Same old Arsenal? Apparently not. The Gunners emerged victorious from Sunday’s trip to the Etihad – an uncharacteristic conclusion for Arsene Wenger’s side in a fixture against one of the Premier League’s big teams. However it wasn’t just the three points that were a welcome surprise for Arsenal fans – it was the manner in which they were achieved.
To say that Arsenal’s performance’s against the top teams in the division has been their Achilles’ heel is certainly not an unfounded statement. Crushing away defeats to Chelsea and Liverpool certainly stand out in one’s memory of last season’s capitulation, yet their failure to pick up points against the league’s fellow frontrunners in general was the primary reason that their title bid fell apart in such a spectacular fashion.
But why? Even Arsenal’s most vocal of critics would struggle to argue that it’s a side that lacks quality. At their formidable best, Arsenal are a side capable of blistering football – and boast a midfield plethora of some of the game’s most technically gifted players. There are many arguments against their defensive capabilities, yet they finished last season with 17 clean sheets, the second highest total in the league, and just one shy of Jose Mourinho’s defensively formidable Chelsea side.
However – if you dig a little deeper into the revealing world of football statistics, it doesn’t take too long to discover that Arsene Wenger’s side conceded 22 goals against the league’s top 5 teams, 20 of which came in those away games against the aforementioned Chelsea and Liverpool, as well as Manchester City and Everton. Arsenal were clearly doing something very, very wrong in these fixtures away from home, and paying the price for it.
This season appeared no different. A timid display at Stamford Bridge resulted in a 2-0 defeat to Chelsea, whereas Southampton outplayed and outclassed the Gunners at St Marys in an identical score line. Same story. Same old Arsenal.
Then Sunday happened. Arsenal ventured to Manchester with a plan, and they executed it perfectly.
Solid, organised and pragmatic, Arsenal were content to sit back and soak up City pressure, looking to hit them swiftly on the break. With a packed midfield, marshalled by the dynamic Francis Coquelin, Arsenal pushed City out wide, and easily dealt with the crosses, happily allowing their opponents the lion’s share of possession – a privilege they themselves usually enjoy. When they did have the ball, they used it effectively – playing purposeful football with a penetrating urgency that their game has often been found lacking in recent times. Not only were they winners – they were deserved winners.
It was a tactical masterclass from a man who has often been accused of being naïve in that department – and showed a flexibility in Wenger’s approach that fans have long been pleading for. This was a performance worlds away from the gun-ho inexperience that has characterised Arsenal’s previous trips to their top-of-the-table counterparts.
In a shrewd and disciplined team performance, it feels immoral to mention individuals – yet Arsenal’s Santi Cazorla delivered a near-perfect midfield showing. The diminutive Spaniard led by example, manoeuvring the ball excellently, maintaining possession – and relentlessly harrying the opposition when he didn’t have it. He scored the first goal, provided the assist for the second, and ran himself ragged – he literally had to be carried of the pitch.
As the final whistle sounded, the player’s joy was impossible to ignore. This was a mental victory, too. Arsenal had adapted their game, and beaten one of the big boys – comfortably.
Which begs the question – what will Wenger do next? The Frenchman has always carried a certain stubbornness in regards to permanently reverting from his beloved Wengerball model, yet one must assume that such an educated and progressive individual is aware of the importance of adapting to accommodate changing surroundings. Arsenal simply cannot expect to dominate a tough away fixture by playing their usual game – not many teams can. But whether Wenger sees Sunday’s tactical set-up as a permanent solution is arguable to say the least.
Despite the plaudits, they are still far from the finished article, and undoubtedly require reinforcements, but Sunday’s performance was an overwhelmingly welcome sight for Arsenal fans. Whether or not it becomes a regular sight still remains to be seen, but this was certainly a step in the right direction, and the ideal platform for which to build upon. Somewhere, a certain Mr George Graham was probably watching, and smiling.
‘Two-nil, to The Arsenal’.