Last season Arsenal lost every single big match they played. Despite showing signs of brilliance throughout the season, there was no signature win upon which the team could build its title challenge. Ultimately, the losses to our major title rivals came to define Arsenal’s position in the league.
Heading to Manchester on Sunday Arsenal risked falling eight points behind league leaders Chelsea and showing, yet again, that this group of players is not ready to step up to the challenge posed by the league’s strongest sides. But instead, Arsenal rose to the challenge and comfortably swept past a Manchester City team that had already defeated Chelsea at Eastlands. Surely now there can be no doubt that this team is capable of challenging for trophies both at home and abroad. Finally we have a win that validates our belief that we should be counted among the league’s best. Hopefully it will galvanize the team and push them on to great accomplishments.
If you want a moment by moment account of the game there are myriad match reports available. Here’s my take on some of the key talking points and the performance of the team overall.
The referee didn’t decide this match
Why is it whenever a player is sent off, or a penalty is awarded, someone has to suggest that the referee decided the match. No matter what calls the referee makes during a match, the players always have the chance to overcome his influence. On Sunday, Mark Clattenburg didn’t have a masterful performance, but he got his two most important calls spot on. Rather than blaming the ref, City fans should blame Boyata for his poor challenge on Chamakh. If they prefer, the could blame Mancini for the curious decision to start Boyata in the first place. Regardless, it was a reckless challenge by the last defender and Clattenburg applied the law properly. It is not, as some suggest, the responsibility of the referee to enhance the match as a spectacle. He is there to enforce the rules of football accurately and impartially.
While Clattenburg could have handed out a few more or less yellow cards during the first half, there really weren’t any other challenges worthy of red and that’s all there is to it. The suggestion that Arsenal got the “rub of the green” is simply absurd. There’s no luck involved when the rules are properly applied. Boyata deserved to be sent off. Cesc deserved a penalty. Song might have been lucky to escape a yellow card earlier in the match, but the incident for which he was ultimately booked was probably not a bookable offense. Either way, I don’t think there’s much of a case for any Arsenal player being sent off. Clattenburg got the really big calls right and that’s the best you can ask for in any match.
Our season has seen a surfeit of red cards and penalties
It’s now seven red cards in nine Premier League matches and one more in the Champions League. That’s an astonishing number. What’s even more incredible is that there have been 12 penalties in 13 total matches. I’m not sure what to attribute these numbers to, but it’s certainly had a dramatic impact on our season already.
What does seem clear is that Chamakh causes defenses all kinds of problems that aren’t necessarily posed by our other attackers. He has been the principle cause of opponents red cards and penalties conceded. You can argue that he dives, but he’s certainly earned a fair few decisions. He makes intelligent runs and positions his body so that the defender is forced to go through him. The more he plays with Cesc, the better that timing will become. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him draw even more penalties and red cards as the season wears on.
We didn’t have it all our own way in the first half
While it seems silly to criticize the team on the back of a convincing win over tough opposition, it’s important to recognize that the first half wasn’t entirely encouraging. City could easily have scored in the opening moments but Fabianski did brilliantly to get down and stop David Silva’s goal-bound flick from a Tevez cross. There were warning signs for the defense throughout the half, most notably for Johan Djourou.
Overall, I thought it was a worrying performance for the Swiss. He was caught badly out of position at times, often attempting to mark his man too tightly or intercept a pass when he never looked favored to make the play. When Micah Richards is having his way with you in your penalty area, you know you’re not having a brilliant day defensively. It was only thanks to a combination of great goal-keeping, good last-ditch defending and poor City finishing that we kept a clean sheet in the first half.
There were also some bad moments for Andrey Arshavin in the first half. Although I have always been a stalwart defender of Arshavin’s contribution to the team, it’s becoming clear that he might benefit from some time on the bench. His work rate hasn’t improved sufficiently, but that was never his strongest attribute. What’s most concerning is the lack of quality in his play. He’s missing routine passes and doesn’t seem to have his usual finishing touch. At one point he took a shot from the same area where he blasted in a beauty at Old Trafford last season. This time the ball went flying harmlessly wide. It just didn’t look like a typical Arshavin drive.
On another occassion, Andrey and Cesc exchanged passes and Fabregas steamed towards the end-line, taking City’s defense with him. There were acres of space in the channel for Arshavin to occupy and take up a threatening position. Instead he stood motionless by the touch line, thoroughly removed from the play and leaving Cesc no option but to deliver a tame cross into the area. It was a sorry sight and something we can’t afford in big matches. At the moment he’s simply doing too many of the little things wrong and those things can be the difference at the highest level.
