Pep Guardiola has emulated Sir Alex Ferguson in a number of ways. However, this is usually something to enjoy. As Manchester City’s most decorated manager became the first manager to lose three consecutive Community Shields since his Manchester United counterpart, he could have taken solace in the bigger picture.
Call it the curse of the Community Shield, but then as now, its winners rarely enjoyed Premier League glory. Only one of the previous 12 winners – albeit City themselves in 2018 – could call themselves champions of England ten months later. Arsenal won the Community Shield in 2020 and finished just eighth this season. Three years later, they happily ignored the story. The celebrations suggested it was more than just a pre-season trinket for them.
“That’s what I had in mind when I came on board,” Declan Rice said, and while Arsenal hope their £105million recruit actually envisioned something more glorious, Alan Ball did last time out when they saw a midfielder become the most expensive Englishman of all time have won nothing in their colors. Rice had no trophies in the first 244 games of his club career: he has now won two out of two, although the Europa Conference League and Community Shield are not football’s most prestigious prizes.
The broader question—and a recurring one at this stage—is whether the Community Shield is a marker for the campaign. Arsenal got their first glimpse of the £200million deal. Rice has been disciplined and diligent in midfield, but an unspectacular performance could be a deceptive debut: he is likely to be a lone defensive midfielder in most games and not in harmony with Thomas Partey, in a team that appears primed to swap attacking ambitions for more courage. Meanwhile, Kai Havertz has been brought in to play in midfield, replacing the injured Gabriel Jesus in attack instead. Arteta called the £65m man “superb” but he felt like a microcosm of the Chelsea Havertz: intelligent movements, eager pressing, ineffective finishing.
There are a few reasons Havertz has given an overly accurate portrayal of Jesus: Arsenal thrived last season by sharing the number of goals scored, with Bukayo Saka, Gabriel Martinelli and Martin Odegaard all scoring either 14 or 15 in the Premier League. Leandro Trossard provided the Community Shield balance, even if it required a massive distraction. It remains to be seen whether Arsenal can afford a waste in attack or from Havertz, but reinventing the German in midfield could, one way or another, be the gamble that will define Arsenal’s season.
Jurrien Timber’s appearance may have been the most promising: the versatile Dutchman has played calmly and confidently at left-back, although that may only be his third-best position; Kieran Tierney, who appeared to be on his way out, fared less well as he replaced the Dutchman and Cole Palmer scored. Arteta’s buying Timber and bidding for David Raya is a sign he’s ready to pose a threat to those who seemed entrenched in his team. Ben White could be ousted by Timber, Aaron Ramsdale by Raya. The goalkeeper’s game-winning performance showed he had the right reaction and suggested the competition could be healthy.
Ramsdale’s rhetoric was also instructive. He argued that a mental block against City that had developed in three years of defeats was being lifted. The fact that City had returned to training two weeks later than Arsenal and eliminated Erling Haaland when the score was 0-0 gave the impression that the win meant less to them; The result will still matter if it helps shift the balance of power in the Arteta-Guardiola rivalry.
There could be a clearer sign when they meet in October. Perhaps Arsenal will then take over from their Wembley game plan and reunite two defensive midfielders and set up a back four who – unlike Oleksandr Zinchenko twice against City last season – are all specialist defenders who play deeper to explore space both behind and in front to limit the rear guard. If Arsenal were all about idealism and excitement last season, about the surprise surge of a young side, perhaps this season’s side need to show more physicality, solidity and guts against City and draw from greater strength to change their style of play.
Such victories can be a sign of progress and pave the way to something greater. Arsenal beat Liverpool, Manchester United, Tottenham and Chelsea last season, taking 19 points from a possible 24 against them but not against City. But such occasions can also be a false dawn. After their 2020 Community Shield triumph, they won their first two league games but only two of the next 12. They dropped to 15th placeth. A repeat feels unbelievable. But more than most, Arsenal know it’s difficult to gauge exactly what winning the Community Shield means.