Arsenal and Man City put on the most boring title showdown, but Gunners couldn’t care less

Erling Haaland had a frustrating day in Manchester (Martin Rickett/PA Wire)

It wasn’t exactly the game to justify a rise in Manchester City’s ticket prices, not that it would be anything. It certainly wasn’t a match that justified the build-up. That shouldn’t be a surprise. The Premier League actually has a pretty substantial history of these so-called showdowns being disappointing matches, with tension stifling expression.

The real surprise, however, was how bad this 0-0 draw between the national champions and Arsenal was. Whatever the expression, there were periods when some of the best players in the world seemed unable to kick a ball properly. City’s attackers stumbled with their touch on the edge of the penalty area. Arsenal’s defenders were desperately trying to cut the ball away. Even someone as sublime as Martin Odegaard played one of the most strangely miscued through balls you will ever see from such a player. As for his international teammate, was there even a moment when Erling Haaland made good contact with a ball? There was certainly another big miss after the one against Manchester United, although this time it had more consequences.

A lot of that had to do with William Saliba, a player who was above and beyond. He was fantastic and always knew exactly where to be to take Haaland into areas he didn’t want.

The brief confrontation between the two after the match was the only time the Norwegian was not silent. Saliba was aided by a hugely disciplined defence, with Gabriel often just as crucial in dealing directly with Haaland one-on-one.

This points to what probably had the biggest influence on how and why the game played out the way it did. It was more than excitement. It was the setup.

While the onus was on Arsenal to finally get that ‘statement’ victory, there was the telling statistic that they had become the first team in almost three years to prevent City from scoring on their own pitch. Saliba said after the match that they cannot be happy about a match in which they do not win, but they felt a great satisfaction about it.

William Saliba was extremely effective in stopping Erling Haaland (Getty Images)William Saliba was extremely effective in stopping Erling Haaland (Getty Images)

William Saliba was extremely effective in stopping Erling Haaland (Getty Images)

A win would have put Arsenal back on top and probably clear favorites for the title, but this is still City, even one that now sits in third place with less than ten games remaining. Even Liverpool at their best didn’t really go there and win. It’s something you might hope for, but can’t really strive for. They are still the best team in Europe and the best at what they do, which has meant Mikel Arteta has had to adapt to Pep Guardiola’s approach. There would never be an own game imposed here, in the way they have naively done in the past.

It shows the further maturation of the team, even though there are great doubts whether there is enough growth to become champions.

Arsenal have done this a few times now, once against Liverpool and now twice against Manchester City. This time they were forced to give up ground in the title race as Jurgen Klopp’s side went two points clear on their own, but the key point is that they are still on a firm footing with so much left to play for. Even Arsenal draws in this stadium are not exactly common. Arteta ultimately did the sensible thing.

They didn’t go for it the way they did in April before that humiliation and the way they might have been tempted by that build-up. Even Declan Rice spoke about the need for a win. The invitation was there to ‘prove’ himself and try to go to City. The outcome would certainly have been similar to last season’s 4-1 defeat, if not as cathartic.

Arsenal frustrated Man City and emerged with a creditable draw (Getty Images)Arsenal frustrated Man City and emerged with a creditable draw (Getty Images)

Arsenal frustrated Man City and emerged with a creditable draw (Getty Images)

Those at Arsenal may point to the fact that they didn’t have Saliba for that game, but had him here, and he illustrated how crucial he is. There was more to it than that.

This performance showed how Arsenal have learned from last season and honed them further. That’s the pattern with this team, in a way that’s often overlooked.

They followed the perceived farce of 2020/21 and a poor start to the following season with a challenge for the Champions League places in 2021/22. When they finished fifth there, after another humiliation but this time alongside rivals Tottenham Hotspur, they simply came back with a title challenge.

Another hiccup there led to a lot of criticism of Arteta’s side for ‘bottling it up’ and not having it, but the truth was that it was a young team that performed too well and ultimately ran out of strength. This entire season, up to the evolution of Kai Havertz, has been a reaction to that. They are clearly closer to the finished article.

Whether they can continue the pattern of Arteta’s time and follow last season’s second-place finish by going one step further… well, that’s where it gets even tougher. The hardest part is yet to come. It’s not as punishing to go from eighth to fifth or fifth to second as it is to actually cross the line. That’s the real test of courage, especially when you’re playing against City.

Arsenal celebrated a hard-earned point, but bigger tests to come (EPA)Arsenal celebrated a hard-earned point, but bigger tests to come (EPA)

Arsenal celebrated a hard-earned point, but bigger tests to come (EPA)

That’s what a lot of this performance was about. It was about standing strong instead of losing. One of the reasons why there was more pressure on Arsenal going into this match is because they have a significantly tougher run-in than Liverpool or City.

The feeling remains that they will only drop more points. That’s why everyone was talking about how this was a particularly good day for Liverpool, and that it might have been even better if Arsenal had won. City is still the default. However, Arsenal have found a way to meet them. That in itself is important.

It’s also why Saliba seemed to shake his head when it was put to him that Liverpool might now have the advantage. As the centre-back showed at City, he is prepared to do his utmost to ensure that no one can get past this emerging Arsenal so easily.

That is perhaps the greatest importance of this. It was never going to be a showdown, or at least a confrontation that decided something. It’s just further set up and perhaps keeps it all the more interesting.

The run-in will likely be much more watchable than this.

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