How Arsenal finally got it right at the Etihad
Just when you thought the weekend couldn’t get any more bizarre with Phil Jones taking corners for Manchester United, Fabio Borini scoring a goal for Liverpool, Angel Di Maria playing striker with Wayne Rooney playing mid-fielder in the same XI and Radamel Falcao missing an open net, Arsene Wenger came up with something Arsenal fans had been craving for in the ‘big away games’.
A performance reminiscent of Jose Mourinho’s teams in big away games, Wenger finally did get it right. His men shocked the world coming away from the Etihad with a 2-0 victory over Manchester City duly avenging the 6-3 humiliation they suffered last time around.
Manchester City started with their usual 4-2-3-1 with Sergio Aguero fit to lead the line from the start. Eliaquim Mangala made way for Martin Demichelis and James Milner replaced the injured ex-Gunner, Samir Nasri. Arsenal started with a 4-3-3 with Aaron Ramsey returning from injury to start with Santi Cazorla and youngster Francis Coquelin in mid-field. The team was set up to absorb some City pressure and retaliate on the counter with venom. That is exactly how it turned out.
How Arsene Wenger exorcised his Etihad demons.
1. Winning the mid-field battle:
City had a lot of the ball but failed to create any clear cut chance with Coquelin probably producing his best performance in an Arsenal shirt. He was never found out of position and marked David Silva out of the game. Making countless interceptions, he literally owned the midfield for the 90 minutes. Arsenal have been looking at Sami Khedira for a holding mid-fielder but with this performance, Arsene Wenger might well be pondering over the need for such an addition. To put Coquelin’s performance into perspective, he won 100% of the tackles he committed to, won 88% of the aerial duels and made 6 crucial interceptions alongside 11 clearances and 3 blocks. That from a defensive mid-fielder, is stellar.
Aaron Ramsey and Santi Cazorla were superb in providing protection to the backline and pressed only when necessary. Alexis Sanchez was his usual tireless self and along with Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, provided cover for the two full backs which did not allow City to take the width they would have liked to in order to break the sturdy Arsenal defence.
David Silva was not afforded space to work his magic and even though that left Fernandinho and Fernando with a little extra space, they lacked the deftness to cause Arsenal problems.
The overall compactness was a welcome change for Arsenal from the naivety they have been showing at the Etihad since 2010 and it resulted in a win that even the most optimistic Arsenal supporter was doubting at kick-off.
2. Neutralizing Sergio Aguero:
Aguero has been known to take a few games to get rolling when he is coming off an injury layoff but to say that he was not at his best would be taking a lot of credit away from the pairing of Laurent Koscielny and Per Mertesacker. Mertesacker has been guilty of shying away from aerial duels and not being ‘in the opponent’s face’, this season. But he wiped away all of that with an amazing performance at the back where he effectively took charge of whatever City threw at Arsenal.
However, it was Laurent Koscielny who was the main hero for the Arsenal backline and despite picking up an early yellow after bringing down Fernandinho, Koscielny’s willingness to come out and meet Aguero whenever he picked the ball deep and meet him one on one when he threatened inside the box summed up the Arsenal determination that graced the evening. ‘Kun’ Aguero could only muster 3 shots out of which 2 were blocked.
The prolific Argentine was well and truly absent from the crucial fixture. Once Arsenal had neutralized Aguero, the battle was half won.
3. City’s defensive woes:
City spent over 30 million to acquire the services of Eliaquim Mangala from FC Porto. Mangala has taken his time to settle into the Premier League and was not selected in favour of Martin Demichelis at the back. The Argentine, however had one of his worse outings against Arsenal. He gave away the ball way too frequently and was caught napping for pace on the break.
But it was City skipper, Vincent Kompany who really seemed at sea throughout the game. Probably still struggling for match fitness returning from an injury layoff, he gave away a cheap penalty and in the first half and continued to be drawn out regularly leaving Joe Hart open too often. City are usually solid at the back and a major reason for it is their influential leader Vincent Kompany. With him not being at his best, City could not muster enough stability at the back.
With City never looking safe at the back, the shock was well and truly on the cards.
4. Managing the City response:
Manuel Pelligrini responded in the second half by bringing on Stevan Jovetic and switching to a 4-4-1-1 to try and unlock the Arsenal defence. Arsenal inexplicably stopped being compact and started thrusting men forward in search of a two-goal cushion. Their lead subsequently looked much shakier. They did learn their lesson soon enough though and were helped by Navas failing to exploit some promising positions that he found himself in. City gave away a cheap foul inside their own third and fell asleep allowing Olivier Giroud the simplest of headers to turn in. Two goals down, City kept looking for an opening and ended up playing a 4-2-4 putting Edin Dzeko and Frank Lampard in as well but it was well and truly Arsenal’s day as they came away with a huge monkey off their shoulders having finally beaten Manchester City at the Etihad.
For Arsenal, Santi Cazorla picked up the man of the match narrowly edging Coquelin and as Arsene Wenger rightly summed up, “He is fantastic because he gets you out of pressure in very tight situations and finds openings that are interesting. He shows you as well how important it is to be two-footed in the middle of the park. Left and right-footed, I think it is a vital quality for a midfielder today."
Manchester City were not good enough on the day and Manuel Pellegrini would be hoping that he does not get to witness more of such days. He was quite honest in summing up his side though and was quoted saying, “With the ball we didn't have clear ideas. I think we didn't play a good game. We ran a lot and had a lot of possession, but we didn't have creative ideas to try and find the space against a team that defend very well. The game we must play at Stamford Bridge is a very important game. We must close the gap to two points. I hope we are going to recover and play the way we have been playing so far.”
Jose Mourinho can now play a rather safe game at the Bridge at the turn of the month, and it really is Chelsea’s title to lose now. Stranger things have happened in the Premier League though and it will be very interesting to see how this title race shapes up.