The Gunners got a confidence boost in their title bid on Monday by defeating Manchester City 2-1 in the Premier League despite missing Sanchez, Cazorla and Coquelin through injury. They made the difference by converting their only two chances of the first half before protecting their lead in the second half with some impressive work-rate.
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Wenger made no change to the side that won 2-0 at Aston Villa nine days ago. City dominated possession as Walcott and Campbell have limited ball-retention skills and Ramsey can’t build play from the back like Cazorla. Surprisingly, the Citizens also tried to rough up Arsenal a bit with Kolarov slapping Campbell in the face in the 37th minute and Otamendi stamping on Giroud’s shin in the 43rd. Otamendi earned a yellow card in the 48th for a challenge from behind on Giroud while Kolarov was not even booked despite stopping counterattacks with cynical fouls on Ozil in the 24th and Campbell in the 31st.
City showed a lot of aggression but it wasn’t enough to outperform an Arsenal team which won 59% of the duels and had 5 of its 8 goal attempts on target whereas the Citizens missed the target with 14 of their 20 shots.
Walcott opened the scoring in the 33rd by curling a low shot inside the far post and Giroud doubled the lead on the stroke of halftime by taking a pass from Ozil to fire through Hart’s legs. The Gunners definitely capitalized on some poor defending from City. Sagna gave Walcott too much space on the first goal while Mangala’s sloppy pass for Fernandinho led to the second goal. Giroud’s lack of pace is legendary, yet Otamendi couldn’t even block the Frenchman’s effort.
Wasteful in the second half
It could have been a different story if De Bruyne had converted his chance just a minute before Walcott’s opener. The Belgium winger forced Cech to make the first save of the game with a long-range strike in the 23rd. De Bruyne was in a better position nine minutes later when Otamendi found Aguero with a long pass. The Argentina striker flicked the ball into the path of De Bruyne, who charged down the wing only to drag his shot wide of the post. The defensive coordination between Monreal and Walcott was really poor on that play as Walcott failed to cover Monreal stuck near the City box. Then Koscielny allowed De Bruyne to break free by making the mistake of following Aguero. But some smart positional play by Mertesacker prevented De Bruyne from slipping the ball to Silva for a tap-in.
The Gunners should have killed the game in the second half but were let down by some poor finishing. Monreal made a perfect low cross for Campbell in the 53rd, but the Costa Rica forward fired over the bar from nine yards. Three minutes later, Campbell chased a long ball from Koscielny and forced Hart into a leg save with a toe poke from a tight angle. Campbell definitely needs to improve his finishing but his runs and his reading of the game are interesting. He slightly overhit a through ball for Walcott in the 41st.
Ramsey losing his shooting boots
Ramsey also had some opportunities to add a third goal. Campbell played him in with a first-time pass in the 60th, but a heavy first touch left Ramsey with very little room to beat Hart. The City goalkeeper somehow diverted Ramsey’s chip with his head. The Wales midfielder then rolled away from Mangala with a couple of touches in the 69th but his curling effort sailed wide. Ramsey lost his shooting boots again in the 83rd when Oxlade-Chamberlain played him clean through on goal. With just the goalkeeper to beat, Ramsey sent his lob attempt wide.
Pellegrini got his tactics wrong in the first half as Delph proved useless on the left wing. Sterling came off the bench at halftime to replace Delph and put more pressure on the Arsenal defense. City threatened from set pieces, first with Aguero getting ahead of Giroud to head Kolarov’s free kick straight at Cech in the 55th and then with Bony outjumping Gibbs in the 75th to head Navas’ corner toward Cech again. The Citizens were so desperate for a goal that Sterling and Toure even dived in the hope of getting a penalty.
You would think that no team with a two-goal lead should be hit on the fast break but that’s what happened in the 79th. Fernandinho took advantage of Arsenal’s high defensive line to slip a through ball to Navas as Mertesacker forgot to execute the offside trap on that play. Navas could have taken his chance but opted for a pass to Bony that was intercepted by Mertesacker. Replace Navas with Messi and you can imagine the damage Barcelona could inflict upon us in a couple of months.
Ozil’s 15th assist
In the closing minutes, the Gunners sat deeper to deny space. But fatigue and a lack of focus helped City pull one back. Toure played a one-two with Sagna before curling into the top corner in the 82nd. Ramsey failed to track Toure on that play. If Ramsey wants to play in central midfield when everybody is fit, he needs to improve his defensive awareness. He made a similar mistake in the seventh minute when Sagna fed Silva on the edge of the box. Flamini was busy with De Bruyne, so it was Ramsey’s job to mark Silva. But the Wales midfielder preferred to pay attention to Delph, already marked by Koscielny. Fortunately, Silva’s long-range effort sailed wide.
