When Arsenal approached Manchester City over the availability of full-back João Cancelo earlier this summer, the short-shrift response signalled a marked change in attitude from a year earlier.
City had then allowed striker Gabriel Jesus and left-back Oleksandr Zinchenko to join the Gunners for fees totalling around £90 million, deals which at the time seemed to reflect both Mikel Arteta’s growing reputation as a coach and the amiable nature of his friendship with his former boss at City, Pep Guardiola.
The arrivals of Jesus and Zinchenko helped clarify Arteta’s vision for the Gunners more than anyone imagined — the team that finished 24 points behind City in 2021-22 suddenly emerged as their main rivals, ending the season in second place, having spent a total of 248 days at the top of the table.
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So much so, in fact, that as Arsenal tried their luck in negotiations for another player to have fallen out of favour in Cancelo, City’s approach had completely altered.
“City’s view of us is completely different this year than last,” one senior executive at Arsenal told ESPN.
Cancelo’s relationship with Guardiola had deteriorated and a permanent transfer fee in excess of £50m was suggested. The Gunners would not necessarily have been deterred by that valuation, but City had no intention of strengthening Arteta’s side once again.
With Jesus and Zinchenko, City acquiesced to Arsenal on the basis of receiving healthy transfer fees for two players about the enter the final year of their respective contracts. This time, City ended up agreeing on a simple loan with Barcelona for Cancelo in a move that contained no option or obligation to sign permanently and a modest loan fee. Whatever the financial hit, City’s view was that Cancelo should not join Arsenal. They had benefitted enough previously.
For the Gunners, the versatile Jurriën Timber represented a much more viable option, and they moved to sign him for £38m from Ajax. Arsenal were also interested in City midfielder Ilkay Gündogan, but he chose to join Barcelona at the end of his contract, a move he later described as a “childhood dream” and one which ensured City avoided any further embarrassment.
There was a time when City regularly signed players from Arsenal: five players — Kolo Toure, Bacary Sagna, Gael Clichy, Emmanuel Adebayor, Samir Nasri — made the journey north between 2009 and 2014 as City’s Abu Dhabi takeover gave them a wealth the Gunners could not compete with.
The recent reversal was down, in part, to City simply not viewing Arsenal as a direct threat; the same could arguably be true of Chelsea now given they allowed Raheem Sterling and Cole Palmer to join the Blues in the last 16 months.
City’s stance on Cancelo is symptomatic of the respect Arsenal gained through last season’s title challenge. Sources have told ESPN that it didn’t take Guardiola long to realise how much the players had helped Arteta’s rebuild. It is said Arsenal’s 4-0 thrashing of Chelsea in Orlando last July was the moment he first thought the club were on their way to becoming a serious proposition.
Chelsea were in disarray at the time — and would sack head coach Thomas Tuchel a month or so later — but the Gunners exhibited a fluidity and determination that would propel them up the table in the subsequent campaign.
They fell short of a first Premier League title since 2004, somewhat running out of steam as a combination of fatigue, inexperience and William Saliba’s injury undermined performances in the final few weeks. But City knew they were in a proper fight, run close by a team that, while not yet good enough to be considered an equal, is certainly reducing the gap at significant speed.
Sunday’s meeting between the two sides offers a measure of that progress and a chance for Arsenal to address another key factor in separating these sides: the head-to-head record.
Despite the pressure City were under in pursuing a treble, they gave Arsenal something of a schooling in both Premier League matches last season in addition to knocking Arteta’s side out of the FA Cup at the third-round stage.
The first league meeting was originally pushed back from October to February as a result of fixture complications related to the death of Queen Elizabeth II. City outclassed Arsenal in a 3-1 win at Emirates Stadium and beat them 4-1 in April as Kevin De Bruyne and Erling Haaland ripped the Gunners to shreds.
August’s Community Shield victory over City on penalties was hailed by goalkeeper Aaron Ramsdale as “a marker to know we can go and beat Man City in a big game when it matters” but a Premier League win this weekend can have a truly transformative effect.
Arsenal have lost their last 12 league meetings with City; they have not taken three points off them since January 2015.
If City view Arsenal differently, the opposite could also be true. Perhaps, finally, Arsenal believe they are beatable. City unexpectedly lost 2-1 to Wolves last weekend and the suspension of midfielder Rodri — who played more league minutes than any other City player last season — after his red card, alongside the absence of injured playmaker Kevin De Bruyne, makes them a less formidable proposition.
Midfield is an area where Declan Rice will look to take centre stage, having been the subject of offers from both Arsenal and City prior to leaving West Ham for an initial £100m this summer.
City felt Arsenal could still be bullied in a physical challenge, particularly in April’s game when they went more direct to Haaland to use his power. Rice offers more robustness, but he will also need to exhibit bravery in his passing to help Arsenal impose themselves.
Had City signed Rice, he would almost certainly have lined up against Arsenal this weekend with Rodri suspended but, as it is, he will seek to reinvigorate Arteta’s side as they aim to shake off a Champions League midweek defeat to Lens.
Bukayo Saka’s fitness will make a significant difference — the club are waiting on scan results to determine the extent of a muscular problem — but whether the 22-year-old forward is available or not, one thing is for sure: City won’t underestimate Arsenal any longer.