Arteta’s Willian gamble backfires for Arsenal

When Mikel Arteta and Pep Guardiola square off, you always get the sense that the two great friends have spent hours in the build-up to the game trying to work out how to outfox one another.

The pair were joined at the hip for three years while Arteta was Guardiola’s assistant at Manchester City and each knows exactly how the other’s mind works.

So it was perhaps no surprise to see Arteta try something new at the Etihad Stadium on Saturday night, but from the moment you saw Willian operating as a false nine it felt like the Arsenal manager had tried to be a bit too clever.

The tactic would have been something the team had worked on extensively throughout the week at London Colney and, as is always the way with Arteta, there would have been plenty of science behind the experiment.

But it just didn’t work when the plan was put into practice, with the Brazilian struggling to make any sort of impact as Arsenal fell to a 1-0 defeat. Raheem Sterling’s first-half goal proved decisive for the hosts.

Willian, who has struggled to make his mark at his new club since his impressive debut at Fulham on the opening weekend of the new season, couldn’t get into the game at all and was comfortably seen off by the impressive Ruben Dias before eventually being replaced by Alexandre Lacazette with 21 minutes remaining.

This felt like an opportunity for Arsenal to have a go at a Manchester City side who were without Kevin De Bruyne and Aymeric Laporte and who have started the season in somewhat tentative style.

But, as has been the way for some time now outside of north London against the ‘Big Six’ in the Premier League, the Gunners fell short.

There were still some positives to take from the performance, especially in the first half when Ederson was forced into making three good saves, but it’s 29 games now since Arsenal went to the home of one of their top-six rivals and won.

And if Arteta’s improving side are to challenge for a Champions League spot this season, that is a run that is going to have to come to an end sooner rather than later.

When the starting XI was announced, and Lacazette was on the bench, the assumption was that Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang would be starting as the central striker in Arteta’s 3-4-3 formation for the first time this season.

But once the game kicked off it was soon apparent that Aubameyang was on the left once again, with Willian occupying the central role and Nicolas Pepe on the right.

It was a system that certainly allowed Arsenal into the game and, prior to Sterling’s 23rd-minute goal, the visitors had frustrated their hosts and would have been happy with how they had settled.

But Riyad Mahrez’s excellent pass to Sergio Aguero suddenly gave City a chance to attack with numbers and when Hector Bellerin allowed Phil Foden to cut inside, the danger signs were there for all to see.

Bernd Leno kept out Foden’s shot, but could only parry it back out into the danger area and Sterling was on hand to slot home his now-customary goal against Arsenal.

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