By the time Arsenal had got their heads around Pep Guardiola’s tactical conundrum they were already a goal down.
The game was already lost.
Mikel Arteta knows the Manchester City manager better than just about anyone having worked alongside him for three-and-a-half years at the Etihad. But even he was left bemused by the most fluid of formations set out by Guardiola, which saw City edge a tight affair thanks to Raheem Sterling’s 23rd minute strike.
Back in July it was the apprentice who outwitted the master as Arsenal triumphed at City’s expense in the FA Cup semi-final. But it was Guardiola who redressed the balance here – even if a 1-0 win was hardly emphatic.
Arteta can take a certain amount of comfort from that.
In a clash between two great thinkers, this was a tactical victory for City, who switched from back four to back three, with Joao Cancelo playing every position from right back to central midfield and then the wing.
And when Sterling broke the deadlock there was no way back for Arsenal, who created only a handful of chances.
To their credit the game remained very much alive right until the final kick. But Ederson was made to do precious little in the second half, save for Pepe’s header almost straight from the restart.
It is a measure of Guardiola’s respect for Arteta that he was forced to come up with such a puzzling system to try to counter the threat of his former assistant.
Kyle Walker was deployed at centre back to cope with the pace of Pepe on the break.
Bernardo Silva operated almost as a holding midfielder to try to get control in midfield.
It all succeeded in just giving City the edge.
For Arteta, he may be tempted to draw comparisons with his last trip here, back in June after the restart.
On that night his team were overrun and outclassed – losing 3-0.
On this occasion they leave perhaps thinking it was an opportunity missed.
Just a little more ambition might have found a breakthrough.
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang may look back on a chance late in the first half when he slashed wide after being distracted by calls for a potential penalty, rather than concentrating on his effort.
This was a City team that had conceded five against Leicester when they last played at home – and Arsenal possess the pace up front that saw Jamie Vardy cause them so many problems. But even a much-changed back line was rarely stretched.
Arsenal could argue likewise in the second half with City barely creating a clear-cut chance of their own the game descended into a midfield chess match.
If only more Arsenal players had shown the ambition of Bukayo Saka.
He was their greatest threat – the player City’s defence struggled most to get a hold of.
Twice in the first half he forced impressive saves from Ederson – first twisting and turning his way into the box before blasting at goal.
Later he ghosted into six-yard box – but was again denied by City’s goalkeeper.
At the other end Bernd Leno was ensured Arsenal remained in the match – standing up to Riyad Mahrez and Phil Foden from close range.
He could consider himself unfortunate with the decisive moment that handed City victory.
A swift break saw Sergio Aguero play in Foden on the left of the box. He cut inside and looked set to pick his spot before Leno was out quickly to block.
But the ball rebounded into the path of Sterling, who to swept his shot into the corner.