Arsène Wenger has talked in recent weeks about personal reinvention while the buzz phrase coming out of Arsenal on Sunday was “catalyst for change”. In short, as the chief executive, Ivan Gazidis, explained to a group of fans’ representatives in the morning, everyone at the club has to evolve in order to drive improvement – and that includes the manager.
It felt like a snappy piece of management-speak rather than any meaningful clue as to whether Wenger was going to remain in charge for the start of next season – with the feeling persisting that the directors want him to stay. It was followed by an Arsenal performance that took in several familiar themes. The Emirates crowd were edgy, the team were loose at the back and erratic in central midfield, while it was impossible to ignore the impression that disaster lurked around the corner.
Except that it did not. Manchester City were equally skittish and Pep Guardiola was unhappy at how his players took care of the ball – at least until Yaya Touré came on for the second half to bring a little more composure. They were also undermined, once again, by a failure to take their chances.
City were the more threatening team at 2-2 and they argued loudly for a penalty in stoppage time, when the Arsenal left‑back Nacho Monreal got himself into a tangle, misjudged a header and felt the ball hit an arm. Guardiola went on to the field at full-time to remonstrate with the referee, Andre Marriner, who, he noted, was the official who had denied Raheem Sterling a penalty in the 2-2 home draw with Tottenham in January.
Arsenal emerged with the draw and given their miserable recent run, it was easy for Wenger to feel not only relief but a measure of satisfaction. The performance might have been disjointed and there were further clashes between the Wenger In and Wenger Out factions of the support but, at least, the result served to check the negative spiral.
It had not looked too promising for them at the outset. Arsenal were riddled with nerves and they conceded an early goal that laid bare their fragility. Shkodran Mustafi had stepped up to execute a clearing header but he sent the ball straight to Kevin De Bruyne, who volleyed it first time back up the middle.
In the blink of an eye Leroy Sané had muscled on to it, with Héctor Bellerín on the wrong side and nobody in red covering. Where were the centre-backs? Sané is a beautifully balanced player and he made a difficult finish look routine, holding off Bellerín before going round David Ospina and rolling the ball into the empty net.
At the very outset, Fernandinho had played in Raheem Sterling only for Ospina to get out to clear and there was a backs‑to-the-wall feel for Arsenal by the 10th minute, when De Bruyne bent a shot against a post and David Silva worked Ospina with the rebound.
Wenger’s team got back into it without looking truly cohesive. Danny Welbeck had gone close in the early running and after Sané’s goal, Arsenal flickered through Mesut Özil and Alexis Sánchez. The first equaliser came when Arsenal botched a short-corner routine but the visitors botched their attempts to clear. Mustafi sent a header back into the area and it found Theo Walcott, who got the better of Gaël Clichy to prod past Willy Caballero. Walcott’s celebrations, and those of his team-mates, were muted.
Arsenal’s good feeling lasted 131 seconds. Actually, it was less than that because they fell apart almost immediately at the back and were grateful that De Bruyne could not finish when well placed.
City regained the lead with their next possession. Özil lost the ball and the ease with which the visitors cut through his team was remarkable. After an incision from De Bruyne, Silva worked it wide to Sergio Agüero, who had manoeuvred himself into yards of space, and he flashed a low shot into the far corner.
There was still time before the interval for Walcott to lift a half-chance over the crossbar from Sánchez’s set-up. It was a strange game and a curious atmosphere, with the Arsenal support fearing the worst when Laurent Koscielny did not reappear for the second half because of an Achilles problem.
There was also the moment on 50 minutes when Mustafi stepped out of defence with the ball only to overrun it and surrender possession in a dangerous area. Sánchez was next to Mustafi and he berated him before standing still as City surged into the area – on a move that would come to nothing. Sánchez had earlier tracked a run by De Bruyne and when he looked around, he noticed that he was the only Arsenal player to have chased back.
City continued to look threatening, Agüero fluffing a free header from Jesús Navas’s cross. Guardiola had started Navas – one of six out-and-out attackers in his lineup – at right-back, which felt risky against Sánchez. He did an excellent job.
The game twisted again when Mustafi leapt to glance a corner beyond Caballero but, thereafter, City were the better team. Fernandinho was denied by Ospina; Agüero worked the goalkeeper after some faffing by Sánchez; Francis Coquelin risked a second yellow card for a barge on De Bruyne and Monreal got away with his apparent handball. At last Wenger could feel he had caught a break.