Arsenal have finally changed their approach to a big game and their efforts have bared fruits straight away as the Gunners shot down an impotent Manchester City 2-0 at the Etihad Stadium after a penalty from Santi Cazorla and a close range header by Olivier Giroud. An uncharacteristically compact and solid Arsenal rarely allowed City into their box by congesting the middle of the park and cutting out the wings. The Citizens failed to create anything and instead were threatened themselves from lightning quick counter attacks lead mainly by the outstanding Cazorla accompanied by Sanchez, Ramsey and Oxlade-Chamberlain.
Arsenal have arrived at the Etihad coming off an emphatic 3-0 home victory against Stoke, chasing yet another Top 4 finish from 6th position. They were up against an in-form Manchester City side that was unbeaten in 14 games straight, having chased down the 8 point lead of league leaders Chelsea over the Christmas period. The Citizens welcomed back Sergio Aguero and Vincent Kompany into their starting line-up after spending six and five weeks respectively on the sidelines. The return of their skipper did not aid the Champions much however as the Belgian seemed a bit below par with some late challenges, one of which gave away a penalty. Arsene Wenger named Francis Coquelin in his starting 11, and the holding midfielder played an instrumental role all afternoon.
The hosts started the game a little more active, keeping the ball from kick-off and testing Arsenal’s resistance in the early minutes. A dangerous looking attack through Fernandinho down the right came to an abrupt halt when the midfielder was wiped out by Koscielny who received the first yellow cards just 2 minutes into the game. The City players had most of the possession but for the first time in years, Arsenal were happy to sit and follow the ball and the players in blue, attempting to catch them out on the counter attack whenever they managed to nick the ball off their hosts.
One such attack in the 18th minute saw Oxlade-Chamberlain beat Clichy to a ball down the left wing and cross to the near post where a diving Giroud was blocked off by Kompany for a corner. After the corner was cleared by Hart, Arsenal put together a first good combination of passes in their opponent’s half and they cut the hosts open. Cazorla on the left managed to squeeze the ball to the full back Monreal who played a one-two with Giroud and was ready to pounce on to the ball from Giroud in the box, but Kompany stuck his leg in the way to block the Spaniard’s run, sending him crashing to the ground. Mike Dean didn’t hesitate for a second and pointed to the penalty spot.
Santi Cazorla expertly took the penalty down the right and despite Hart going the right way, the England keeper had no chance as the pace and precision on Cazorla’s ball was perfect. The conceded goal somewhat sparked City to more directness in their game as they searched for an answer, but Arsenal shut down every opportunity with the impressive Coquelin breaking down play through the middle and Bellerin completely silencing Milner on the left. When Arsenal got the ball back, they showed some great technique and one touch football to play themselves out of tight areas in their own half, leaving all the pressing from the hosts in vain. As the half time whistle was blown, everyone was left surprised, wondering what has happened with Arsenal, with Wenger grinning in satisfaction on the bench.
The second half saw Jovetic come on for Milner and there was an immediate difference visible on the hosts. They started the half with much more haste and Aguero got himself into a chance just two minutes after the restart but Ospina parried his shot for a corner. Navas then charged down the right wing and tried his luck with a stinging shot that Ospina beat away again. The nervy moments continued for the hosts as another Navas shot took a few deflections and bounced around the Arsenal box before Fernandinho finally roofed his shot into the top stands.
Arsenal started committing men forward slightly more than in the first half and were almost caught out. Yet another Navas burst lead to a low cross from the right across the face of goal and with Aguero and Jovetic both lurking to tap into an empty goal. Koscielny just managed to get a slight touch on it and the ball rolled out for a corner, but could have easily ended up in the back of his own net. Fortunate but brilliant defending from the Frenchman.
In the 67th minute, Sanchez lead another counter attack before being brought down by Jovetic 40 yards from goal. The City defence seemed to be asleep when Cazorla’s resulting cross fell right between the defenders and Hart just in front of the six yard box and the unchallenged Giroud had the easiest of tasks to net his 6th of the season and celebrate the goal in style. It was horrible defending from the City line, Fernando in particular the culpable for leaving the Frenchman alone.
Arsenal’s day was summed up 15 minutes from the end when Cazorla set out on a breathtaking 50 yard run, dribbling past four desperate challenges and being fouled twice in the process until finally losing control of the ball but still managing to slide tackle Zabaleta. The Spaniard showed some wonderful ball control and incredible touches all afternoon, but what stood out even more was his all round defensive work.
Arsenal expertly saw out the rest of the game, allowing City to nothing more than corner kicks, all of which were in vain and well defended by the Gunners who have bagged a very important three points for their quest for a top 4 finish. They are now only 1 point behind Manchester United and 3 points behind third placed Southampton. Manchester City on the other hand lose ground on first placed Chelsea who again opened the gap to five points in one week.
It took 16 games without a win against Chelsea, Manchester City and Manchester United for Arsene Wenger to realise his team needs a Plan B. No doubt, Arsenal are one of the best teams with the ball on their feet, patient and with great individual skill to carve open teams that sit deep and defend. It is against teams that create play themselves that Arsenal have struggled against in the past years, being criticized for committing too many men forward leaving the back four (back two at times) completely exposed to the counter attack. This sense of naivety from the Gunners has been exploited by many teams. However today, they were incredibly disciplined and well worthy of their victory.
Despite Santi Cazorla being involved in almost everything Arsenal have created all afternoon, it was Francis Coquelin’s invisible work in the middle, protecting Mertesacker and Koscielny, that prevented Manchester City from cutting the visitors wide open as they did on their last visit to the Etihad. Building on his good work against Stoke City, he has won 7 out of 8 aerial duels he was involved in, all in the middle of the pitch. Further on, he has made six interceptions to break up City’s attacks and made 11 clearances, most of which were in the dangerous area in the box. Having completed 88% of his passes, he played an integral role for Wenger today and was one of the many pleasant surprises for Arsenal today. The Man of the Match will deservedly go to Cazorla, but it was Coquelin who was behind the clean sheet and organisation, calling back Ramsey to his aid whenever a threat emerged.