klopp has never approached an away game at City the way the apprentice measured up to his old master at the weekend. Arteta would fairly counter that Klopp never won a league game against Guardiola at City’s ground. Sunday’s stalemate could yet be a key result in Arsenal’s first title triumph in 20 years.

Ultimately, that’s all that counts and all that ever will count. But Guardiola and Klopp have given us a rarely thrilling period. A tiresome debate has gone back and forth over whether City and Liverpool can really be considered a rivalry. Kevin De Bruyne and Virgil van Dijk are mates because their kids go to the same school. You can feel Roy Keane’s blood turning cold.

However, the dirty secret for those who lionise the Premier League’s aggro years in the 2000s, when Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger seethed at one another, Jose Mourinho turned the enmity up to 11 and needled Rafael Benitez for good measure, is that the games were… well, a lot like Manchester City vs. Arsenal on Sunday. 

Scrappy, foul-ridden borefests. We talk so much about Cesc Fabregas throwing a slice of pizza because none of the Spain playmaker’s countless beautiful moments came in those unforgiving forums. Taylor’s laissez-faire approach set a similar temperature in east Manchester as Guardiola and Arteta laid their pieces on the board for a stalemate.

But, hey, Erling Haaland and Gabriel almost looked like they were going to have a fight at the final whistle before breaking into giggles and having a hug. Just turn the highlights off before “yer Da’” sees that bit. Let’s be honest, who on earth is watching the highlights of what City and Arsenal dished up?

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