Even with City’s dodgy away form in recent weeks this game was always going to be a test of Arsenal’s abilities. Was the QPR result a blip or the beginning of yet another slump? On the back of that performance there can be no arguments. The macro-level stats in the following tweet make the case quite clearly.
Arsenal dominated the game and secured a well-deserved win thanks to Mikel Arteta’s thunderbolt. But it wasn’t plain sailing as the stats might suggest.
Arsene brought Benayoun into the starting line-up indicating he is intent on using a technical player in games that are likely to be more challenging. City were without Silva and started with a strange-ish eleven.
Mancini picked Balotelli on the left and Aguero down the middle with Nasri in an advanced midfield role and Milner on the right flank. Toure and Barry were behind them. It’s hard to put any kind of numbers to this as the shapes they took up seemed incoherent, as if they weren’t used to it and didn’t really know what to do.
Arsenal dominated the first quarter of the game. The screen flashed a stat showing 78 percent possession for the Gunners in the 23rd minute. By then Arsenal had also had four shots and a penalty claim. In fairness though, only one was a gilt-edged opportunity that came in the 16th minute when a Van Persie header destined for the goal was cleared off the line by Vermaelen.
After the midway point though, City got back into the game and it was fairly even. Balotelli had a good chance from a corner that was blocked. The Gunners didn’t create any more chances in the half.
Yaya Toure’s injury and Pizarro’s introduction coincided to an extent with a change in City’s fortunes but I don’t think it was the cause of the change in the game. Some other factors seemed more relevant.
Firstly, Arsenal came off the blocks with a very high tempo and pinned the visitors back through incessant pressing high up the pitch. This was hard to sustain and the hosts eased off midway through the half. This gave the Blues a better chance to bring the ball out from the back.
Secondly, after Yaya went off, Mancini shifted Nasri to the flank and brought Milner into a central role. The former Arsenal man was chasing the ball energetically but was reactive and didn’t quite do a job as the first line of defence. Milner showed better defensive awareness.
Thirdly, Toure wasn’t having a very good game defensively either as was evidenced by his early booking that was picked up when Rosicky turned him with ease in the 2nd minute. His injury didn’t help either and it was as if City were playing with 10 men.
Finally, Balotelli – having survived numerous punishable offences including a horrendous straight red tackle – pushed up the pitch and City started looking for a diagonals and other passes in his direction which pinned Sagna back.
City started the second half brightly and had a decent spell early on. Their best chance came in the 53rd minute when Nasri’s chip into the box was headed towards goal by Aguero. It’s quite possible the striker was put off by his own man as Zabaleta too attacked the same ball.
Gibbs then went off, presumably due to another injury, as the visitors continued their forward push. Santos’ first involvement was a hoofed clearance before Benayoun made a sliding block. The Brazilian then picked up a booking for hauling Balotelli to the ground.
Arsenal started getting back into the game around the hour mark. Benayoun produced a swerving run from the left but his strike lacked venom and went straight at Hart. A couple of minutes later Van Persie evaded the attentions of Kompany and found himself in space near the penalty spot. Song’s chip was delightful as ever but De Kapitein was unlucky as his header only found the post. Hart was stranded.
In the next few minutes both sides had some half-chances as the game remained a cagey affair.
The final 20 minutes were all Arsenal as the Gunners once again switched to a higher gear. This is usually the time they pin the opponents back and find a late winner. But occasionally it’s also the period when they concede the sucker punch. In this game, City faded away and never looked like scoring on the break.
In the 76th minute Arsenal had a number of chances within moments. Sagna’s clever square pass found Walcott in the box. Theo’s cute flick was goal-bound but Hart tipped it onto the post with his fingertips. Vermaelen couldn’t find the open net from the rebound. His scuffed effort came straight at Benayoun who missed from two yards. Some must surely have felt Arsenal had blown their chance away but with this team you can be sure they’ll keep going.
Mancini tried to make something happen by bringing Kolarov on for Nasri. This gave the visitors better protection down the left and Balotelli had more joy down Arsenal’s left. It made you wonder why was he playing against Sagna all this while in the first place?! The City boss also introduced Tevez for Aguero, which was another surprising move given the fact that Balotelli was walking a tightrope.
The goal when it came was a bit out of the blue. Barry tried to play the ball out under pressure by chipping it towards Pizzaro. The Italian wasn’t able to control it as Arteta won the duel. This opened space up for the Spaniard and he let fly adroitly. His placement was impeccable, his technique sublime. The Gunners needed something above and beyond the quality they’d already produced. This goal certainly was an exceptional, decisive individual moment.