But Arshavin never makes things easy for his critics. Despite a mostly abject performance in the first half, he was the man in the right spot to deliver the ball to Nasri for the crucial opening goal. It’s that moment of “magic” or key contribution he’s capable of making that earns him a starting spot on a weekly basis despite obviously sub-par performances. It’ll be interesting to see how long the manager sticks with the diminutive Russian. While he’s still one of our best players in terms of raw ability, there’s a very hungry and talented Tomas Rosicky working his socks off to earn a starting place.
I suppose you could also add Cesc’s penalty miss to the short list of bad moments in the first half. But I thought that miss was more a credit to Hart than a failure by the captain. Cesc might have telegraphed his delivery somewhat, but Hart waited until the last moment to make his dive and still had to make a top save from a well hit strike. Had Cesc converted from the spot it might have eased the nerves heading into the second half, but it might just as easily have allowed some complacency to join the players in the dressing room from Wenger’s half-time team talk.
Finally, I thought the team rode it’s luck just a little with the aggressive challenges in the first half. After the sending off, the intensity of the game picked up. City’s players felt aggrieved and complained to Clattenburg about every tackle. Our players got caught up in the emotion of the game just a little and I thought they lost just a bit of composure. We had the numerical advantage, and rather than settling into our passing game, we were giving the ball away and diving into challenges. By the end of the half, all three of our midfielders were on yellow cards. At that point, I was certain that we would not finish the match with eleven men on the pitch.
We used the numerical advantage to wear City down
You could say that City out-worked Arsenal in the first half. The TV commentators were full of praise for City’s effort with only ten men. But the energy that they were made to expend was ultimately their undoing. Mancini’s men had to work their socks off to prevent Arsenal’s passing game from taking shape in the first 45 minutes. But all that hard work saw them tire in the second half and they were incapable of keeping the ball or preventing us from moving it through them.
In the first half Arsenal completed 246 passes and managed only 6 interceptions. But against an exhausted City side in the second half, the Gunners made 347 successful passes and 15 interceptions. While we were better in the second half, and played with more confidence, I think some of our success was due to the inevitable drop in City’s energy level. But where Arsenal’s maturity really showed was in our ruthlessness when they started to tire. We started to ping the passes around the pitch with urgency, rather than casually protecting our lead. That urgency further exhausted the opposition and as Mancini brought on extra attacking options, the players left on the pitch to defend were simply too tired to keep us out.
To their credit, City never stopped working, but by the end of the match, they couldn’t really get near us. There were a few chances for Adebayor and Silva towards the end, but we controlled the game and finished with 65% of the possession. Against Liverpool we didn’t control the game in that fashion and they always looked comfortable. Granted, we were chasing that game, but I still think we showed more maturity and hunger to get the extra goals on Sunday and make the most of our numerical advantage.
Everyone should stop and give some credit to Denilson
When I heard that Diaby had suffered an ankle injury in warm-ups, I was worried that this team was simply doomed. Admittedly, I wasn’t sure what to expect from Denilson. But the Brazilian put in a self-assured, committed and disciplined performance against City.
Ironically, considering his nationality, Denilson is not as dynamic as some of our other midfield options. But he’s economical with his passes and becoming a better tackler. He completed 77 of his 82 passes. Since we are very vulnerable to counter attacks, it’s crucial that our midfielders complete a high rate of their passes and he succeeded in doing that on Sunday. He helped us maintain possession which, in turn, helped wear out City’s ten men.
However, the most noticeable improvement in Denilson’s game today was his work rate. It’s a controversial topic to some, but I think that he had become too comfortable in his starting role. Denilson started a lot games for Arsenal over the past two seasons thanks in large part to our injury crisis. The lack of competition for his place seemed to be stunting his progress. But now that the battle for midfield spots has heated up, Denilson looks up for the challenge and it’s wonderful to see. He deserves great credit for stepping up on Sunday.
Samir Nasri is fulfilling the promise he showed in pre-season
Nasri has been mostly brilliant all season, but Sunday he was the best player on the pitch. Not only did he score the opening goal and create the third, but he looked dangerous almost every time the ball was at his feet. After the match, Cesc was perplexed about receiving the man of the match award. He was right to be incredulous because Samir was most deserving.
