On Sunday, in the Premier League, something momentous (in football terms) happened. Arsenal went to Man City and beat them 2-0. Last year they lost 6-3. They also lost 6-0 to Chelsea and 5-1 to Liverpool. Collective nervous breakdowns in the big away games. That’s been a trait for a number of years. This was really different.
Arsenal are a team renowned for having 60-70% of possession but not always exploiting it. Their soft centre in midfield and defence has been their undoing so often. They still get in the top four every year, but not since the Invincibles in 2003-4 have they won the League. Their fans, still burdened with high expectations, are fraught with anxiety and frustration. Arsene Wenger, the manager, is pilloried every time they don’t win in style. As for the big defeats against their rivals, they sink into a deep despair.
Yesterday they won the game with 35% of the possession, the lowest that has ever been recorded for Arsenal since Opta Index started collecting the statistics. They played like Chelsea in a big game away from home. Sat deep, deployed Francis Coquelin as the dedicated defensive midfielder in a 4-1-4-1 formation. And broke forward ruthlessly when the opportunities arose. Santi Cazorla, confidence sky high after the run in central midfield he has had, was outstanding. Aaron Ramsey, supporting Coquelin and breaking forward too, was inching back to his best. Olivier Giroud, up front, had a hunger. And the defence, happy with the protection they were getting from midfield, were assured and calm, for the most part. Ospina, in goal, looked more solid than Szczesny.
City weren’t at their best. Aguero is still getting back to full fitness, Silva was neutralised and they really miss Yaya Toure, who is at the African Cup of Nations. Kompany was sluggish, on his return from injury. But this was a highly impressive performance from Arsenal. Disciplined, solid, and incisive when the opportunities arose.
They should take huge encouragement from this result. And it breaks that bogey against the big rivals. Belief will surge through the squad. Supporters will start to dream of League victory, progress in the Champions League, again.
Arsene Wenger was asked after the game whether this was a first in terms of his tactics. He denied it (with a smile on his face), suggesting it was meant to happen in other games but wasn’t executed. Coquelin was the key. A 24 year old, classic Arsenal youth product who has mostly been out on loan in recent seasons. Has it all been a brilliant development plan by Wenger or a slice of luck? Well, I bow to my son Kieran, an Arsenal fan, who has been extolling the virtues of Coquelin for a while – and Bellerin at right back. Maybe it is all just coming good.
Yes, it is only one match, but a hugely important one. If Arsenal have developed a defensive solidity to complement their awesome attacking options, the brilliant Alexis Sanchez to the fore, then they could be serious contenders.
We shall see!