Arsenal then held on with ease and could have added another in injury time. Ramsey’s recent form woes probably weighed on his mind as he missed the chance to pick a teammate or hit the target when well-placed.
Balotelli finally did see red after his second booking and if he doesn’t play again this season it might actually work in City’s favour.
Szczesny: Had to ensure Aguero’s header wasn’t dipping in but didn’t have to make any other saves in the whole game. Had one or two iffy moments with his distribution in an otherwise comfortable outing. Snuffed a dangerous moment in a timely manner by charging out and clearing.
Sagna: Had a lot of space on the right as Balotelli didn’t track back well enough. Attempted the most crosses, 13 – more than any two other Gunners combined – but didn’t find a teammate with all but one. It was more of an issue with Arsenal having fewer bodies in the box than the quality of crossing. Did create a good chance for Theo that led to the succession of chances. Also saw a lot of the ball and was involved in the most duels, which made this another battling display from the Frenchman.
Koscielny: Picked up a booking and will miss the next two games but had a good game other than that. Was almost always in the right positions and used his strengths well. Decision making was spot on – dueled when he had to, cleared the ball when there was risk, and showed composure when needed. There was one moment when his decision making failed and Balotelli got in behind, but Szczesny bailed him out by coming out and clearing the danger.
Vermaelen: Got the dubious distinction of blocking his captain from scoring, pulling a bendtner some might say, but overall it was a very effective defensive effort from the Belgian. Didn’t get on the ball as often as he usually does but put in a focused shift at the back by limiting his forward bursts. Won all 4 of his tackles and 6 of his 9 ground duels while making 4 interceptions.
Gibbs: Saw a lot of the ball in the time that he was on the pitch as Arsenal made much better use of the left flank than they’ve done in many recent games. Had very little to do defensively and played more than a third of his passes in the final third.
Santos: Had a tough start against Balotelli but found it easier after the Gunners regained control of the game and pushed forward. Didn’t look completely match fit.
The Arsenal back five had a relatively comfortable game. They curbed their attacking instincts and stuck to a plan. Aguero’s inability to trouble them in the air, Balotelli’s petulance, Silva’s absence, and City’s generally chaotic play helped their cause.
Song: It was a physically combative and dominant effort from the Cameroonian as he was involved in 18 ground duels, of which he won 11, and 4 aerial duels (all successful). Was lucky to survive a horror tackle from Balotelli. Created a quality chance for RvP but was also very wasteful or overambitious with some of his passing.
Arteta: Again had the most touches and most passes as he kept the ball moving. Put in an intelligent defensive shift characterized by his team-high 5 interceptions. Whipped in a number of quality balls from set-pieces. Capped it with the match-winning strike.
Rosicky: Was extremely influential in patches but also went out of the game in patches. Made most of his passes in the final third including the impressive dink over the top that led to the penalty shout. Another one who did well in his duels and wasn’t overawed physically.
In recent years the Arsenal midfield was criticized for its lack of physicality but these three players dominated what was arguably a weak opposing midfield that also lacked tactical clarity. It shouldn’t take anything away from their efforts which were, er, central to Arsenal’s control and ultimately the result.
Walcott: The first half was a struggle for Theo as he couldn’t get into meaningful spaces. Had one good attempt in the second period but more is needed.
RvP: Van Persie was unlucky with a couple of delightful headers. Work rate was again superb and helped out as an extra midfielder through his movement and passing.
Benayoun: Did well to bring the left side into play more often. I thought he was given a more conservative role, especially early on as he helped sustain the pressure but didn’t venture forward quite as much. This was reflected by the fact that he attempted more backward passes than forward ones and very few into the box. Also contributed defensively by winning 3 of his 4 tackles and 6 of his 10 duels. Did get into shooting positions thrice but couldn’t make it count.
I thought the front three were not that effective partly because Arsenal had a cautious approach despite the apparent dominance. This meant they didn’t push too many bodies into the box even when a wide player had a good crossing opportunity. It paid off as City rarely got a chance to break at pace. On the whole this wasn’t a glamorous-looking night for the attacking players but one that focussed on efficiency and working for the team.
Subs: Ramsey will be probably be vilified by many for his miss but he needs support more than narrow-minded abuse. Oxlade-Chamberlain didn’t have much time.
Wenger: I thought Arsene found the perfect mixture of cautious but aggressive play. Going gung-ho could have been suicidal while an overly cautious approach could easily have led to nervousness and mistakes at the back. In contrast to City, Arsenal seemed to have tactical clarity throughout this game and the manager deserves credit for that.Follow @goonerdesi