Sunday, January 18, 2015

Resilient Arsenal finally show their steel

All Arsenal fans were tired of going away to the big games and losing. These weren’t just defeats though, too often they were hammerings. Arsenal were always open, na├»ve and did stupid things defensively. Despite the positive signs of the win over Stoke last weekend, realistically it was difficult for Gooners to expect too much from a trip to the Etihad given the recent record in these sorts of matches.
What the Gunners produced however, was disciplined, clinical and effective. Manchester City, apart from Yaya Toure, were at full-strength and looked bereft of ideas at the end of the game as to how to break through the yellow wall. Arsenal sacrificed the open, expansive, game to stifle David Silva and starve Sergio Aguero of space to weave any of his magic.
Even when the team sets up to be a bit more defensive, Arsenal will always have players capable of creating chances and scoring goals. The key in big games has always been keeping the back door shut, and Arsenal haven’t managed it in recent years. At the Etihad on Sunday, they focussed on nullifying Manchester City without just concentrating on their own game. It paid dividends emphatically.
The defensive midfield position has been a hotly talked about one among Arsenal supporters, as since the departure of Gilberto Silva, the sense has always been that Arsene Wenger could improve that area of the pitch. At the start of the season, no-one could have predicted Francis Coquelin would be in that role going away to Manchester City, but partly through circumstance and some good form, the Coq was in there, and he passed the test against the dangerous David Silva with flying colours. He tracked Silva around the pitch, made interceptions and didn’t leave Mertesacker and Koscielny exposed. Questions will still be asked if he is the long term answer, but he is making a strong case for him to be that answer.
Coquelin was at the base of a midfield that functioned brilliantly. Even though his touch was occasionally off, Aaron Ramsey worked incredibly hard given he was returning from injury, while Oxlade-Chamberlain, Rosicky when he came on, and Alexis Sanchez all put in a shift in the wide areas. But there was one little Spanish magician who turned into a midfield powerhouse during the 90 minutes at the Etihad.
Santi Cazorla has been in excellent form in recent weeks orchestrating Arsenal’s play, but against Manchester City he delivered one of the best all-round midfield performances from anyone in the Premier League this season. Having to be more disciplined in alongside Coquelin and Ramsey in central midfield, he worked tirelessly to deny the options of passing the ball into David Silva, he made crucial tackles and interceptions, and then was his typical self when controlling the ball and escaping tight situations.
Cazorla topped off his performance with a well dispatched penalty before providing the assist for Olivier Giroud to nod in Arsenal’s second goal. Mesut Ozil should get some game time against Brighton next week in the FA Cup, but it’ll be hard for the German to displace the brilliant Spaniard at the moment. Whenever Cazorla plays well, Arsenal generally play well and he led the midfield brilliant on Sunday.
Up front, Olivier Giroud worked hard given he didn’t get too much of the ball, and always pestered the City centre-backs. His control out of the air was exceptional, and he took his header well to double the lead. Giroud is another Arsenal player that has been criticised for not performing in big games, but he’s now scored against Manchester United, Manchester City and Liverpool this season. Given he’s missed a large chunk of the season through injury and suspension, Giroud has a good scoring record and makes a big difference to the team.
With all the work being done by the forwards and the midfielders, the Arsenal defence was well protected for the majority of the game, meaning Per Mertesacker wasn’t exposed by the pace of Sergio Aguero at any point. Whenever there was the potential for the German to be caught out, he made some vital interceptions and clearances as he looked back to his best alongside Laurent Koscielny. Hector Bellerin and Nacho Monreal also put in almost faultless performances as part of the whole team effort.
Because of all the committed performances in front of him, it was a surprisingly quiet day for David Ospina. The Colombian now has three clean sheets in three games, and did everything that was asked of him at the Etihad Stadium. I think we’ll see Wojciech Szczesny play at Brighton next weekend, but Ospina has merited the chance to have a run as the number one.
Arsene Wenger got his tactics spot on against Manchester City by focussing on the opposition rather than just relying on Arsenal’s normal game being good enough to get a result. The main aim for the team wasn’t to pile forward to score, it was to make sure the main threats from City, Aguero and Silva, were nullified as much as possible, because with Sanchez, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Giroud and other breaking from midfield ready to spring an attack on the break, Arsenal were always going to be dangerous going forward. The balance of the team was right, the commitment was there and Arsene Wenger finally pulled off a tactical masterclass in a big away game.
It remains to be seen if this game is a bit of a watershed moment for Arsenal. Having waited a long time to win away to one of the big clubs in the league, Arsenal fans could be forgiven for thinking it was just never going to happen again, but now the Gunners are over that mental hurdle. They’ve set themselves a standard for these matches and set a level they know they can perform at if every player does a job defensively for the team. We all know Arsenal can cause any side problems with the quality of the attackers at the club, but they’ve now shown they can go away from home and give a disciplined and committed performance. The fight for the moment is for the top four, but Arsenal can now take confidence that they can compete higher up the table.