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.
As mentioned earlier, Arsenal were prepared for this line of defence and tried to get crosses in right from the first minute of the match. This is borne out by the fact that Arsenal averaged 23 crosses per game before this match, while they attempted 38 crosses on Sunday. The fact that the crossing accuracy was less than the average is down more to solid defending by Lescott and Kompany, both of whom had a very good game.
One of Arsenal’s best opportunities came from the wide right position. Clichy and Nasri allowed Rosicky and Sagna plenty of time on the ball, preferring to defend at the edge of the box. Sagna found Walcott with a low pass, which the Englishman seemed to have scored from but his shot was diverted by Hart onto the post. Vermaelen was following up and should have scored but he somehow managed to shin the ball. Still, it fell kindly to Benayoun and with the goal gaping a yard in front of him, the Israeli poked it onto Lescott and the ball hit the other post and went out for a corner.
Changes were made on both sides. Benayoun came off for Ramsey, and Nasri departed for Kolarov. Later, Tevez replaced Aguero and Alex Oxlade came in for Walcott. It did not change the game in any way. City were still looking like they’d rather go home, and Arsenal kept pressing. The breakthrough eventually for the Gunners came from the brilliant Arteta, who intercepted a Gareth Barry pass meant for Pizarro. The Spaniard took a couple of touches, spotted a little gap to Lescott’s left, and rifled in a right footed screamer just inside Joe Hart’s left post.
It was what Arsenal had deserved. The rest of the game petered out, with City showing no belief that they were ever going to get back into it. But not before Balotelli deservedly got sent off, this time for a second yellow for a challenge on Sagna.
For me, the man of the match was undoubtedly Mikel Arteta. Besides netting the crucial winner, other numbers confirm this view. Arteta attempted 78 passes, twice as many as City’s highest (Pizarro with 39). He completed 73 of these, achieving a 93% completion rate. He had the joint highest number of interceptions along with Lescott (5). It indicates a fantastic overall performance by the Spaniard.
Tactically, I feel Arsene Wenger got almost everything right for this match.
The formation worked perfectly against a Manchester City team that failed to use the width of the pitch, something the Gunners themselves have been guilty of recently. Also, Arsenal seemed prepared for City to defend deep and defend centrally. While the crossing may not have been effective due to good work by City’s centre-half pairing, it did put the visitors’ back line under constant pressure. This told in the end, with a tired Lescott unable to muster the energy or determination to close down Arteta’s strike.
The goal itself showed the value of having a pop – something Arsenal don’t do often enough, especially late on in matches.
On the defensive side, the Gunners were solid throughout. Arsenal had committed 16 more defensive errors than City prior to this game but there were none on Sunday. In 90 minutes, City did not muster a single shot on target.
I feel though that Arsenal were aided to a large extent by Mancini’s tactics. He took the option that Manchester City have taken in recent years at the Emirates, to stay solid defensively and hope to get something on the counter. If at all City had a chance, I would have thought it was in going for an all out attack on an Arsenal back-line that is susceptible to the odd mistake.
Playing Balotelli on the left was another perplexing decision. Mario himself was not happy with this and I think he tried to take matters into his own hands at the start of the second half, before reverting to the left again. His defensive game has never been his strong point and when combined with the temperament of a teenager going through a bad bout of periods, it was a disaster waiting to happen.
David Silva not being in the squad was another massive boost for Arsenal. The Spaniard may be out of form, but he’s one of those players that can come up with one moment of magic that can open up the defense. Nasri did not offer that threat at all and was marshalled well into non-threatening areas of the pitch by the Arsenal.
Lastly, I think the Emirates crowd played a crucial part in Arsenal’s victory as well. Every decision for Arsenal was cheered, every one against was jeered. It finally seems as if the Emirates is becoming the intimidating venue that Highbury was for so long. After all, home advantage is not only the state of the pitch and the Arsenal support was most definitely the team’s 12th man on Sunday.
Overall, a thoroughly deserved victory for Arsenal which effectively ends City’s title ambitions while strengthening the Gunners claim for third place.