Arsenal’s horrendously poor record against fellow top sides has long been a thorn in the North London club’s side. Many thought that the game against Manchester City would serve to be yet another instance in which Arsene Wenger’s men would be brushed aside. Indeed all indications ahead of the game pointed to a comfortable home victory and it was up to Arsenal to change the well worn narrative and show some fight at the home of the Champions. And they did just that as a refreshingly solid shape and resilient display ensured that they left Manchester with 3 points in the bag.
MANCHESTER CITY 0-2 ARSENAL
Manchester City (4-2-3-1): 1. Hart // 5. Zabaleta, 4. Kompany, 26. Demichelis, 22. Clichy // 25. Fernandinho, 6. Fernando // 15. Navas, 21. Silva, 7. Milner // 16. Aguero
Arsenal (4-1-4-1): 13. Ospina // 39. Bellerin, 4. Mertesacker, 6. Koscielny, 18. Monreal // 34. Coquelin // 15. Oxlade-Chamberlain, 16. Ramsey, 19. Cazorla, 17. Sanchez // 12. Giroud
Substitutions: 45′ Jovetic (Milner), 63′ Lampard (Fernandinho), 76′ Dzeko (Navas) // 66′ Rosicky (Oxlade-Chamberlain), 84′ Gibbs (Sanchez), 84′ Flamini (Ramsey)
Arsenal’s 4-1-4-1 gives them a solid shape with Francis Coquelin providing much needed cover in front of the back 4
The 4-1-4-1 formation was one that Wenger had used before in big games in order to make his side more compact in the centre following a run of big defeats. However the game against City was the first time that it truly worked and this was down to a change in mindset and perhaps more importantly personnel that fit into the system. To say it was out of the blue would be inaccurate though as the game against Liverpool showed that there was a willingness to concede possession and sit deep.
This was just what they did against City. With Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny reunited at the back and the impressive Coquelin acting as a screen in front of the back 4, Arsenal showed a defensive solidity that very few tend to associate with Arsenal in recent times. The basic defensive shape of Arsenal can be seen in the below graphic. With Vincent Kompany in possession of the ball, the entire Arsenal side barring Olivier Giroud is goalside of the ball with the Frenchman tasked with closing Kompany down. Coquelin (circled) is sitting in between the 2 banks of 4 ensuring that City would find it hard to play through Arsenal in the central areas.
As mentioned above Arsenal have previously tried the 4-1-4-1 formation with indifferent results so what was special on this occasion? For one thing Coquelin’s emergence as a key player in the Arsenal side in recent games. His role in the side was previously occupied by either Mikel Arteta or Mathieu Flamini. Arteta, though tidy on the ball, can be exposed defensively as we’ve seen numerous times over the past few seasons. Flamini on the other hand, is more astute defensively but simply isn’t the same player anymore. There was a gap to be filled in the team and Coquelin has done just that staking his claim in the starting XI. The 23 year old did a great job of patrolling the area in front of the defence especially when Arsenal had the ball and played a big role in nullifying the threat of Silva in transitions (more on that later).
The tactic of sitting deep off the ball is of course synonymous with counter attacking football. The speed of Alexis Sanchez and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain on the wings in addition to the simply magnificent Santi Cazorla meant that Arsenal had the tools to hurt City on the break. Cazorla in particular, was hugely impressive as his calmness on the ball under pressure time and again served to release any pressure that Arsenal would come under. The sight of the diminutive Spaniard skipping past tackles was a common one as he continued his brilliant form. Hector Bellerin was another who chose the Etihad as a stage to impress in as he held his own defensively and contributed in attack when required. A cohesive team performance dotted with individual excellence delivered a result to remember for the Arsenal faithful.
Yaya Toure’s absence is felt while Jesus Navas disappoints
The big Ivorian is away on AFCON duty and his absence was particularly felt by City. There might be debate as to whether his presence in a 2 man midfield could prove to be a liability in games against elite European opposition but in games such as these he’s bound to be sorely missed. Once again going back to the game against Liverpool, Arsenal looked vulnerable in defensive transitions. Despite their disciplined and structured approach to this game, they still committed men in numbers to the attack which meant City’s best chance of breaching Arsenal was through quick transitions of their own. A marauding Yaya Toure is not a man you want running at your defence and in his absence neither Fernandinho nor Fernando could provide the same impetus. Expecting the same driving runs from the heart of midfield would be unfair but the central duo failed to provide incisive passing especially Fernando, a player who is proficient at breaking up play but has comparatively limited ability with the ball. With Silva a marked man, City’s attacking thrust through the middle was one-paced in the first half.
With the lack of incisive play through the centre, Manchester City looked to the wings where the usually potent combination of Navas and Pablo Zabaleta failing to make a mark. Navas, who saw plenty of the ball, was disappointing as he continuously drove crosses into Nacho Monreal. As the above graphic shows he completed just 2 out of 19 crosses. It thus came as a surprise that he was kept on the pitch for so long. Hindsight makes all of us far smarter than we are but Pellegrini’s decision to keep him on for the best part of the game was a tad puzzling.
Coquelin seeking out David Silva when Arsenal were in possession
In the absence of Toure, a lot of the responsibility fell on Silva, something Arsenal and Coquelin were well aware of. Thus when Arsenal did commit men forward in attack, Coquelin played a peripheral role choosing instead to stick close to Silva and ensuring he was on hand to deal with any counter attacks that would go through Silva. Once again, the one-paced nature of City’s midfield adversely affected the home side as with access to Silva cut off, Arsenal could fall back into their shape well in time.
Stevan Jovetic’s introduction in the second half leads to temporary City surge
Manchester City’s best spell in the game came arguably at the start of the second half after Jovetic was brought on in place of James Milner. Milner stuck to the touchline for most part of the first half, leaving Silva the only real concern for Arsenal in the space between the 2 banks of 4. With City’s lack of incisive play in the first half, the onus was on Pellegrini to make a change and he duly obliged. After the change, both Jovetic and Silva started drifting into the central areas between the 2 lines of 4 and gave Arsenal problems before they doubled their lead.
The graphic below gives us an example of how Jovetic’s inclusion helped City. Jovetic is on the ball and has drawn the attentions of Coquelin thus leaving Silva to drift into central space. Bellerin now has a decision to make and cannot afford to commit too early and move toward Silva as this would leave space in behind him. This was one such instance in the most open spell of play in the game. However, City could not cash in and a soft goal conceded at the other end meant that Arsenal had done enough to take all 3 points home.
Where does this leave them?
Arsenal has copped a lot of criticism, deservedly so too given their stubbornness to not change the way they approach big games. Having said that, they deserve nothing but praise for their approach and discipline against City. They were structurally solid, always maintained an attacking threat and most of all looked like a side that had it in them to compete with the defending Champions. It also has to be noted that they won with Sanchez well below his usual best. Now just a point behind 4th placed Manchester United, the race for Champions League qualification could well go down to the wire. For Manchester City, an untimely loss ahead of their match up against Chelsea puts a bit of pressure of them to stay within touching distance of Jose Mourinho’s men. It was an uncharacteristically sedate performance at home. However, at the end of the day it’s just a single performance and a warm weather break in Abu Dhabi is a perfect opportunity to put this setback behind them and continue the chase to hunt down Chelsea after the FA Cup weekend.
Written by Arnab Ray