An abridged version of this article first appeared on the pages of the Irish Examiner on Monday 13th August 2018.
The sleeves of Arsenal’s pristine new shirts implore any reader with powerful enough vision to “Visit Rwanda”, yet everyone was at the Emirates Stadium in dusty, busy old London town, the sound of strangled traffic chugging sedately past outside, watching such lofty spaces open up on the Arsenal left that we might have been basking gently in the sunlit uplands of the Akergera National Park itself.
There might not have been any nodding herds of giraffes or nervously grazing gazelles, no golden moneys making a nuisance of themselves and no (or few) gorillas rubbing their armpits, but the Arsenal defence were trying their best to look a little like Eastern Black Rhinos. The great gnarled beasts are – thanks to poachers - critically endangered and, if Unai Emery maintains this level of tactical openness, he may well be joining them by Christmas in the giant Premier League stock pot.
Emery’s pre-match words included the phrase “above all passion and energy” when asked what Arsenal fans could expect from his new-look side. Not elements easily twinned with Arsene Wenger’s Gunners vintage, but perhaps a neat change of direction, we all thought. Arsenal with grit, Ozil, perhaps, with sliding tackles, Ramsey with a leaning towards fisticuffs.
By half-time, his side had deflated, the stadium had sighed its last hurrah and City were passing their way quietly to yet another win over Arsenal. Ramsey had disappeared up his own shadow, Ozil had been made busy by a falling lock of well-coiffed hair that kept drooping in front of his eyes and the new manager was already throwing shapes on the touchline that would fill the morning’s papers: hands through well-groomed hair; double arms towards the sky; double arms towards the ground; grimace with teeth reveal; grimace with hands in front of teeth; slowly shaking head; aggressive pointing; all that was missing was the Joachim Löw bum scratch.
For the Arsenal any flirtation with passion had swiftly ended with a Mancunian smack in the chops.
In the 15 painful years between 1991 and 2006, not a single City victory was registered over Arsenal. To say the Gunners had become a bogey team was to greatly underestimate the power of the word bogey.
Last season three victories were notched at Arsenal’s expense, not so remarkable when you consider a more or less similar fate befell practically all of City’s opponents, but still relatively new ground for City’s supporters to stroll through.
The slick despatching of the Gunners at Wembley in the League Cup final and – even more spectacularly – three days later in a first half blitz at the Emirates, bore reasonable resemblance to what we were seeing again here.
Pre-match opinion had informed us with spectacularly predictable prose that Emery was “gunning for City” and that the affable Spaniard was “aiming to out-fire Pep”, but his gun had a Spanish cork in the end and the Arsenal cannon was pointing at Unai himself. Any “structure” that the Spaniard had been expected to infuse his new side with quickly began to look like bits of his home town Honderrabia’s most famous buildings after the Battle of Fuenterrabia had reduced them to dust and splinters in the oft-recalled year of 1521.
1521. Take the first two numbers and you get the score between these two sides at Maine Road in 2003. Those that remember that humiliating dismantling by Arsene Wenger’s side, will recall a match so one-sided that City were 4-down after just 19 minutes, staring bleakly at a complete and utter pulverising.
The match remains one of the outstanding performances by a visiting side to Manchester City over the last 30 years. These days the boot is on the other foot. It is perhaps too early in the season to expect opposing fans to break into spontaneous applause for City’s pristine efforts, but there were at least lengthy spells of silent respect in London.
The Big Question of the summer has been “what to expect from City in 2018-19?” Can they emulate United and Chelsea and win the Premier League title two years running or will the lure of European combat take away their concentration?
With 60 minutes gone, Ryad Mahrez – busy making an early name for himself for crossing impeccably into player-less space and running himself offside – took a little too long to leave the pitch. Were City turning from magical ball smugglers to time-wasting cynics? Was all that goodwill built up going to go up in flames because Aguero and Sterling were faffing around?
Within seconds we had the answers, all the answers.
Michael Oliver whispered to captain Fernandinho that his side should expect some time added on for their antics, pointing left right and centre as if to give specific geography to the unexpected City malpractice.
The reaction was swift and deadly as a Rwandan Black Mamba.
30 seconds later Sergio Aguero failed to square to Kevin de Bruyne to kill the game dead. A further few blinks and City had buried their hosts, Bernardo Silva hooking a sumptuous left footer past Peter Cech from Mendy’s bendy ball in.
City produced a string of records in a bewilderingly powerful season in 2017-18. The early word out on the plains is that the Big Beasts are already on the move again.
|Rwandan art by Augustin Hakiziman|