Toure nearly repeated the same trick in the 87th, playing a one-two with De Bruyne and ghosting past Mertesacker before missing the target with a sliding effort. Flamini was the culprit on that play but Walcott did enough to put Toure off.
Arsenal couldn’t have won that match without some impressive work-rate from the attacking players. Ozil raised his league tally to 15 assists this season. His pass for Walcott wasn’t really an assist since he intended to release Monreal down the left wing and Walcott still had a lot of work to do to put himself in a good position for a shot. But Ozil’s final ball for Giroud was outstanding, perfectly falling in the stride of the France striker. What both goals tell about Ozil is that he’s very good at finding pockets of space and at making himself available for his teammates. The icing on the cake was his defensive contribution with 53.3% of duels won and 3 of 4 tackles won -the most among the midfielders at the Emirates stadium.
Walcott and Giroud were clinical and worked really hard for the team. Walcott dispossessed Sterling in the 49th and made three interceptions while Giroud won 68.8% of his duels, which is an impressive stat for a lone striker. Again, Ramsey’s offensive performance depends on the quality of Giroud’s hold-up play because the Frenchman buys time for Ramsey to make his runs. Giroud made the cross for Ramsey in the 69th and connected with the Ox before Ramsey’s lob attempt went wide in the 83rd.
Flamini and Ramsey did a decent job in midfield. Surprisingly, they didn’t win any tackle but showed enough discipline to limit City’s clear-cut chances, if we except the marking issues on Toure’s deep runs. Flamini won 50% of his duels and Ramsey 64.3%. Both combined to make seven interceptions and did not get booked, which is a relief given our current lack of options in midfield. I thought Bellerin was back to his level before his hip injury. The Spaniard made 3 interceptions and won 66.7% of his duels and 3 of 3 tackles -the most by any defender. His work down the right wing in the 60th led to Ramsey’s scoring chance.
In my eyes, the Gunners are not yet the favorites in the title race after that game. As the old saying goes, once bitten twice shy. Arsenal led the league in February during the 2007-08 and 2013-14 seasons but quickly fell out of the race the following month. December only tells you which club is no longer a contender, but it doesn’t tell you which club will actually win.
Arsenal’s performance against the Top 5
Another reason for my cautiousness is the number of players still injured. Sanchez suffered a setback in training and won’t be back before mid-January. Wilshere, Welbeck and Rosicky might return next month but Coquelin and Cazorla are still long-term absentees. We basically have no room for rotation throughout the busy Christmas period. Let’s see how we do at the end of January before getting our hopes up.
The positive is that we have a four-point lead over City, which gives us some maneuvering room. In the past seasons, the Gunners have often been criticized for doing poorly against the top teams. So far, we’ve earned three wins (Leicester, the two Manchesters) and one draw (Tottenham) against the top five teams. What we need for a strong title push is more consistency against the weak or average sides. We lost at home to West Ham and dropped points at West Brom and Norwich. Can we avoid those blips in the second half of the season?
Let’s finish this post with Mourinho’s dismissal. It was quite ironic for the manager who called Wenger a “specialist in failure” to get sacked last week. Before Mourinho’s departure, the Blues were 16th in the standings after 16 league games. Wenger also had his share of poor starts but he always managed to turn things around by December.
Wenger better than Mourinho in times of crisis
Asenal’s worst start under Wenger happened in the 2011-12 season when the Gunners were 17th in September after five games and 15th in October after seven games. The club lost Fabregas, Nasri and Clichy that summer and half the dressing room wanted to leave according to the manager. It was also the season when Wenger went for a mad trolley dash in the last days of the transfer window after suffering an embarrassing 8-2 loss to Manchester United.
Keep in mind that the Arsenal squad at that time was much weaker than the current Chelsea squad. So it was definitely a tougher crisis to handle for Wenger than the revolt Mourinho faced at Chelsea. In the end, the Gunners managed to move into fifth place after 16 games in that 2011-12 season. It just shows you how good Wenger is at solving a crisis while Mourinho was unable to save Chelsea in the first crisis of his glorious career.
Ultimately, Wenger’s man-management skills made the difference. He is loyal to his players, sometimes a bit too much, and therefore loved by them. See how Cazorla played for 45 minutes with a damaged knee while Hazard took himself out of the game because of a knock on his hip.
By contrast, Mourinho has a love/hate relationship with his players, which is destructive from a long-term perspective. Even if you are the best tactician in the world, you still need your players’ backing on the pitch to survive. It was Mourinho’s poor man-management skills that sealed his demise. Those crises also tell you how difficult it could be for Arsenal to manage the post-Wenger era. Just ask Manchester United.