There were many surprising things about Arsenal’s 2-0 away victory against Manchester City last night. Barring the result itself, this was a game that was extraordinary in contradicting our pre-conceptions on both teams. The resulting permutations of such are significant, and this game may be seen as a turning point in both teams seasons.
Arsenal had clearly learnt from the maulings they had suffered to the Citizens, Chelsea and Liverpool last season as they looked to prove that finally, after years of trying to return to the upper echelons of the footballing world, that they were ready.
Was this a turning point or a false dawn for the Arsenal fans?
Man of the Match in both halves and dynamic in attack and defence, Santi Cazorla was undeniably the best player on the pitch.
We’ve been used to seeing him play on the left since Mesut Ozil arrived, where he’s neither been incredible nor poor, but somewhere in between. This wasn’t a return to his previous no. 10 role – Arsenal were playing a 4-3-3 and didn’t actually play with one – but more a screening support midfield role with a license to burst forward in patches.
Most impressive was his defensive awareness; he was perfectly in sync with the impressive Francis Coquelin, who together completely isolated David Silva out of the game. You’ll need to do a lot of homework to find a game where Silva had such a negligible influence on a game since he arrived in Manchester.
Yesterday we learned that the nimble Spaniard is far more than just a creative no. 10.
2) Arsene Wenger may finally be steering away from his dogma
Not to get carried away with the usual surprising-result-post-match-hysteria, but this game may genuinely be a turning point in Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal reign.
For too long Wenger’s dogma – that of matching any team he comes up against pound for pound with the staunch belief that he’ll win – has derailed Arsenal’s seasons in big matches. Barring the first fifteen minutes of the second half where Arsenal went for the jugular on the break and inadvertently nearly let their opponents back into the game, City found absolutely no way through Arsenal’s rigid shape. That shape, for once, did not lay its foundations in keeping the ball, but to keep City and Silva out. Their 35% possession is the lowest since Opta started recording stats.
For too long Arsenal have taken on their big game rivals with a naive belief that they’ll win on their terms. Away from home, that’s never the case. Today will act as a blueprint for the rest of the season. This group of players, instructed by Wenger, can be reactive and rigid.
3) Stop Silva, stop City?
Let’s not beat around the bush, though, this was a worryingly haphazard performance from a title-chasing side. Silva never got on the ball with any space around him.
There are of course alternatives to playing through your no. 10 on every single attack. But City rarely threatened by alternative means. James Milner’s not an exceptional ‘attacking’ winger in the purest sense, and failed to make any individual impact on that flank versus the inexperienced Hector Bellerin whilst Jesus Navas is good with space to run in behind but is stifled against a deep-lying full-back.
In the end, City looked so out of ideas that Fernando or Fernaninho were regularly allowed time on the ball with no route through. It’s telling that Gael Clichy attempted double the amount of dribbles (6) than anyone on his team. Arsenal were happy to let him have the ball, with the centre impenetrable.
Relaying too much dependence on Silva would be naive, though – City are far more than a one man team. The defeat, if anything, highlighted the loss of Yaya Toure, someone who could shaken up the middle of the pitch with some physicality against Arsenal’s core. He would have tested Arsenal’s resolve significantly, and let Silva get back into the game.
4) Mesut Ozil doesn’t deserve to start in the big games
The German started on the bench and was rightfully an unused sub. In the big games you might think his outstanding ability to pull open the best of defences would be an asset, but if today proved anything, Arsenal are much better off setting up with no luxury players in their midfield.
For one, they should continue with this 4-3-3, which omits having a designated no.10 outright. You could play him alongside Cazorla but he’s not really a screening support type, and playing him on the left in a restricted role would omit their defence of the sharp edge that Alexis Sanchez offers.
Ozil is best off saved against bottom 13 opposition where he can pull apart weaker oppositions. Whilst his defensive contribution is hardly terrible, Arsenal have sturdier, more defensively-conscious options available in their array of attacking players.
5) Francis Coquelin is a dependable holder, and deserves a new contract
Both Coquelin and Cazorla’s performances ask a big question over the necessity of physicality in a defence. Neither are big, neither are strong, and both were outstanding. The ongoing calls of signing a big man to anchor the defence look less assuring now.
The most impressive thing about Coquelin’s performance was how he didn’t appear to actually do that much. Such was his chemistry with Cazorla (and Ramsey to a lesser extent) that he rarely had to make any tackles or interceptions. Instead, he filled pockets of space, screened his centre backs, and barked orders out at those around him, pulling the strings and being the heartbeat of his side’s shape.
This performance probably confirmed to Wenger what he already intended – to stick with what he has in that department until ‘super quality’ rears its head in the transfer market. That said, Coquelin’s contract runs out in five months and Wenger should be getting him wrapped up before his stock rises too much.
6) Arsenal will finish in the top four, Mourinho will take the title
The permutations for the league are significant. City go to Chelsea in two weeks and may well find themselves eight points behind heading into February. That would be a difficult deficit to over-turn against a Mourinho team.
Arsenal have re-affirmed that they’ll probably get the top four like they always do. The bigger question probably lies in who joins them- United or Southampton, the latter of whom continue to defy expectations.