Arsenal 0-0 Manchester City
Manchester City may have been content to come to the Emirates and play for the draw but for owners Abu Dhabi United Group, there will come a time when they reach a crossroads between results and aesthetics. It is perhaps too premature in their investment to demand City play like Arsenal so, in the current time line, it is expected that their profile-driven transfer policy to bring in the flair. But if sugar-daddy ownerships of the past are anything to go by, it will be their long-term objective to see the kind of football played by Arsenal last night albeit at the conclusion of a different result than the 0-0 produced here.
As Barcelona has shown, and especially if they continue to raise the bar as they have in recent seasons, the establishment of a good youth system as Arsenal have now, offers the best chance of free-flowing, attacking football. It is a point Johan Cruyff stressed in 2005 when watching an Champions League match between Arsenal and Ajax which he blamed the quality on show on the youth structure on both sides. “A very poor game,” said Cruyff of the encounter which The Gunners at 2-1. “Both teams had some injuries but even so, there was a lot of poor play, a lot of poor technique. I think the difficulties go back to the youth development systems. If you have a good youth development system, then it is obvious first team will one day be good too. It’s not hard to get things right; all that is required is a lot of hard work.”
As we all know, back in 2005, Arsenal were capable of producing kaleidoscopic football of the highest quality, particularly in the league, but had difficulties imposing their style in Europe. There was no such trouble asserting themselves here against Manchester City, who under Roberto Mancini play with a typically continental caution, showing the level they still need to aspire to. Arsenal’s sheer artistry alone, at times, forced The Blues on the backfoot and they should have been three up when the whistle sounded for half-time.
Arsenal dominant but fail to capitalise from transitions
Arsène Wenger’s side looked particularly dangerous on transitions and in the first period, it was the key to their dominance. All aspects of their strategic defending fell into place and that stopped City from having any joy from the game. The midfield and attack forced Kolo Toure and Vincent Kompany to try and build from the back but never allowed them to make the pass through to the midfield. The first line of pressure created a barrier which Manchester City were on the whole unable to penetrate. If they did get through, however, the Arsenal defence were quick to squeeze the space and tried to win the ball back quickly. Carlos Tevez ploughed a lone furrow and got no purchase out of Johan Djourou and Laurent Koscielny.
Tactically, this was a game where space was a premium and it needed a side to take advantage if the space was afforded. Arsenal were left to rue their misses in the first-half because there was a feeling if a goal was scored, it would open up the floodgates against an uninspiring City side without David Silva. Jack Wilshere’s drive looked a good medium to break down the sea of sky blue shirts in front of the penalty box and indeed, he may have felt he could have done better with either one of his chances which Joe Hart saved and he put wide respectively.
The two 4-2-3-1′s ultimately meant marking duties were very obvious and the late runs across or through the defence was needed to catch the defenders out. Robin van Persie played very high up the pitch and tried to roam across the back-line – a clever idea – but needed the support of runs in his place. Too much of Arsenal’s play was in front and that made it a bit too easy for Manchester City to grow accustomed to as the match wore on. “When you play against Arsenal they are very dangerous with their passing and movement from around 18 yards out and they can hurt you,” said goalkeeper Joe Hart. “We kept a good line and were disciplined and they were ultimately forced to start shooting from distance which is a credit to the lads in front of me.” Centre-back Kompany concurred: “The first 15 minutes was the hardest. We had to dig in, and it was really hard at times. But the longer the game went on, the more comfortable we became defensively.”
With Samir Nasri on the left, the Frenchman was able to get more involved with play centrally and he linked-up with Cesc Fabregas numerously. However, by switching him to the left, Arsenal lost his ability to get behind which he used to great effect in games against Tottenham and Fulham starting from the right. Theo Walcott tried but because of City’s flat defence, found himself with more space if he stuck out wide. That was fine with City because orthodox meant predictability and that’s more easier to defend. Essentially, Arsenal needed a way to drag the defenders out. Van Persie worked hard and his movement would have been best rewarded if his teammates were able to make diagonal runs inside. That was what Wenger tried to bring with Nicklas Bendtner’s introduction on the left but it was ultimately flawed. With the clock running down, The Gunners needed as much of the ball in the box as possible and the fact that they didn’t try a direct threat with Walcott on before taking him off, baffled some of the home fans. Andrey Arshavin’s flicks and tricks only attracted groans from the Emirates support.
It should not be underestimated how difficult breaking down a team with ten men behind the ball is and for that, Arsenal should be commended. The way City were structured drew boos at the final whistle but for years starved of glory, City fans don’t care otherwise. Abu Dhabi United Group may be willing to accept that with Mancini in the short-to-medium term, as they seek to attain results and establish themselves as a big club in the same way which they felt they couldn’t in the carefree manner under Mark Hughes. Indeed, there are similar situations all over the Premier League as teams look to corroborate their on-field demeanour with a solid structure. The paternal-like figure of Alan Pardew seems to indicate so at Newcastle against the meek Chris Houghton and the five-year contract allows Mike Ashley to restart what he couldn’t when he took over the club. Aston Villa have hired Gérard Houllier, someone more used to understanding and accepting the technical demands Martin O’Neill. The situation at Blackburn, however, is ill-advised – and that’s not just a pun indirectly attacking the use of agents in the decision-making process.
If Manchester City want to play like Arsenal, they may find the best way is organically, through establishing and cultivating a strong youth system, as opposed to buying out the world’s top footballing talent. As it was, they signalled their intentions by setting their stall out at the Emirates – and succeeding in stopping The Gunners from scoring.