The Citizens best shot at European glory could rest in their most recent Premier League performance
Pep Guardiola opted for more “stability” against Arsenal and the switch worked with Manchester City delivering their first clean sheet in 10 matches.
Despite a 3-0 win, the City boss wasn’t happy that they didn’t control the game in their usual way – insisting they had played better the previous weekend when they were beaten 2-1 at home in the Manchester derby.
But a more cautious approach lifted the pressure off his troubled defence and produced enough chances to see off the Gunners with ease.
Of course, it was only against a shambolic Arsenal side that is on it’s worse home run this century.
And the result was the same 3-0 scoreline that City demolished the Gunners by in a free-flowing humiliation just over nine months ago.
But the style and performance was an underused side to Guardiola’s City and could potentially be a more pragmatic way to approach the Champions League when it restarts in two months’ time.
While the Gunners were woeful, they at least went into the game with some confidence on the back of two good performances against West Ham and Standard Liege.
Ilkay Gundogan and Rodri lined up alongside each other in a twin pivot in midfield to give extra protection to a back-four that had not kept a clean sheet since October. It worked, with the Gunners having only one shot on target – Gabriel Martinelli’s first-minute strike.
With Fernandinho becoming a regular centre-back, Guardiola has been torn between who to play in the holding midfield role. Gundogan doesn’t offer as much defensive cover, while Rodri isn’t quite as creative.
Starting both resulted in City played deeper but that at least produced more space in behind and they were terrifying on the counter-attack with three brilliant first-half goals.
Certainly, it was an uncharacteristic performance. In the first half, City only had 51 per cent possession and 18 more successful passes than the home side, despite the goals, and spent far more time in their own half than usual.
While that changed in the second half with a dominant 45 minutes, Guardiola believed they didn’t control the ball.
“The problem we had is that we made actions for the counter-attack but not for ball possession except the last 15-20 minutes,” he said.
But City were devastating on the counter-attack, not least Kevin De Bruyne, who revelled in the wide open spaces left behind Arsenal’s midfield. While the Belgian isn’t known for his pace, his brain works quicker than anyone else on the pitch and he has the skill to play at speed.
His first goal was all about technique, his assist came from fast passing around the Gunners’ defence and City’s third was cleverness of thought and precision finishing. The only disappointment was that he didn’t claim a first hat-trick when Bernd Leno tipped his wicked shot onto the post after a tricky run from Phil Foden.
“For the stability of our team we did it today,” Guardiola explained. “He can play in both positions of course for the amount of those type of players that we have, when they can think in just attack and less in defence, it’s much better.
“He can see passes and action that a normal human being cannot see.”
De Bruyne wasn’t the only ones to revel in a more counter-attacking game. Raheem Sterling got his goal and looked threatening, Gabriel Jesus led the line with hard-work and should have scored himself when he missed a one-on-one and Foden looked comfortable on his first Premier League start of the season – and first ever away from the Etihad Stadium.
And the defence looked less stretched. Martinelli gave Kyle Walker plenty of problems as did Nicholas Pepe to Benjamin Mendy on the other wing, but City were able to deal with problems by flooding the defence with numbers and snuffed out any threat from Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.
Thoughts on Monday will turn briefly back to the Champions League with City’s opponents in the last-16 to be revealed. It won’t be an easy draw with a choice between the two Madrid teams, Napoli, Borussia Dortmund and Lyon.
If City are to earn their ultimate ambition, they must learn from their three Champions League exits under Guardiola when they conceded six goals to Monaco, five to Liverpool and four to Tottenham last year.
City have an unhappy habit of losing control of games over short periods which can lead to them conceding a glut of goals quickly.
Guardiola might not like it, but the pragmatic approach against Arsenal could just be the blueprint to success in Europe.