Olivier Giroud: “You’re mad, MC fans?”
When was the last those words came out of our mouths? Let’s say it out loud: well done, Arsenal – very well done. This weekend, against all odds, they’ve picked up three points on Ettihad, keeping up the pace in a run for a top three-spot – and not only that. In fact, after the performance they’ve put yesterday, they may even have what it takes to win the third spot deservedly. For this time, the game against reigning EPL champions was fair and square. It wasn’t Gunners being mediocre and taking out even more mediocre team; it wasn’t the home side being sucker-punched while they were on the advantage; it wasn’t even Alexis Sánchez taking the ball and ripping through every opponent while all his teammates were just jogging (which we’ve seen too many times already). No. For once, the FA Cup winners did they homework and were the team that was hoping for best but expecting the worst – not the naive, random bunch of lads that lost stupidly to Man United at home and blew a three-goal lead to Anderlecht in the Champions League. Finally.
The day Gunners outplayed Stoke 3-0, Thierry Henry said on TV what everyone else was thinking: that if this team fields Coquelin and Arteta in the middle of the park and tries to somehow keep David Silva quiet, they’re going to get exposed. The other horror, heavily anticipated by all City fans, was Sergio Agüero’s return and the runs he might make against Per Mertesacker, who’s been considered the weak link in Arsenal’s defence for a very, very long time now. Well, newsflash: on Sunday nothing of that sort really happened. None. Not a single thing. Zero. Diddly-squat. Coquelin, the guy who’s been treated at Emirates as that man to fill the gaps in the squad noone else could fit into – stepped up and played easily the best game he’s ever had since he came to England in July 2008. This time, his partner in the middle was Aaron Ramsey; and somehow, the Welshman managed to discipline himself to a very defensive role he’s been given. And Agüero? After he got recklessly tackled by Koscielny 120 seconds into the game, he has literally disappeared. Unbelievable.
The Unlikely Hero: this Sunday, Coquelin was fautless.
However, what was even harder to comprehend was the amount of tackles and challenges Arsenal players made. Too many times in the previous games, they would let the other team through because of lack of aggression in their play – but this wasn’t that day. City was paying dearly for every yard of the pitch they claimed. Even with trademark poor positioning of Wenger’s defenders, they would go there and risk the tackle which might’ve led to couple of heart attacks among the people watching the game on TV – but ultimately, this approach worked. Especially when even Cazorla and Oxlade-Chamberlain were going for it: the players nobody really expects to reclaim the ball and who don’t even have that much of a skill in doing so. But in this game, as even and rough as it was, trying their best was often times enough to get the job done. Wenger’s 11 locked up the game very well, basically asking Man City what they’re going to do next and how they’re going to come after them – almost as if someone took notes from the recent United vs Southampton clash…
So yesterday, it was all down to Manchester City, The Champions, to prove themselves again on the ground where routinely score three or four goals per game. And this time? Nothing. Not even a sniff. They were so massively out of ideas, it wasn’t even funny. When the time came to bounce back from the penalty and 0-1 result, all they were capable to do was to spray the ball to the right wing, to Jesus Navas, who was easily the busiest man on the pitch with the amount of passes he received. However, as it often happens when a team does one and the same thing over and over again – Navas’ efforts were quickly taken care of by the joint forces of Monreal and Koscielny. It was painful to see the Spanish winger being repeatedly denied of any play by extensive marking and to watch his teammates, who should’ve been immediately switching possession elsewhere instead of mindlessly giving him the ball. On the other hand: with Yaya touring the Africa for their Nations Cup and Milner being completely uninvolved (only 29 touches and subbed off after the first half!) – they didn’t have much of a choice.
And another thing about Man City: this game was begging for a central midfielder who could involve himself in the attacking play by going forward from the deep. Unfortunately for Pellegrini, his day-to-day approach is to field either Fernandinho or Fernando along with Yaya Toure, and if the Ivorian is absent – to play both of the Brazilians and always leave Frank Lampard on a bench, as a secret weapon. Now, as much as Lampard is useless for chasing the ball and for the physical aspect of the game – he’s a massive threat when it comes to long shots and creating chances through passing ability – exactly what City needed upfront for the entire game. Was Pellegrini too scared of Alexis threat to give up on having two strictly defensive midfielders? We will never know, but the truth is, the Chilean was only a half of a threat everyone expected him to be in that game – and ultimately, the lack of an extra player upfront made Arsenal’s life much easier, especially with all the pointless crosses City attempted on Agüero’s head. While we’re on it: where was the second striker, anyway?
