Arsenal are firmly back in the third place driving seat and looking good for automatic Champions League football next season after sinking Manchester City’s super-expensive ship at the Emirates last evening, drowning any lingering hopes of the Citizens’ title challenge this season.
The City match and the upcoming visit of Chelsea were touted as being the litmus test which would define Arsenal’s season. The Gunners have answered the first question emphatically and in the process regained their winning ways after the interruption at QPR.
Arsene started with the team I had predicted in the preview, with Aaron Ramsey making way for Yossi Benayoun in a 4-2-1-3. Although I feel Arsenal actually played more of a 4-2-2-1-1 at the start (as they’ve done in most recent matches), with Benayoun and Rosicky behind the more forwardly positioned Walcott on the right and Van Persie in the middle.
On the other hand, Roberto Mancini’s line-up indicated a defensive mind-set with no less than three holding midfielders starting the game. Barry and Milner assumed deep-lying defensive roles either side of Yaya Toure just ahead of them. Balotelli started on the left with Nasri assuming a free role on the right, playing behind Aguero who was up front on his own. In all, City made six changes from the side that drew at Sunderland.
Arsenal began brightly, passing the ball crisply from midfield and controlling possession. Bacary Sagna was most influential in the opening minutes, exchanging passes with Rosicky and Walcott and crossing at every opportunity and winning corners in the process. Gibbs was also playing further upfield, although he preferred linking up with Benayoun. It was an early sign of Arsenal’s tactical game plan, one I will address later in the article.
The first major incident came in the 14th minute as Robin van Persie was bundled over by Kompnay as the Dutchman went to meet a Rosicky dinked pass. Lesser appeals have been given this season, but Martin Atkinson was unmoved. Arsenal should have taken the lead from the resulting corner. Arteta’s whipped ball in was met by Kocielny at the near post and flicked on for Robin van Persie, who guided it home only for the ball to hit Thomas Vermaelen and go out of play.
City were forced into a change on 17 minutes, with Yaya Toure unable to continue after picking up a knock, Pizarro replacing him. The game settled down a bit with City coming more into it as the Gunners got a little sloppy with their passing. City started seeing more of the ball and their full backs were venturing further down the flanks.
Still, Mancini’s men had not created any clear-cut chances. The visitors were trying to expose the Gunners’ weakness in dealing with high balls behind the defense, but Vermaelen and Koscielny dealt effectively with everything thrown at them and Szczesny stepped up on the one occasion when it seemed like Balotelli was in behind.
The Italian was getting involved in the game but not in the manner his manager would have liked. There were various acts of petulant behaviour and a couple of bad challenges on Sagna besides a very nasty kick on Song. Balotelli should have been sent off for that, it was a blatant studs up challenge. However, as no action was taken by the referee, the FA may review that and issue punishment in retrospect.
City changed shape in the second half, with Pizarro sitting in front of defense and Milner and Barry ahead of him with Nasri moving to the right-wing. For the first few minutes, it looked as if Mario Balotelli was playing centrally, but after much shouting from Mancini on the touch-line, the Italian went back to playing on the left. City were more in the game for the first 15 minutes of the second half, with Pizarro doing the Arteta role for City and controlling possession from deep.
During this time, Arsenal defended very well. Vermaelen dispossessed Aguero when the forward ran at him while Koscielny ushered the Argentine out-of-the-way of a dangerous through ball. Arteta, Song, Benayoun and Rosicky worked tirelessly to put pressure on the ball carrier and win possession.
One example of the work rate was an opportunity that fell for Zabaleta on the edge of the box. Yossi Benayoun had lost the City full back initially and as the ball fell for Zabaleta, it seemed he had a great opportunity to find a teammate in a dangerous position. However, Benayoun came steaming down and blocked the effort. It was the kind of commitment which was displayed by all four midfielders throughout the game and denied City any real opportunities.
For the last 20 minutes, it was all Arsenal. Santos had replaced Gibbs by this time, who went off with a suspected groin strain. City were visibly tiring and getting numbers behind the ball. The Blues tried to defend centrally, aware that Arsenal like to play through the middle.
Next Page: More on the match, tactics and some stats.