The Match: When Arsenal’s pragmatism produced the mother of false dawns

It doesn’t take much to send Arsenal into a full-on crisis.

As the years passed, and the 2005 FA Cup final started fade into the mists of the past, the realisation that Arsenal had become used to trophyless seasons took root. It had been nine years of drought at the Emirates Stadium, until another trophy finally arrived in 2014. By then, the FA Cup probably wasn’t the prestigious competition it was when they beat Manchester United on penalties almost a decade earlier.

That explains how the anger set in. A slow burning rage that, bit by bit, consumed the club over the years of predictable failure: years of ‘transition’.

There are, of course mitigating factors. Repayments for the construction of the Emirates stadium took their toll on a club building for their long-term financial future. It would be wrong to criticise any club for attempting to live within their means as the Gunners did for a decade, but in the near-decade of drought, the world of football had changed, and money flowed plentiful everywhere but in Islington.

Whatever the causes of the famine, by the time Arsenal finally did win a trophy, it had become obvious what the problem was. It’s the same problem they still face today: the Gunners lack steel and pragmatism, a tooth-bearing ruthlessness that all the top predators possess. Content to finish somewhere in the top four – anywhere apart from first – year after year rather than pushing on to actually win trophies was just a symptom: the wider problem, though, was that they were just too nice.

Lifting the 2014 FA Cup, where Arsene Wenger’s side beat Hull City in a more closely-fought final than the prestige of the clubs would have suggested, was proclaimed to be a springboard. But it didn’t turn out that way. At the start of the next season, Arsenal won only two of their first eight games and four of their opening 12. They had dropped 19 points before the end of November and were, effectively, out of the title race already. So much for the renewed hope and trust in Arsene Wenger. There was to be no third phase of the Wenger era, from glory, to famine to feast: only further stagnation.

And so in January, when Arsenal travelled to Manchester to face Manuel Pellegrini’s City, Arsenal – who had already lost five times and won less than half of their games up to that point – weren’t given much of a chance.

You could see why. City, on the other hand, were on a 12-game unbeaten run before Arsenal arrived. They had trailed Chelsea going into the Christmas period, but that run had brought them right back into the title hunt: going into the New Year’s Day games, the top two were as neck-and-neck as it’s possible to be, level on points, goal difference and even goals scored. They had a perfectly identical record.

It may not take much to plunge Arsenal into crisis, and that’s certainly what had happened. But it does take something quite special to provide a shock in football. A genuine one. The word shock is often used unthinkingly, but if you consider it properly, not much should shock people about football. A round ball can go anywhere.

Yet, when Arsene Wenger arrived at the Etihad Stadium with Francis Coquelin in his starting XI, and when he proceeded to play a thoroughly un-Arsenal game of counter-attacking chicken with one of the best teams in the league, that truly was a shock. Most importantly, on the day, they were actually quite good at it.

Throughout the whole game, Arsenal kept City at bay and hit them impressively on the counter, winning a penalty early on – which was converted by Santi Cazorla – and then having something to hold on to for the rest of the game.

Whatever hopes City had of breaking the Gunners’ resistance late in the game were dashed when Olivier Giroud leapt highest from a free-kick in the second half to head home the winner. From then on, Arsenal stubbornly resisted City’s advances, and went back to London with three points.

It looked like another turning point, of the Arsenal kind we’ve seen so many times before. But this time it seemed just that little bit different on the grounds that this wasn’t an Arsenal performance that was just that little bit better than the rest.

Instead, it was a genuinely impressive performance, partly because it was so unexpected, but mostly because it seemed as though things had changed for the better. No longer, it appeared, was Arsene Wenger going to look like this anachronistic relic of a bygone age when football was simpler and Arsenal were winners. Instead, this looked like a pragmatic Wenger who could play effectively on the counter-attack in big games away from home.

Most importantly, perhaps, Wenger had uncovered Francis Coquelin: the tough-tackling anchor man who was so sorely missing from his side since the departure of Gilberto Silva. No one was saying he was quite that good, but the mere fact that a player like him existed in the Arsenal first team was encouraging.

The Gunners had been criticised then – just as they are now – for neglecting to spend the requisite money in the transfer market to bring in the quality central midfielder they needed. Wenger himself addressed that criticism himself: if he’d bought Coquelin for £40m, he said, we’d be calling it the signing of the window.

It remains one of the few tantalising glimpses of what Arsenal can do when they add a dash of pragmatism in with the usual silky yet timid fair they normally serve up. Against City again in last season’s FA Cup semi-final, Wenger’s side once again defended manfully, whilst away to Chelsea at the start of this campaign we also saw some more heart from the Gunners. And yet, that performance at the Etihad was a sight to behold at the time, and despite subsequent games which have dismissed the notion, it really seemed like Wenger had resolved to change his approach.

Two years later, and with success in every competition other than the FA Cup still proving elusive, another chance to shock English football is presented to Wenger, when he once again travels to Manchester to face a rampant City. This time, his side would be the first team to beat Pep Guardiola’s team this season, and it would be an even bigger shock. But even if they do manage to pull it off, would we really call it a turning point this time? Or would we know better this time?

It doesn’t take much to send Arsenal into a crisis. But after so many false dawns, it takes more and more to pull them out of one.