An outstanding 2-0 victory was accomplished at the Etihad Stadium, home of reigning champions Manchester City, with a thoroughly impressive performance that demonstrated defensive shape and discipline, work rate and tenacity, combined with intelligent and clinical finishing. Everything was of the highest quality.
Wait, wait, wait… come back! Why are you leaving? No, there hasn’t been a mistake. This really is an Arsenal blog and that opening paragraph really is the start of an Arsenal match review. And no, a pig has not just flown past your window!
Yes, that’s right Gooners; The Arsenal thoroughly outplayed, out-thought, and out-fought Manchester City on Sunday afternoon, securing a fully deserved 2-0 victory. And it was impressive on so many levels.
Our approach was perfect. Defensive shape and discipline, proving that it’s not just about the back four, but how we defend as a team, how we move in unity to protect our goal. Possession, whilst a much lower percentage than usual, was used wisely; quick, crisp passing to navigate away from City’s pressing and intelligent, well-timed counter attacks.
I’ve been very critical of our in-game management this season, none more so than after the defeat at Swansea. But on this occasion it was exemplary. From Koscielny having to play 88 minutes (plus injury time) on a yellow card to adapting to City’s change of formation at half-time we responded perfectly. In addition, I thought Arsene’s substitutions were spot on. It’s an area for which he is often criticised, so credit where it’s due.
Every single player was outstanding and performed to the highest level. Everyone had a job to do and everyone stuck to it. There was clear fight and desire; nobody wanted to let their teammates down, they were going to fight for each other from first whistle to last.
After the game I said on Twitter that it would be churlish to name individuals after such an incredible team performance, however there are a few who deserve a mention. In defence we’ve come to expect Mertesacker and Koscielny to perform well as a pair (yes it’s been lacking this season, but we know it’s there). However for Monreal and, to a lesser extent Bellerin, there have been serious question marks, but both were exceptional. Monreal has improved immensely this season and Bellerin took his game to a whole new level and, as I said in my match preview, I feel more comfortable with him at right back (compared to Chambers) due to his recovery pace.
In front of the back four Coquelin was superb. I, like many others, acknowledged his recent good performances, whilst accepting they were not against the most challenging of opposition. Sunday was always going to be a true test of his capabilities and he passed it with flying colours. He’s a lovely balance between Arteta and Flamini; he can distribute the ball well, building from the back, whilst also snapping into tackles and barking orders. And at the age of 24 he has considerably more pace and energy, seemingly covering the ground with much more ease. For me Arteta very much has a role still to play at Arsenal Football Club (off the pitch as much as on), however with the recent performances of Coquelin and the imminent signing of Bielik you do have to wonder what next for Flamini.
In midfield Ramsey’s energy was unbelievable, given he’s only just returned from a long injury lay-off. Chamberlain’s powerful bursts penetrated City’s defensive lines, pushing them back towards their own goal. Alexis was a constant threat. And Rosicky, when introduced, was his usual industrious self and at one point made a delightful scooped pass with the outside of his right foot, in a way only he can. But it’s fair to say things never fully clicked (from an attacking perspective) for all of these players; the final touch, pass, or finish was just slightly off at the crucial moment. Things always felt so close, but yet so far.
However, there was one man in midfield for whom everything did click. Santi Cazorla was breathtaking. Both with and without the ball he was world-class. His quick feet are sublime, as demonstrated when he wiggled his way the length of the field. His work rate and tackling were fantastic, as demonstrated by his ‘Pires on Vieira’ style hook tackle in the second half. And of course he scored our first from the penalty spot and got the assist for our second. I’m reliably informed that City fans chanted “you’re just a shit David Silva” to Santi at the start of the game. The volume of egg on their faces come the final whistle must have been immeasurable.
And finally, the focal point of the team. Olivier Giroud was fantastic. Perhaps he was not as obvious or as noticeable as others, but his hold up play, link play, aerial dominance, and of course his crucial goal that gave us a two goal cushion, all demonstrated that he is, without doubt, a top class centre forward.
Of course such a performance raises questions as well as answers, with the most fundamental being why do we see such a performance so infrequently? Arsene has proved he can have tactical and defensive discipline. In the 1998/99 season we conceded only 17 league goals. In the Double season of 2001/02 we were unbeaten away from home in the league. In 2004 we took it to another level, completing the entire league season unbeaten. And in 2006 we reached the Champions League final off the back of a record ten consecutive clean-sheets, many of which were achieved with a make-shift defence.
More recently, with this group of players at Arsene’s disposal, we went on a resolute run of results that started with an impressive 2-0 victory away to Bayern Munich, a result achieved in very similar circumstances to Sunday’s win at the Etihad. So again I ask why do we see such a performance so infrequently? Granted it’s not a style or approach that is needed for the majority of our opposition, especially domestically, but that we went 16 games without victory away to Chelsea, United, and City prior to this weekend is incomprehensible when you consider the achievements listed above.
However, that question (and any others this victory may have raised) can wait for another today. For today is about enjoyment. It’s about acknowledging a wonderful performance and result, under immense pressure. Not just the pressure or fear of failing away from home against a big side (again), but also the pressure of having watched all our rivals win on Saturday. And for that both Arsene and the team deserve great credit.