How good was last night’s match? Just how good was that win? If you watched it, you’d know the answer to those questions. I was so impressed with our performance that I’m writing a match report and watching the match again this morning.
The issue about our struggles in the ‘big games’ has become so common that I was surprised by the history of this home fixture. Arsenal had only lost once to Manchester City in 18 BPL home matches, but had only won one out of the last 6 at the Emirates against the Sky Blues.
The game started out very measured, and in all honesty I thought we might just see it peter out to a draw. Both teams looked cautious, with Arsenal playing the ball mostly at the back and Manchester City doing their best impression of ‘pre-Barcelona’ Stoke – Andre Marriner did little to protect the home team’s players from the rough challenges. For a team with so many skilled players, I was surprised they’d resorted to that sort of game.
Kevin de Bruyne got things going in the 22nd minute when he fired a shot to Petr Cech’s left hand side. The Arsenal keeper went low to make the save even though it seemed the ball would at best brush past the post. The resultant corner produced a bit of comedy as De Bruyne tried to make a quick pass only to kick the corner flag, much to the entertainment of the home fans. Every corner he took subsequently was sarcastically cheered for the rest of the game.
The former Chelsea and Wolfsburg man’s effort across goal ten minutes later was the spark that lit the fire under the game’s (and Arsenal’s) bottom. He probably should have put it through to David Silva at the far post, who would have had the simple task of tapping it in. Instead the Belgian tried to score despite Cech, Mertesacker and a sprinting Bellerin having the angles covered, so it’s no surprise that Silva expressed disappointment and frustration, shouting at his team mate, “cumaaan!”
Almost immediately, Arsenal responded in the best way possible with what was their first shot on target (they’d go on to score their second goal with their second shot on target). Koscielny, who was immense all game and is probably only letting Sergio Aguero out of his pocket this morning, threaded a defence-splitting pass forward to Özil from the centre circle – he seems to have been given the freedom to do Beckenbaueresque forward runs – who made a simple off-load to Walcott on his left. The Englishman, instead of running forward, cut back and positioned himself to place a powerful shot that beat Joe Hart in the far corner, a goal that Alexis Sanchez would have been proud of. One nil to The Arsenal! (Özil actually ducked as the shot came straight at his head. Does that count as a double assist?)
There are those who feel the concept of assists is useless, as sometimes a goal comes from a simple pass to a striker who creates a magical moment from nothing. If Özil’s first assist was deemed to fall within that category, his second was the kind that typifies the simplicity of his game, or the way he makes the game look so simple that it goes under-appreciated. Again, a straight line pass from the middle of the park from Walcott met the German, who timed the through pass to a diagonally running Giroud to perfection. The ‘lamppost’ slotted the first time shot through Hart’s legs with his ever-reliable left foot to make it 2-0, with a few seconds of first half added time to go. It was the type of goal that would have received much adulation had it been scored on the opposite end by Giroud’s opposite number.
The second half saw the introduction of Raheem Sterling for Fabian delph as Manchester City sought to find keys to unlocking the Arsenal defence (sounds weird doesn’t it). Most of his contribution involved falling all over the pitch looking for free kicks and penalties, which Marriner thankfully didn’t buy – I can remember his last game for Liverpool on this ground not producing much either. City kept knocking on the door but for most of the second half Arsenal looked to be the likelier to add to their lead as Aaron Ramsey and a hard-working Joel Campbell squandered a number of chances between them.
City brought on Bony for Sergio Aguero, who didn’t look entirely match fit by the time he came off, and Navas replaced David ‘better-than-Özil’ Silva. Both tried to find a breakthrough, and Navas came closest. After beating the off-side trap from the right, he made an excellent run bearing down on Petr Cech only to attempt a pass into the box (that was intercepted by Mertesacker) when it seemed better to have an attempt at goal. That might be part of the reason he hasn’t scored a league goal for his club in two years.
The men in blue eventually found their goal against the run of play in the 82nd. Sagna laid the ball back to Yaya Toure who nonchalantly, but with exquisite technique, lobbed the ball from outside the box into the top far corner with the inside of his left foot. It was so casual that even the City supporters didn’t cheer with full conviction, perhaps confused at how it went in. It was a sumptuous goal but I do feel that Ramsey next to him should have closed him down. Cech could have also at least tried to stretch for it. A fingertip may have forced the ball to hit the post, possibly earning him his much anticipated record-breaking clean sheet.
This obviously gave the match a nervy ending for Gooners because we know how goals that bring our opponents back into the game have shaken us in the past. But the men in red and white held firm, and that steely mentality we’ve seen building up in the last few seasons came to the fore. Everyone pitched in defensively. Giroud even seemed to injure himself after making a last ditch tackle on Nicolas Otamendi in the Arsenal box.
Overall, Arsenal played like gladiators. We saw a team that was fully committed to making this game count and willing to put their bodies on the line. Özil’s comments about the team believing that they can win the league were in personified in this match. A few players stood out for me.
Playing on the flank means that your work sometimes goes unnoticed as you don’t get as involved on the ball as your team mates in the middle. Both Joel Campbell and Alexis Walcott played impressively. Yes, you read right. Theo played the ‘Alexis role’ so well that I felt he at least deserved to adopt the Chilean’s name for the night. I have never seen Walcott track back, tackle, fight off defenders, compete aerially and prove to be a general nuisance all at the same time they way he did last night. And all this playing from the left, which for me still looks strange since he’s played right wing for so long. Campbell was also a workhorse throughout. Besides sprinting back to help in defence, he made some lovely exchanges with team mates in the final third and should have joined Walcott on the score sheet with 2 good chances. His form and confidence continues to rise as he gets more game time and he’s keeping the Ox on the bench at the moment, but will probably be the one sacrificed once Sanchez returns.
Laurent Koscielny, as I mentioned earlier, was a colossus at the back. Besides the runs he made into midfield, he intercepted and tackled to keep Aguero quiet until the Argentine waved a white flag midway through the second half. What Lolo did outside the Arsenal box, Mertesacker did inside it with crucial tackles and interceptions of his own as the two frustrated many of Manchester City’s efforts.
Ramsey was his usual self, getting involved in everything. Olivier Giroud is still proving the doubters wrong, scoring in the big games that he apparently doesn’t do – when will they learn? Monreal and Bellerin continue their full-back consistency. And Mesut Özil? Well, apparently the jury is still out on him…on whether he can break the assist record that is. He’s 6 away from breaking that particular accomplishment, which is held by another club superstar and legend, and has another half of the season to get it done. Unless he pulls a Fabregas 2014/15, I think it’s safe to say he will be breaking that record, hopefully also lifting the Barclays Premier League trophy in May.[Sidenote: I can’t be the only one who thoroughly enjoyed hearing Mesut do his post-match interview in English, and his reaction at Theo’s praise of him. It was brilliant.]
In conclusion, I’ll leave this here, my favourite tweet from last night.
I first encountered Arsenal when I got exposed to English football around 2004 (that champagne football sold it for me), but only learnt of the Invincible season much later on. I used to think the club is named after Arsene – a bit silly in retrospect. Appreciate the perspective and stories of older Gooners who’ve supported the club longer than I’ve been alive. Market researcher with a keen interest in photography (David Price and Stuart McFarlane have the best job in the world).
Oh, almost bought a Man United shirt as a youngster because I saw a friend of mine, who was the cool kid, wearing one. So glad I didn’t go down that road!