Much has been written about our defeat against Manchester City at the Etihad Stadium, the way we surrendered to Pep Guardiola’s men and the team picked-up by Arsène Wenger; of course, it looked very odd to see Alexandre Lacazette benched in favour of Alex Iwobi and even more bizarre to see Francis Coquelin used as a make-shift centre-half, however I did not share all the blasting of “tactically clueless” Arsène Wenger: the manager had a tactical plan to counter the obvious superiority of our opponents – a team that looks virtually unstoppable, at the moment.
Among fears that we would go to the Etihad Stadium with the usual gung-ho approach, Arsène Wenger opted for a very conservative approach, starting with a passive 4-3-3 only to switch back to the 3-4-3 once the host broke the deadlock.
Although Manchester City unsurprisingly dominated the possession and dictated the play, the Gunners managed to stay in the game even when they were trailing by two goals, something rather refreshing for a team and a manager often labelled as naive and mentally weak.
I would hope that no one really expected us to go there and play positive, constructive football against the masters of possession and pressing, therefore limiting Manchester City’s attempt and attempts on target to 9 and 5, respectively, should be seen as a good achievement.
Considering that one of those attempts is a penalty kick, we managed to keep them away from Petr Čech and reduce their clear-cut chances to the very minimum, as Pep Guardiola’s team have registered the lowest number of shots of the past two years.
As a comparison, Chelsea conceded 17 shots when they lost to Manchester City at Stamford Bridge (6 on target), why Liverpool conceded 13 in the recent 0-5 defeat at the Etihad Stadium; for a team whose defensive play is considered as extremely poor, we produced a rather good performance.
I’m not saying we were perfect, I’m just underlining the fact that we had a plan and that it was working, until the linesman failed to spot a rather evident offside on their third goal.
What didn’t work, though, was the second part of what looked to be Arsène Wenger’s plan: the counter-attack.
We were often febrile and careless with the ball, we didn’t really create chances and failed to retain possession when we needed it the most, allowing Manchester City to suffocate us with their excellent pressing.
That prompted me to ask myself whether we do have the quality required to play against the best – and the response is no, unfortunately.
We do have some technically gifted players, especially in midfield, but we do lack the awareness and intelligence to move the ball with the accuracy and speed that top level football require.
Beside Santi Cazorla and Mesut Özil, all our midfielders and forwards seem to severely lack awareness of what is going on around them, in terms of space and time; we lack the maturity and intelligence that make all the difference between a good midfielder and an excellent one: if you think of Fernando Redondo, Pep Guardiola himself, Xavi, Andrea Pirlo, Xabi Alonso or more recently Toni Kroos, Luka Modric and David Silva, you can picture them with the ball at their feet, their heads well up to have a clear picture of the direction and speed of play, ready to pick the best passing option or evading the initial pressing from the opponents.
If you picture Jack Wilshere, Aaron Ramsey, Mohamed Elneny, Francis Coquelin or Granit Xhaka – although the Swiss is the most promising of our lot, at this – you can picture them running with the ball, their eyes firmly on the sphere.
They are technically sound and experienced enough to have a good understanding of the game but they lack that extra talent to pick the right option at the right time.
The famous win we pulled at the Etihad Stadium a couple of years ago was mainly down to the ability of Santi Cazorla to run the show in midfield and break the lines of City’s pressing scheme, something that we miserably failed to do during the last game.
Also, back then we scored with the first two chances we were presented with, while we couldn’t convert some early occasions we had, with Ramsey and Iwobi.
If you want to stand any chance to win against teams like Manchester City, you need to make the most of your rare chances and retain possession of the ball.
You will need a lot of discipline, solidarity to defend deeply for the whole game, a good communication between players and a fair amount of luck – because you will eventually concede chances and shots – and I believe we did well; we missed some luck with the penalty incident and the offside goal, but more than that we sorely missed someone in midfield who could keep hold of the ball and force Manchester City to run backwards – something they’re not good at.
We missed a couple of crucial ingredients to pull out a surprising result, one of which is firmly in our hands: the lack of awareness among our midfielders.
It’s a matter of tactical adjustments of new personnel coming in, in my opinion.
We can either go with long-balls and ask Olivier Giroud to keep hold of them – as much as possible – or look for a younger, healthier version of Santi Cazorla.
The current setup is good but not at the level required at the very top, I’m afraid.