I was at the Etihad for the 6-3 last season.
It wasn’t fun.
The game that took place on Sunday was much more my idea of how a football match should go that involves Arsenal against the top teams. I keep hoping that they’ll do what they did in this game, but they very rarely do.
It was a professional performance from tip-to-top.
They out-worked City in every area of the pitch and when an Arsenal man found himself in a spot of bother he had a few teammates around him to help out.
It was a team performance of the highest calibre.
Conceding possession to City in the first half, Arsenal sat in two banks of four and repelled everything City threw at them, keeping them far from the goal and ensuring that David Ospina would make it to half-time without having a save to make.
The breakthrough in the scoreline came from a surprising source – a penalty awarded by Mike Dean. As we talked about in our preview, the man from the Wirral generally hates Arsenal and had not awarded a penalty to the Gunners in his 26 previous games.
After Nacho Monreal had been brought down well inside the box, Dean thought about it for a second and then figured he’d best just give the decision and pointed to the spot. Santi stepped up and there was no doubt he would score given the mood he was clearly in. His penalty (and fifth of the season for the midfielder) gave Arsenal the lead that their teamwork deserved.
City’s danger man, David Silva, was closed out of the game and could find no way to carve open the Arsenal backline while Sergio Aguero barely made an impact – not because he was off-form, but because of how Arsenal set up and denied him service.
With more touches than any other player on the pitch, man-of-the-match Santi Cazorla was imperious. He covered every blade of grass, scored the penalty, grabbed the assist, mugged off the entire City team and roamed around the Etihad pitch like he was a foot taller than the missing Yaya Toure.
Francis Coquelin’s display in front of the back four deserves a special mention as the Frenchman won 100% of his tackles and kept City’s main threats away from the centrebacks, Per in particular. With six interceptions and 88% of his headed duels won, he is growing nicely to fill the massive defensive midfielder-shaped hole in Arsenal’s squad.
The second half was a completely different affair than the first.
For a reason no-one will ever know Arsenal were far more open in the first 15 minutes of the half and there seemed no way they would be able to keep City out.
Eventually, though, they balanced themselves, found the organisation that had served them so well in the first half and despite clearly being knackered continued to close down all over the pitch, pressuring City into mistakes and using the ball intelligently when they regained possession.
It was like they remembered that they weren’t doing it how they usually do, gung-ho and crazy without a care in the world, and started to play like they had in the first. Perhaps they’d tried to come out and grab a quick-fire second and when they didn’t dropped back.
Patience, Arsenal. Patience.
A freekick mid-way through the second half was all Arsenal needed to double their lead despite looking dangerous throughout the entire game on the counter-attack.
Floated in by Cazorla, Giroud rose as City didn’t seem to pay attention, distracted perhaps by the Arsenal substitute and Tomas Rosckiy’s magnificence entering the pitch.
Whatever made City lose focus, it was two-nil-to-the-Arsenal and Gooners everywhere couldn’t believe what they were seeing.
Of course, this being Arsenal, two nil is never a safe scoreline. Three and four have been shown to be dodgy in the past so the job was far from done.
City pushed but Arsenal would not let them pass.
Defensive subs came on while players kept the ball in the corner, refusing to do anything stupid and looking to see out the game the way topsides are supposed to but Arsenal have never really shown a liking for.
It was almost as if this manager, who is often accused of not knowing how to do tactics, had out-tacticed the Champions.
And that’s the thing – he very clearly does know how to do tactics, he just sometimes struggle to get the players not to do something insanely stupid in big games. A debate for another day.
As I write this not long after the final whistle I don’t think the result and what it means has fully sunk in.
This Arsenal performance against City was what we’ve been waiting so long for them to produce – they played like they cared. I don’t doubt that they cared before, they just didn’t really seem to believe they could do it and perception means a lot in this world.
Today, every player to a man worked like he was the spawn of Alexis Sanchez.
It was a thing of beauty.