In the last three and a half years, Arsenal have played the new “Big 3” (City, United and Chelsea) 21 times. And they have won exactly 2 times, drawing 7 and losing the other 12. One of those two wins came against Chelsea 5-3 on the road in October 2011 and the other against City six months later at home (1-0), meaning they have not beat any of these three in 16 straight games. The statistics were thus against the side, amplified by the fact City have won 8 of their last 10, but the Gunners knew they had a good chance to beat City at home before conceding the late equalizer back in October.
The game started with City dominating possession but not creating any real chances. Before the 3rd minute had passed, however, Koscielny inexplicably clattering Fernandino outside the box, earning a yellow from Mike Dean, who might have been a little quick to his pocket. From here the game was played largely between the two boxes, with good defense snuffing out both offenses. Much like the game against Liverpool in December, the Gunners appeared to be set up to defend first and it was working early, though the lack of possession appeared to disrupt the flow going forward. In the 18th minute, an Arsenal counter almost got to Giroud for a header on a great cross from Ox, but they had to settle for a corner, which was punched out by Hart.
In the 23rd minute, Kompany tripped Monreal in the box on a nice one-two with Cazorla, who then took the penalty and got it past Hart (even as the City keeper guessed right). Arsenal were up 1-0 as Cazorla scored his fourth in his last eight. From here, Arsenal began to control the pace of the game more, even as City continued to dominate possession. Ironically, in a season when many claim the Gunners are a one-man team, Sanchez was largely kept at bay, giving the ball away with errant passes and touches more than anyone else. But great tackling and interceptions, particularly from Bellerin and Coquelin, kept the City attack at bay. Coquelin, who has been a pleasant surprise since returning from his Charleston loan early, even showed some leadership skills yelling at his teammates right before halftime after some sloppy play led to a City counter and decent chance. The Frenchman was then the one to head out the resulting corner to end the half.
So 35 percent possession at halftime but a 1-0 lead. Sure the trip by Kompany was a little clumsy, but the Gunners showed that they can play more defensively in big games with real discipline and mettle, as Mourinho teams have done for much of his career. Koscielny did get a silly yellow early and Ramsey another in the 37th minute that was again arguably unwarranted, but Kompany earned a yellow himself and all three had to be careful as the second half began. The one place where City did create a few half chances was on the wings, and Arsenal must have noticed that they would have to shore up their defense there if they were to hold the lead for the final 45 minutes.
As the second half began, Jovetic came on for Milner and City turned up their attacking verve immediately, earning a corner in the 47th minute, though Coquelin was again there to head it out powerfully. Arsenal got on the counter a few times but were unable to make anything of them, while City turned up the pressure with each passing minute. The game was more stretched and one began to wonder why the team didn’t stick with the effective strategy from the first half. Sanchez got past Zaboleta beautifully in the 52nd minute, but his shot flew past the goal and out for a throw in. Fernandino went in the book a minute later for a purposeful handball, but City were soon on the attack again and Arsenal were forced from clearance to clearance with only small patches of possession. In the 55th minute, a break from Arsenal ended with Ramsey free to shoot, but he sent it over and a minute later he was in but for a poor touch, before giving the ball away in a dangerous position. In the midst of the blistering action, Bellerin picked up a yellow for a foul.
Ramsey, in fact, was a little raw in his return to the pitch, with several heavy touches, poor passes and two askew shots to boot. Yet it was not only Ramsey who was giving up the ball, as the entire team seemed to be guilty as the second half continued, until they appeared to hear me screaming and starting passing through the City defense with real acuity. In the 60th minute, Koscielny denied a sure goal for Aguero, sending it out for a corner that Ospina collected. In the 63rd minute, Lampard came on for Fernandino and a few minutes later Rosicky for Ox, right after Sanchez had earned a free kick. And that free kick from Cazorla resulted in a Giroud free header and a 2-0 lead. It was Giroud’s fifth in his last nine (and 6th of the season) and a timely respite from the almost constant City pressure.
The Citizens had two corners in quick succession right after, to send their total into double figures for the game with slightly more than 20 minutes to play. And the number of loose passes by Sanchez was really starting to accumulate, though the Gunners defense was holding up well; and he forced a decent save from Hart in the 73rd minute. Ospina saved from a decent Navas shot moments later, making his case to keep the starting job going forward, after his second consecutive clean sheet. Cazorla was putting on a show of tight possession throughout, and in the 75th minute slalomed around five Blues before finally losing the ball. In the 84th minute, Gibbs and Flamini came on for Sanchez and a spent Ramsey. Though he was a less than his stellar best, his defending and coverage were as impressive as ever and certainly contributed to the three points.
Aguero, kept at bay by Koscielny throughout, earned a yellow in the 86th for a tug on Gibbs jersey as Arsenal countered through Rosicky. The Gunners earned a corner a moment later though Cazorla sent it horribly short with no one in the vicinity. Kompany sent a header just wide from a corner a few minutes later (with maybe the best chance of the entire game for City), though Ospina seemed to have his goal covered. Flamini could have passed across goal for an easy third just as four minutes of extra time began, but Kompany got a foot out just in the knick of time. Arsenal ran out the clock from here and earned a valiant and important three points.
It was an impressive win for Arsenal, their first against the Big 3 since April 2012, and pushed them back into fifth place, a mere point behind United and two ahead of their North London rivals (who won late at Sunderland on Saturday). It was also arguably their best win in the past three year, maybe the kind of victory that can restore some belief in the team and push them on for the remainder of the season. The question all Gooners have to be asking themselves though is why it has taken Wenger so long to make the move to play more defensively against the best of the EPL, particularly on the road. They did it against Liverpool in December and were unlucky to concede with the last kick of the game (for the 2-2 draw), then again today. But why not last year, particularly after the first of four straight blowouts? Wenger occasionally uses these tactics in Europe, particularly on the road, but this is a new, and welcome trend as the Gunners try to wash away the last decade of relative futility (minus the FA Cup last year). City, who were even with Chelsea a couple of weeks ago, are now five points behind and looking a little feckless as they try to secure back-to-back titles for the first time in their history.
Three Very Quick Thoughts on the Game
1. Coquelin is making a strong argument that he is the DM that Arsenal have been lacking since 2007. He will have to continue to perform at this level, but this was yet another impressive performance (his 7th out of 7). I wrote about this yesterday and he fortified the argument even further today, steeling up the middle of the pitch and providing a strong presence in and around the box (as Ramsey did for the first half of last season) while starting to show himself as the leader Arsenal has so desperately needed since Viera left so many “blue” moons ago.
2. Cazorla is playing so well, there is a question of how Ozil gets back into the side at the moment. Are you going to drop Sanchez? Of course not. What about Ox? That’s hard to do as well, given the real improvement in his game and the pace and dribbling ability he provides on the wing. If he does sit out a game, isn’t Walcott the obvious replacement? Going further back, Coquelin has earned his spot for the time being and Ramsey does substantially more defensively than Ozil. He will certainly get back on the pitch, but it’s hard to see him supplanting anyone at the moment, or getting back to his preferred spot in the middle of the pitch.
3. Man City have the most solid team from front to back in the league, arguably marginally better than Chelsea (except at goalkeeper and maybe on the wings/wide midfield). And yet their offense sometimes seems toothless and their back four occasionally falls asleep at key times. Both Arsenal goals could have been avoided today but for Kompany making an early error and the entire defense falling asleep on the second. City can still win the league, but they will probably have to beat Chelsea in the return fixture for that to happen – and to find goals from others beyond Aguero and Silva.