Well that wasn’t quite what we expected yesterday, was it? I mean, victory against the Champions, on their own turf? Ok, who are you and what have you done with the real Arsenal?
I’m still actually quite stunned to be honest with you. Somebody obviously decided that the ‘Big book of footballing certainties’ was torched, because Arsenal away from home to one of the best sides in the country, do not tend to get a result. Like, ever.
But here we are, waking up this morning to the realisation that after years of performances that leave us fans coiling and wincing in pain, we have finally broken the farcical record we have against the Manchester clubs which saw us last winning in Manchester in something like 2007.
Well, I know we beat City about four years ago at the Etihad, but that victory always felt a little flawed because of the very early sending off of Boyata. But not yesterday’s. Yesterday’s win was fully deserved, meticulously planned and superbly executed by and Arsenal team that was pretty unrecognisable from the fragile team that we’ve seen on numerous occasions this season.
Arsène Wenger set up a team to not get beat. I repeat: Arsène Aenger set up a team to not get beat. Here is the man who we all know prefers to take the line that if we play our way, we’ll win regardless of what the opposition do, who yesterday looked at the opposition and said “nope, we’re going to have to play differently today”, which is exactly what his team did. It paid off. Compact in defence and resolute in keeping our shape, aside from a small spell after halftime which had me reaching for the booze, we controlled the game in a ‘rope-a-dope’ style that is more akin to seeing a Mourinho Chelski perform than Arsène and his charges.
Gary Neville was positively purring all yesterday, which was great to hear instead of the usual embarrassing list of issues that usually gets (correctly) labelled at the team. The defence will get the plaudits today I’m sure, but as Souness pointed out after the game, it was the responsible actions of a disciplined midfield that ensured that Koscienly and Mertesacker were not massively stretched throughout the 94 minutes. Aaron Ramsey went ‘back to basics’ as Arsène has suggested previously. Francis Coquelin was imperious in midfield and snapping into tackles left, right and centre. He won a number of aerial duels yesterday when the ball was pumped long by Joe Hart and it had me wondering when was the last time we had a player who won the first ball like that in a big game?
But Santi deserves his own paragraph. What a performance. Playing centrally is definitely something that is working for him right now. He won tackles, he distributed the ball well, he scored a good penalty, he set up Giroud’s goal and he had a few very fancy dribbles that were mesmerising. He even had time to throw in a little jig when Giroud headed in his free kick. Mesut Özil is a fine player, but he will have to wait some time to get back into the team with the way that Santi is playing right now. Both him and Coquelin have been essential over the last few weeks and whilst the clamour to solve problems is often seen as being something to sort out in the transfer window, the midfield isn’t something that looks like it needs tinkering with at all. I only hope that Coquelin doesn’t just ‘do a Flamini’ with his contract running down at the end of the season. He’s now strung together about five games in which he’s been excellent and he only needs to put together another three or four of those and there won’t be many suggesting he can’t be the answer to our defensive midfield problems.
As for the way we set up yesterday. Doesn’t it feel like the penny has finally dropped for this Arsenal team? I know it’s just one game and we could easily pick the penny back up again knowing this Arsenal side, but it feels like they actually ‘get it’. The best teams adapt their styles to nullify the opposition, whilst trying to assert their own style on the game where possible, thereby achieving the required result. Moneychester City wanted an Arsenal team that would try to go all ‘Rocky’ on them and turn a football match into a slug fest of ‘you have a go, we’ll have a go’. They wanted us to come at them so we could be picked off. It didn’t happen. Arsène was right post-match when he talked about the importance of getting the first goal. With the way in which we set up, the first goal allowed us to protect what we had, whilst probing for a second in a conservative nature. Had we conceded early, it’s unlikely that we’d have stuck to such a stringent, self-imposed defensive shape. But by striking first we were able to set our stall out for the game and beat the champions on their own home soil.
Is this the blueprint for future games against the best teams? That’s a difficult question to answer. Football is a game of variables and it would be folly to suggest that we can play like that every time we play a big team, home or away. For example, when we play Chelski at home in a few months time, do you think Mourinho will play a more expansive game? Or will he play just like we did yesterday? The answer is obvious, but if we set up exactly the same when we play the Chavs at home, it would probably have ‘bore draw’ written all over it, which would not be what the home support would be wanting to see. So whilst I don’t think we’ll be going back to ‘one nil to the Arsenal’ any time soon, it is pleasing to know that the manager is prepared to be flexible to get the result he wants, by understanding and adapting to the opposition.
There wasn’t a poor performance from an Arsenal player yesterday. I haven’t even mentioned Alexis, who was his usual tireless self, or the two full backs Monreal and Bellerin, who were excellent. Nor have I waxed lyrical over The Ox’s good display. I could probably fill another 1,000 words talking about each individual player, but I’ve only got about five minutes before I lose phone signal, so I’ll wrap it up for today.
It was only three points yesterday and we have to recognise that, but the psychological boost this will give the team will hopefully be massive, so let’s see whether the team can go on a run now.
See you tomorrow.