Ben Gray: Arsenal were right to approach the Manchester City game the way they did and it stands them in good stead going forward

On Sunday, Arsenal held Manchester City to a goalless draw, leaving the Etihad with a positive result for the first time since 2016, having lost all eight visits their subsequently.

The game wide widely ridiculed by ‘neutrals’ for being boring, as the reverse fixture in October had been, when Gabriel Martinelli’s shot deflected in off Nathan Aké's face to snatch a late 1-0 win for the Gunners.

This view is probably justified, Man City’s xG was 0.85 to Arsenal’s 0.73 at the weekend, but Mikel Arteta was completely right to set his team up in this way,

Sunday was the first time since a 2-0 defeat to Crystal Palace 883 days earlier that the Sky Blues had failed to score in a home Premier League game, a sequence of 47 matches.

The Citizens had just four touches in the opposite box in the first half, their lowest tally for eight years, while Erling Braut Håland has only failed to register a shot on target in five of his 35 club appearances this season, three of which have come against Arsenal (minimum 45 minutes played).

The Gunners have kept a clean sheet in four successive Premier League away games for the first time since 2005, and Arsenal supporters have not witnessed a team this strong since the Invincibles era two decades ago.

In their entire history, Arsenal have only kept a clean sheet home and away against the reigning champions on four occasions, previously doing so against Sheffield Wednesday (1904/05), Liverpool (1990/91) and Leicester (2016/17)- credit to @TomEde1 on twitter.

Despite an assured performance that yielded a credible point at the Etihad, many were quick to criticise both the quality of the game and Arteta’s perceived lack of ambition.

Well, you can’t have it both ways!

12 months ago, this team were widely-ridiculed for being over-enthusiastic an naive, claiming victory in only three of their final nine games, including being poleaxed in the corresponding fixture 12 months ago.

The Gunners yielded 50 points from the first half of last season and then only 34 in the second half, so Arteta has prioritised defensive solidity and control this time round, making sure his team paces themselves, aiming to peak at the right time.

This has helped them accumulated eight points from head-to-head clashes with the top three, beating both at home whilst draw at Anfield and now the Etihad, while neither Man City nor Liverpool have claimed any victories against their fellow-title rivals.

If Arsenal don’t win the title, it’ll be a result of dropped points against Fulham, as well as defeats at Villa Park and St’ James Park, not because they can’t compete in big games, which was the issue for so many years.

So where to Arsenal stand with only 48 days left of this season?

Well, following their draw at the Etihad, coupled with Liverpool’s win over Brighton earlier on Easter Sunday, the Gunners are now widely acknowledged to be third-favourites for the title, according to Opta’s super computer, bookies and others.

It’s hard to argue that Arteta’s team don’t have the toughest fixture list, given that their remaining away games are at Brighton, Wolves, Tottenham and Manchester United, with Aston Villa and Chelsea amongst those still yet to make the pilgrimage to N5.

Statistics don’t actually back up that claim in fairness, given that the average current league position of Arsenal’s remaining opponents is 10th, while Manchester City’s is 11th, with Liverpool’s also 10th.

Nevertheless, Arsenal have proved to be strong in big games, not losing to any of the traditional ‘big six’ all season, winning three and drawing four, with ‘big six’ in adverted inverted comma as it does include 11th placed Chelsea.

There is also the Champions League to consider, with vulnerable Bayern Munich visiting North London in just eight nights time.

Thomas Tuchel’s team are there for the taking, as Borussia Dortmund emphasised on Saturday night, claiming a first der Klassiker victory at Allianz Arena for a decade, leaving Bavaria 2-0 winners.

The Gunners needed a penalty shootout to oust Porto in the round of 16, and the prevailing narrative was that they lack Champions League expirence, which is an easy one to make, given that Jorginho, Oleksandr Zinchenko, Kai Havertz and Gabriel Jesus are the only players with much if any.

However, the transformational shift from a chaotic team to one that’s, possibly, the best out-of-possession side in the world, makes a Champions League run significantly more likely.

Of course, we all enjoy when Champions League ties end 7-5 or 8-6 on aggregate, but perhaps low-scoring affairs are coming back into fashion, akin to the Chelsea vs Liverpool, Rafa Benítez vs José Mourinho match-ups of yesteryear.

If Arsenal do overcome Bayern Munich, which every right-minded Gooner on the planet would agree is a sizeable if, either Real Madrid or Manchester City await in the semi-finals, and it doesn’t get much tougher than that.

But this team proved on Easter Sunday that they can compete with the very best, something which was not the case this time last year, now they have to prove they can beat the best, which represents the next step in their evolution.

Arteta may not end this campaign hoisting aloft a trophy, it’s very likely he won’t, with only the two toughest competitions in club football to win up for grabs, but this team is going in the right direction, having come a long way over the last year, let alone the last three years or even five.

Ben Gray

Ben Gray

Arsenal fan – follow them over land and sea (and Leicester); sofa Celtic supporter; a bit of a football '"encyclopedia".