Exactly – Agüero. The Argentinian, who damaged his knee ligaments against Everton in December and was sidelined for six weeks came back to City’s starting eleven after registering rather uneventful 23 minutes against Toffees last week. On this occasion, he was expected to make a major difference, just as he did in 13 out of his 23 appearances this season in which he scored at least one goal. After all, he was up against the defence that conceded three goals to Stoke, two to a toothless Liverpool and two quite stupid ones – to Southampton. And what happened? In the first half, it was still fairly promising from him: he’s won four corners for City, took two shots out of which one was saved by Ospina and the other went wide and got caught offside twice – fairly normal record for a class striker like him. However, in the second half, all he did was one shot. One. One, which happened was saved in 48th minute – and from then on, the second-best scorer in Premier League remained completely out of the game. Oh, with a little exception: in 86th minute, frustrated by the result, he pulled Gibbs’ shirt and got booked: so much for his quick recovery.
In the absence of Kun’s impact, it was time for Santiago Cazorla to unexpectedly steal the show. The Spaniard, who was unimpressive earlier this season, seems to be shaping up quickly. After helping the team to dispatch Newcastle and West Ham, Santi buried the penalty when it was needed and then proceeded to be basically everywhere on the pitch, getting total number of 101 touches on ball – 29 more than the second most-involved player in his team, Nacho Monreal. Those two have set-up the first goal and later, when everything was hanging in the balance, Cazorla rewarded another hard-worker, Olivier Giroud with a wonderful cross from the deep that has sealed the victory for Arsenal. The eccentric little dance afterwards by Santi and the fabulous “draw me like one of your French girls” celebration by the Frenchman were like the icing on a cake. Yet, truth to be told, that was also a dreadful piece of defending from Manchester City. When the ball was sailing into Hart’s net, all three attacking Arsenal players were ahead of those who were supposed to mark them; and with Cazorla’s set-piece accuracy, that had to result with a disaster.
Santi victorious: 92% pass accuracy, 1 goal, 1 assist, 2 tatoos exposed.
What they must be thinking now, at Ettihad? Less than three weeks ago, Citizens were tied in the lead with Chelsea, who had some serious issues to fix after a five-goal disaster against Spurs. Now, as MC players woke up on Monday, Chelsea is five points clear again and will take them on at Stamford Bridge next Saturday. Vincent Kompany, the man who looked absolutely confused yesterday will have to face Diego Costa and Oscar, who just recently demolished Swansea on Liberty Stadium as if the Welsh side were a bunch of amateurs. What’s even worse: the way Chelsea can play in big games – assuming they want to – is dangerously similar to what Arsenal has done to beat City for the first time since 2010! Manuel Pellegrini, the man who looked like a very sad and very old man yesterday, presumably has a lot of sleepless nights ahead of him – because if this is the best his team can do without Yaya Touré (if Ivory Coast advances to the final of Nation’s Cup, he might be out until February 10th), it will not be enough against the current leaders. Not. Nearly. Enough.
Other problems are ahead of Wenger. The absolutely awful Aston Villa with their 11 goals scored in 22 games this season should not be much of a problem next Sunday. But, in two weeks, The Gunners will face Tottenham on White Hart Lane – and given Spurs’ form (four wins, one draw and a referee-based loss to Crystal Palace in last 6 matches) – they’re going to be tested big time. David Silva didn’t even scratch them; however, Christian Eriksen, who’s just recently shined against Sunderland, might be much more of a challenge for Gunners’ backline. Other than that, let’s not forget that Arteta, Debuchy, Wilshere and Diaby are still on a long-term injury list, meaning that the team is lacking in depth quite severely, in this critical stage of the season. And, let’s not forget: despite the glory and brilliance AFC earned this weekend, somehow, miraculously, they’re still one point behind Van Gaal’s Red Devils…