There are certain sport fixtures that carry with them the weight of history, of tradition, of rivalry, and of intense, often irrational emotions, including unavoidable hurt. For someone initiated into football during the peak of the Sir Alex and Arsene years, it was Arsenal versus Manchester United. Even now, it’s the win I want most—yes, ahead of Spurs!
So when I sat down to write this, my first Alternative Match Report in four not about the above, I was surprised to discover that Arsenal versus Manchester City, while a fairly new “rivalry” (one that has perhaps gained more credibility after last season), was entwined with more personal football memories in its early years than I’d realised, including my first-ever live match (a sunny April 2009 day in north London with a 2-0 win for us) and my first away match later that year (an actual men vs boys Carling Cup quarter finals fixture at the then-Eastlands which we lost 3-0).
But I’ll be honest. Before Sunday, whenever I thought back to the last time we’d beaten Manchester City in the league, my immediate memories always took me to January 2015, which is when I had to remind myself that it was in fact eleven months later nearly to the day. This away victory is dominant in my mind despite me being on an unavoidable plane during it because it was a welcome surprise. By then, Arsenal’s shaky, and often altogether embarrassing, away form against the top 6 was already an open wound. So the emphatic nature of the unexpected shutout, the well-organised defensive performance and, especially, the Santi Cazorla masterclass indelibly stamped itself on my footballing subconscious.
Fast forward eight years and treble-winners Manchester City are a ruthless machine helmed by Pep Guardiola; arguably the best team in the world. Arsenal, while title contenders yet again, are in a very different stage of their project in comparison, even to their own old selves. The second-youngest team in the league managed by the youngest manager, a club renewed, re-energised, inspired, with a loud home and away support basking in a collective belonging that had been missing for a long time, after many bumpy, hopeless seasons. But, and this cannot be ignored, they are also the ascendant team that competed and lost out on the league to City last season, eventually by a big margin thanks to a late-stage collapse, which included two losses to the eventual champions.
As mentioned earlier, the latter half of Wenger’s tenure was marred by painful, and often big, defeats to top-six opposition. Arsenal were, not incorrectly, labelled soft and naive when it came to game management in these fixtures, and ever since Mikel Arteta took over in December 2019, he has worked on steadily transforming all aspects of a club deeply adrift at the time of his arrival.
Here, it would be remiss not to mention that even with only a few months in north London, many of them pandemic-marred, the then ‘first team head coach’ led a brilliant trophy-winning campaign in the delayed FA Cup, engineering masterful wins against Man City in the semi finals and Chelsea in the final; going on to beat Klopp’s Liverpool in the 2020 Community Shield. Those wins were proof of the Spaniard’s tactical and motivational ability, and his skills at working with what he had; the more consistent results would take the better part of two years.
But by 2022-23, in a season where an Arsenal team shone the brightest it has for years, beating Pep in the league still eluded his star pupil, and it remained a thorn in Arsenal’s side. Before Sunday, it had been 15 league games, most damningly 12 straight losses, without beating them.
When this “proper” win finally arrived—finally!—it wasn’t Wenger-ball or even pure Arteta-ball that got us there; I’d actually argue that there were shades of George Graham in there, and not just because of the final scoreline (as an aside, beyond their youthful teams, that legendary Arsenal manager and the current one share the record of winning a trophy in their very first season at the club). This was a highly scrappy tactical battle that gave nothing away, where Mikel got all his decisions just right, including substitutes, all four of whom were involved in the late winning goal. Arsenal showed commendable defensive organisation and discipline, had standout individual performances as well as a gritty cohesion as a unit, and never gave up through the bumpy bits, held their nerve even in the face of uneven refereeing decisions that, on another day, could have (and have in the past) affected concentration and emotions. And the now-renowned loud home crowd were with their team at every step of the way, making themselves heard even on a TV screen oceans away.
The most incredible statistic to come out of the game, however, was City’s—despite a few early nerves by Raya, they had only four shots overall, and none for an Erling Halaand expertly subdued by Willo Saliba. It is their lowest-ever total in a game during Guardiola’s entire Manchester career. It is also the first-time they have lost back-to-back league games since December 2018 (and yes they were missing Kevin de Bruyne and Rodri, but we were missing Bukayo Saka, and Gabriel Martinelli played only the second half after Leandro Trossard picked up an injury in the first half).
At this point, let’s skip back to August 6, 2023, a match that clearly held more meaning than earlier encounters given the season gone by. My cousins and I (and a Spurs fan friend!) were at the Tollington bellowing North London Forever. Whiplash-inducing proceedings, in what were sure to be the dying minutes of yet another loss to City, ended with Mikel and his merry men lifting the Community Shield at Wembley—a penalty shootout, and the outpouring of a strong wave of emotion that was all the more joyous for its unexpected nature. After all, I’m not the only Gooner perpetually resigned to losing in the league to them; even my usually hopeful self finds itself somewhat accepting that, in the end, something or the other will conspire to hand them the victory. But this was “just” the Community Shield—we could celebrate all we liked, but it wasn’t “real” in the sense that beating them in the league would be.
Well, now that we’re here, I have another confession to make. I was so sure that the football gods would contrive a Manchester City win on Sunday that my jubilation when Nelli scored and all pandemonium broke loose, and when the full-time whistle cemented the win, felt like it was floating somewhere above the surface. I think that I’ve gotten so used to losing to this club in the league that the disbelief of us actually doing it is stronger than the buoyancy of my happy emotions. And it’s a strange feeling, because it’s new and unprecedented (anyone who has ever read a football piece I’ve written can attest to the fact that Feelings have a starring role). What can I say—the surprises just keep on coming!
Mikel Arteta the manager has now beaten all 24 of the teams he has faced in the Premier League (ending, also, a personal record of seven consecutive league losses against his mentor). To add further smiles going into the international break, the win takes us above the reigning champions to second place in the table, separated from first-place Tottenham only by two fewer goals scored.
We may have failed in games beyond the two fixtures with City during last season’s crunchtime, and the factors for that were multifold, but fans have always known that if we were to take another shot at a title we haven’t won in a decade, we’d have to beat the champions in the league. To do that, we’d have to first believe that we could, that they can be beaten—that we can be the ones to do it.
Arteta is convinced that last season’s losses, in particular, were eventually essential to this long-awaited win.
“The team showed a real maturity today, that maturity comes from experiences and sometimes you need that to become a better team […] It’s been so many years without beating them […] we have done it with a huge performance, going through some difficult moments in the game, but at the end, living an incredible experience with our people here.”
Sunday is not a case of one isolated, albeit significant, success either; only against the context of The Arsenal’s story in this Mikel Arteta era, of the past season and this one, and of everything to come, does it reflect the result’s true magnitude.
In my piece at the end of last season, I wrote that our exponential, much-ahead-of-time progress leap meant that the 2023-24 season would have higher standards, finer margins of error, and even finer margins of growth—
For Mikel Arteta, for this group of players, for the club, and for the legion of fans, this is unquestionably a statement victory (thanks, Stadio) in every sense of the term, and beyond.