If there’s going to be a lot of trial and error about the early stages of Project Restart, you couldn’t have a better face for it than David Luiz.
His expression after giving away the penalty for that second Manchester City goal was the defining image of this match, as he was the deciding factor in this match.
And he did it all in 25 minutes – quite the impact from the bench – which may well limit his future impact at Arsenal. There was an awful lot of error.
Luiz, of course, isn’t a bad player. He has a lot of qualities, he just probably isn’t a centre-half. He certainly isn’t a “system player”. He’s too erratic, too uneven at the edges, and can thereby only really perform in specific roles that allow his very unspecific skills.
So, when you’re forced to stick him in at centre-half – as Mikel Arteta was after 25 minutes – you’re always going to struggle against the ultimate systems team in City.
You could say players like Kevin De Bruyne and Raheem Sterling were always going to pick holes in that, but it got so bad they almost didn’t need to. Luiz exploded a few holes in the Arsenal structure himself.
That is going to be all the more frustrating for Arteta since he is still at such an early stage of his plan at Arsenal, still trying to just install something resembling City’s system. Right now, it is a necessarily more basic version, for a lesser team. It meant they were never going to get going here.
City didn’t immediately click into gear, mind. The opening half-hour saw them repeatedly fall into shape rather than press forward, as if they were trying to work themselves through the basic motions again. Within that, it was only really the brilliant De Bruyne trying to force the issue, by attempting passes that pushed his teammates and invited them to do that bit more.
It was like he was finding his range, and helping his team to find their rhythm.
Arsenal could at least lament one moment – one that might have made a difference, but ended up proving one massive difference between the teams.
As City were still finding their feet, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang suddenly seared away into space, almost begging for the pass to be played. Kieran Tierney, not long in the team himself, didn’t take the chance to offer it. It was little more than a sign of a team not yet in sync, but was fatal.
City just wouldn’t have that problem. This is why they are always going to stretch away from Arsenal in games like this, when two sides are attempting the same fundamental approach, but at very different levels of development. That Arteta lost two of his key players through injury just made it inevitable – and that isn’t just a joke about Luiz’s introduction.
It wasn’t long until De Bruyne was finding all manner of magnificent passes, and his attacking team-mates were starting to complement him with some super, angled balls.
That meant Bernd Leno – by far Arsenal’s best player, and the total opposite of Luiz in that regard – had to repeatedly get his angles right. He made some sublime saves, especially from David Silva.
That could not happen indefinitely, but it wasn’t one of City’s stars who produced the breakthrough moment. It was Luiz. He got his body all wrong for one of De Bruyne’s poorer passes, allowing Sterling to just thump the ball past Leno.
The second major error wasn’t long in coming. A mere five minutes into the second half, Luiz again got his body shape wrong, and then got his arms all wrong as he sent Riyad Mahrez over. De Bruyne stepped up to seal it as Luiz stepped off the pitch to win it.
Against all those City passes, this was mostly the story of two massive errors, and one red card. All delivered in a mere 25 minutes.