Rodri’s injury-time strike gives City win as 10-man Arsenal blame VAR

Sport

One can only hope the Arteta residence has thick walls. Arsenal’s manager, who had said he would “need a big room” before watching this fixture from home, must have been clawing at them after an unruly, fractious affair his players deserved to win.

The fact they left with nothing owed to a five-minute tailspin of mistakes and poor decision-making that did a disservice to an otherwise exceptional performance.

A sluggish Manchester City were battered for sustained periods but snuck an added-time win through Rodri, who was showered by plastic bottles as he celebrated with teammates.

Arsenal were a goal up through the electric Bukayo Saka when this game turned and, on the strength of their first 53 minutes, that was the least they merited. Nobody does this to City, so the logic goes, but Arsenal had.

The league leaders had barely mounted an attack since the early stages, thanking near misses and desperate defending for retaining a serious interest. They had been stretched to within an inch of their lives but were handed their way back on a plate.

City had hardly posed a threat after half-time when, in a rare moment of clarity, they spread the play and afforded Bernardo Silva a run at Granit Xhaka inside the box. When Silva crumpled before reaching the byline it appeared, at first glance, to be an act of desperation. He had, after all, not been in the game.

But the forward’s protestations were particularly vehement and when VAR had a look it was clear he had a case. Xhaka had grabbed a chunk of his shirt and from there the decision was a formality: Stuart Attwell took a short spell in front of his monitor to make it and, via a spate of handbags, Riyad Mahrez swept in the penalty.

Xhaka had been outstanding until then but cannot shake off these moments of self-destruction.

Gabriel Martinelli blasted off target straight afterwards when it looked easier to score, after chaotic City defending that was entirely of a piece with their display, and Arsenal’s fortunes immediately deteriorated further.

A relieved Ederson, whose miscommunication with Aymeric Laporte had created the chance, took the goal kick and found Gabriel Jesus, who turned past Gabriel Magalhães near halfway.

Gabriel had been booked for dissent in the skirmishes before Mahrez stepped up; if anyone had a word in his ear to suggest lying low in the aftermath it did not show and as soon as he checked Jesus the referee had little choice. In receiving a second daft yellow card, Gabriel had given City a lifeline.

They laboured in taking it. City, missing Phil Foden and looking a yard short in all areas, hogged possession thereafter but rarely created a chance. Pot shots from the edge of the penalty box were wayward and it felt like one of those days when pocketing an away point does little harm.

But with the clock two minutes past regulation time Rob Holding, brought on to shore things up, could only glance a header into Laporte’s path and the City defender’s shot was blocked. Rodri, following up, squeezed his effort past Aaron Ramsdale. His goal secured the kind of win that may mean the title is wrapped up before May; it is hard to imagine City being pushed this hard too often.

The Emirates seethed with perceived injustice but that things had changed so starkly was not primarily the officials’ fault.

There was an added element to the home fans’ anger: in the 10th minute Attwell had not been summoned to the screen for a review when the VAR official, Jarred Gillett, mulled over a tackle by Ederson on Martin Ødegaard. It appeared Ederson had made contact with the ball before his opponent’s ankle, but Arsenal were left feeling the important calls had only gone one way.

“On both, in real time he said no penalty but only gets told to look at one,” Ramsdale said afterwards. Such confusion is an infuriating byproduct of VAR but, ultimately, none of the decisions were obviously wrong.

When the dust has settled it would be as well for the angered masses to take pleasure in Arsenal’s application. They had struggled miserably in this fixture for nearly a decade but the complexion was entirely different here and they showed no sign of missing the Covid-stricken Arteta.

Saka’s goal, just after the half-hour, was swept in from 15 yards after an intelligent pass from Kieran Tierney and could have been added to.

Martinelli, another player impossible to ignore, was denied by Ederson and twice shot just wide after creating chances for himself. Thomas Partey, now lost to the Africa Cup of Nations, ran the midfield and City had no answer to a slick, smooth Arsenal’s aggression.

At the end, though, Arteta’s home furnishings might have felt the force of his.