0 – 1 Cazorla (24 pen)
0 – 2 Giroud (66)
It’s tempting to be a little reserved, look at the result in the context of a season. Winning at The Etihad, after all, brings no more than three points to the Premier League table than those won last weekend. The win took Arsenal to fifth, a hair’s breadth away from the top four.
But to do that is to deny the sheer joy of this win, the chance to recall how it felt when titles were won and lost. It ignores the relief and to be honest, after what seems an eternity, why the hell should we? For the first time since God knows when, Arsenal record against one of the top two sides in the country, the defending champions no less, for 2014-15 will read:
Played 3, Won 2, Drew 1, Lost 0. Nil. Zero. Zip, nada, nowt.
And in ‘celebrating’ that moment, the supporters of fifteen or so other Premier League clubs nod knowingly in our direction with a look that says, “Now you know how we feel” and that underlines the torture of the past five years or so.
There’s no question that Arsenal deserved the win. David Ospina walked in the dressing room at half-time having not had to make a save in the opening forty-five minutes. It’s the most telling statistic beyond Santi Cazorla’s penalty which separated the two sides.
Arsenal had abandoned the previous lacklustre defensive policy in big matches, replacing it with a rigid positional discipline when City had the ball before finding their fluidity in attack. It’s something which had long been identified as being needed to turn form in these fixtures around. Implementing the change brought due, deserved reward.
In his post-match interviews, Arsène referenced the point won at Anfield but this was different, the performance yesterday felt – and was – less ramshackle, cobbled together. It was, from the outset, a gameplan which was adhered to by the players.
A word that will keep being repeated in today’s post is ‘deserved’. The side worked hard to protect their lead. Yes, it went awry in the opening stages of the second half but City’s pressure was inevitable. Defending champions rarely cede points easily, especially at home.
Luck was on Arsenal’s side with the merest intervention by Koscielny flicked the ball beyond the reach of City’s forwards with the goal gaping.
And off the back of that defensive shape, discipline, Arsenal broke forward purposefully, even if the end product from open play was not always evident. Snatched shots, wayward efforts and blocked crosses when more was expected; the margin of victory could – should – have been more. Does that matter? Only if goal difference becomes an issue.
Much is expected of Alexis Sanchez and like everyone in the team, the Chilean worked hard and provided flashes of inspiration but yesterday was the first nail in a coffin. He was overshadowed and for spells, contained by the home defence but Arsenal won; the first steps were taken in producing a team not reliant upon one player.
It was a day when claims were staked for a regular starting line-up place. If Arsène picks the team on form, it will be hard to change this XI. More importantly, if this performance level can be maintained, there is little reason for players to be rushed back from injury.
Most worried ought to be Mesut Özil. Santi Cazorla was phenomenal yesterday; not just the conductor of the attacking orchestra but he worked hard to support the defensive side of the game. The mark of his effort was etched into his face at the final whistle; his trademark smile battling through the physical exertions from harrying his opponents out of the stride in attack and defence.
Cazorla has rediscovered his form this season for the most part and become a pivotal part of the team in the German’s absence. It hasn’t always worked but collective dips in form should not be pinned on one player and anyone trying to do so with Cazorla hasn’t just missed the target, they’ve failed to identify it in the first place.
Had Özil been fit however, it’s unlikely that Cazorla would be anything other than a substitute. The same can be said of yesterday’s other star performer, Francis Coquelin, so far out the exit door that he had already been hit across the Arsenal on the way out as it closed.
Yet both, from differing perspectives, have made the manager think again. Cazorla has the experience, the history to demand he be firmly in contention for a place in the starting line-up beyond the end of this season. The jury is still out on Coquelin.
He is at the moment Mr Right Now. Yesterday, he proved more of a solution than Flamini does. It’s a long road back for the younger Frenchman to travel and questionable whether he will be happy with a squad role in the long-term. A taste of regular first team football may have whetted his appetite for more.
That’s a problem for the summer and the signing of Bielik suggests the manager already has the answer but right now, in the absence of Arteta, he has taken his opportunity to show he deserves that consideration. And he deserves credit for that.
There was an average position graphic floating around yesterday; his was somewhere between the two centre backs. Not by design, they were further up the field than I expected but it underlined the discipline Coquelin brings to the role, what has been previously missing.
The 4-1-4-1 formation is something we have long asked for. The inclusion of a dedicated defensive midfielder allows the others the flexibility in attack. But more importantly, they filed back to support Coquelin and the back four, defending from the front. Giroud’s abilities as a target man shine through in these circumstances, as does his tireless work rate.
After a season of belligerently following his tactical path, Arsène found the personnel to fit the requirements. This was more disciplined an away performance than we have managed for a long time, possibly years. The defending was for the most part unhurried and whilst that owes something to City’s blunted attack, it was Arsenal who neutered them, exposing the lack of ideas beyond Aguero and Silva.
Monreal and Bellerin stifled the City flanks, allowing few opportunities. Of City had chances, they were the home team and at this level, it is inconceivable that they would not have a shot or create chances over the course of ninety minutes. But denying them for the opening forty-five was the basis of the win, the platform which was built on the confidence of a job well done.
City were reduced to plaintive cries for penalties which were never going to be given. The one Mike Dean awarded added to the surreal atmosphere. Arsenal defending diligently, Dean pointing to the spot after Kompany bodychecked Monreal? We had been transported to a parallel universe to see what life could be like.
It couldn’t last, there was no yellow card for the Belgian to counter the one so cheaply shown to Bellerin. Even if it had been shown, the official reverted to type in shying away from issuing a second caution later in the game so numerical advantage was never going to happen.
Arsenal had the only numerical advantage they needed anyway when Cazorla converted the spot kick. The second was reminiscent of Alan Smith at Anfield all those years ago. The same type of free kick, curling into the defence, three – yes, three – Arsenal runners who might all reasonably have expected to score; one did. Olivier Giroud planted the ball past Hart and that was it.
Did I say we had come back from the parallel universe? A rehearsed free kick which actually worked. City were slack in their marking but even so, I wouldn’t normally expect the ball to land so precisely. But it did, oh, how it did.
The sting went from the game at that point. Chances had been missed before the second goal, opportunities were spurned after. It didn’t matter, the result was unaffected.
His supporters will claim Arsène has been working toward this all season, as soon as the injuries began to bite. It hasn’t been that, more reminiscent of England’s 1990 World Cup campaign when injury forced a rethink. A happy accident out of adverse conditions. It worked yesterday for Arsenal but now those performance levels need to be maintained.