For the past few seasons, Wenger has utilized Samir in a variety of roles. He’s played as both a creative and holding midfielder, and on both the left and right side of the attacking trident. Perhaps that constant upheaval, combined with some unfortunate injuries (quelle surprise) held the frenchman back in the past. But this season he seems settled and the most notable improvement in this game is his finishing. He’s been clinical in front of goal and his finish for the opening goal on Sunday was composed and skillful. When Cesc won the penalty, I actually half expected Samir to step up and take the spot kick. Perhaps he should have done just that.
The last seven minutes of the match on Sunday were the only time all season that Theo and Nasri have been on the pitch together. It will be interesting to see what happens with Nasri as Theo starts pushing for a starting place again. Samir has proven that he can score goals and seems to be enjoying his role in the attacking trio. If Theo comes back into the starting lineup, then it could mean a move back into midfield for Samir. But given his current form, Wenger will be loathe to change the way he deploys Nasri. He could conceivably play Theo on the left, in lieu of Arshavin, but we haven’t seen much of that in the past. Ultimately, Nasri’s red hot form could relegate Walcott to a substitute’s role for the foreseeable future.
Fabianski is Arsenal’s new number one
Regardless of your opinion of the Pole, there is no denying that he had a genuinely first rate performance on Sunday. It was his first really big match since that FA Cup semi-final and he was as good as you could ask. There aren’t many keepers in the Premier League who would have saved that Silva flick in the first few moments of the match. It required Fabianski to be alert and agile before he had even had a touch of the ball.
For the first time in a long time, we kept a clean sheet in an away fixture. It’s safe to say that Fabianski deserves the lion share of the credit for that clean sheet. He made several smart saves, including another great reflex reaction to keep out a Silva toe poke. The pole even managed to save a point blank Adebayor header that would have been ruled out by the offside flag anyway.
Wenger praised his keeper after the match and sounded like a man who believed his opinions of the player had been verified. I’m not sure you can come completely to that conclusion at this point, but it’s silly to suggest that Almunia is coming back into the side once he returns from injury. In all likelihood, he is already fully fit. Fabianski has always had Wenger’s faith and now he’s started repaying it in fine fashion. There are those of us who aren’t ready to completely banish the memories of Fabianski’s litany of errors, but it’s time we accept that he’s got talent and looks ready to stake his claim as our regular number one.
You can see what this win meant to the players
Since it’s been a very long time since this group of players won a big game, it’s easy to forget how much it means to them. But today it was there for all to see. The team played with passion and intensity and celebrated their goals with gusto. There was a great unity about the team and it was good to see.
After the match, Cesc wouldn’t allow the win to be diminished by the suggestion that it was solely down to the red card. In response to that suggestion he replied, “even if they were 15 and we were 11 we would still have gone on and won.” While some have suggested that his comment was a taunt, that’s not my interpretation. I think he was merely suggesting that this team was committed to winning this game at any cost, no matter the circumstances. And that winning attitude, one that has been so noticeably absent in recent seasons, was obvious for all to see on Sunday.
Arsenal have been easy targets for the pundits in recent seasons. When discussing the Gunners, writers, TV presenters and Radio personalities have sung the same boring refrain in unison. “Arsenal are too soft. Arsenal play pretty football but don’t have the mettle. Arsenal don’t have a ruthlessness about them like Chelsea or United.” On Sunday those voices were silenced and the pundits will have to find something new to say about this team. Something unqualified by the same tired cliches. I imagine that one or two of our players might enjoy surfing the internet or reading the papers Monday morning.
The most important thing now is moving forward
Two season ago, with people questioning our title credentials, we managed to achieve a massive win against United. We went on to lose our next two matches. After that we pulled of a stunning win at Stamford Bridge. Then we were held to draws in three of our next four. Ultimately, that season deteriorated into a quagmire of injuries and disappointing results leaving us fighting for fourth place. The big wins were reduced to nothing more than souvenirs.
This time around, we must prove that we have matured by using this win as a spring board. Our next two league matches are home fixtures against West Ham and Newcastle. We must approach those games with the same commitment we showed on Sunday and get the results that are expected. That’s the next test for Arsenal.
Sunday was a glorious day. It was a big win against a team with limitless resources. It felt like good triumphing over evil. It was just what we all needed. Enjoy it. Relish it. And then file it away as merely an important step in our long journey to winning trophies at the end of the season. Now we have every reason to believe that we can do it.