Arteta's Willian gamble fails whereas passive arsenal's high 6 issues persist
When Mikel Arteta and Pep Guardiola compete against each other, you always get the feeling that the two great friends spent hours leading up to the game figuring out how to outsmart each other.
The couple were on the hip for three years while Arteta Guardiola's assistant was in Manchester City and each knows exactly how each other's minds work.
So it might come as no surprise that Arteta tried something new at the Etihad Stadium on Saturday night, but from the moment you saw Willian act as a false nine, the Arsenal manager felt like he was a little too smart.
The tactic would have been something the team would have worked on extensively during the week in London Colney, and as always with Arteta, there would have been a lot of science behind the experiment.
But it just didn't work when the plan was put into practice. The Brazilian struggled to make any impact when Arsenal suffered a 1-0 loss. Raheem Sterling's goal in the first half was crucial for the hosts.
Having struggled to make a name for himself at his new club since his impressive debut at Fulham on the opening weekend of the new season, was unable to get into the game at all and was conveniently canceled by the formidable Ruben Dias before finally joining 21 minutes replaced by Alexandre Lacazette before the end.
"I believed it was a game for him, how City play, how they attract opponents and what spaces can be used," said Arteta when asked about his decision to run the line with the Brazilian.
"He was also very confident. It was obviously difficult to leave two strikers on the bench, but it was a tactical decision.
"[It worked] better in some moments than in others. I think he will grow and understand this position better if we use him on other occasions, maybe surrounded by different players. But I am happy with the game that he had."
This seemed like an opportunity for Arsenal to face a side from Manchester City that got along without Kevin De Bruyne and Aymeric Laporte and started the season in a somewhat cautious style.
But as for some time outside of North London against the "Big Six" in the Premier League, the Gunners stayed behind.
There were still some positive results to be gleaned from the performance, particularly in the first half when Ederson was forced to make three good saves, but it's now 29 games since Arsenal went home to one of their top 6 rivals and won.
And if Arteta's improving team is to fight for a place in the Champions League this season, this run has to end sooner rather than later.
When the starting XI was announced and Lacazette was on the bench, it was assumed that Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang would start as a central striker in Arteta's 3-4-3 formation for the first time this season.
But by the time the game started it was quickly clear that Aubameyang was back on the left, with Willian playing the central role and Nicolas Pepe on the right.
It was a system that Arsenal were sure to bring into play and, with Sterling's 23rd-minute goal, the visitors had frustrated their hosts and would have been pleased with the way they settled.
But Riyad Mahrez's excellent pass to Sergio Aguero suddenly gave City the chance to attack with numbers, and when Hector Bellerin allowed Phil Foden to cut into it, the warning signs were visible to all.
Bernd Leno blocked Foden's shot but could only parry it back into the danger zone, and Sterling was on hand to score his now usual goal against Arsenal.
From that point on, Arteta's team always followed the game. They had a chance to get back on terms before half-time as the excellent Bukayo Saka and Aubameyang were both turned down by Ederson.
But after the break, they never really looked like they would equalize. It was just a bit too passive for visitors at a time when they felt like City might have been there for the recording.
Even when Lacazette replaced the ineffective Willian, he played a deeper role instead of sitting right on Dias's shoulder trying to push back city defenses. It was just another example of Arteta's side showing their hosts a little too much respect.
There were no late indictments for compensation, no barrage in the city defenses. In the end, Guardiola's side saw the game relatively pleasant and that was a disappointment for Arteta.
However, there were positive results from the defeat for an Arsenal team that are significantly more competitive now than they were when Arteta picked up the pieces Unai Emery left behind less than a year ago.
Saka was impressive, Gabriel was again exceptional in defense and Thomas Partey was signed for his debut in the final stages.
The Ghana international will soon be a regular in the starting XI and his presence will most likely result in Arteta switching to a more offensive formation with a back four.
That should make Arsenal more of a threat in an offensive sense as things develop over the next few months and given the events at Etihad, it is doubtful that we will see the Willian experiment of the false nine again.