There was a slice of poetic justice when Arsenal’s new number 8, Mikel Arteta, struck the winner three minutes from time to effectively hand Manchester United the title. The symbolism would have been complete, of course, had the championship gone their way – a victory for tradition over machination, self-sustenance v foreign investment – but if anything, it served as a reminder, to their own players in particular but also to Samir Nasri, that Arsenal have a great chance of winning if they stay.
Nasri, predictably the attention of the home fans’ boos, was given a central role but was quickly shuffled wide such was the excellence of Arsenal’s play. Mikel Arteta, on the other hand, was simply metronomic, jabbing at Manchester City’s shield with each probing pass and he eventually found his way through by stealing the ball off David Pizarro and finishing from range. It was everything that Arsenal deserved; in many ways, the complete performance if not for the finishing. Because The Gunners not only dominated monopolistically against normally such vibrant opposition but shut them out comprehensively at the back.
The image of the Arsenal Back Four in the late 80’s-mid 90’s with their hands up, executing the perfect offside-trap is often brought up nostalgically and regret but here – and not just that, all season – the Arsenal defence paid the ultimate tribute. Laurent Koscielny and Thomas Vermaelen are crucial to Arsenal’s style working and they helped compress play – almost asphyxiatingly – in the opponent’s territory. (City only had five shots, none on target. Indeed, it must be remembered how difficult it is to keep a high-line is in today’s game and the fact that Arsenal have persisted and, on the whole, remained successful is an achievement in itself). Defensive security would have been on Arsène Wenger’s mind after the way in which their possession approach was rebuffed last week at Queens Park Rangers and the way Vermaelen was exposed and certainly there was an improvement in that regard. The two central midfielders provided a solid base in which Arsenal could attack and in the first-half in particular, used the whole width of the pitch to pin Manchester City back. The selection of Yossi Benayoun might have helped in that aspect than first thought because his ability to keep possession meant neither Alex Song or Arteta had to over-commit when getting forward. Indeed, Arsenal’s success this season in the middle has been the way in which they have rotated, alternating runs going forward and while that was on show again, their was an economy about Arsenal’s positioning. When one of the full-backs got forward, the central midfielders were in position to cover. Man City might not have been able to take advantage as they did in the reverse at The Etihad due to the absence of David Silva but certainly, Arsenal showed more control.
This was probably Arsenal’s most convincing performance this season. The football was rapid, especially at the start whereby Tomas Rosicky set a dizzying tempo and provided impetus with his passing while Song typified the graft. The selection of Benayoun helped Arsenal keep possession higher up the pitch and probably hints at an end – at least in the big games – of the three striker tactic. But while it might have been the template performance, there’s a danger of drawing too many conclusion from this win. And that’s because Arsenal have been at their best when they’re emotionally-charged and that level of intensity is surely hard to sustain. Wenger points to the improved “plan” and “more options” allowing the “team to feel more confident” and it’s still not clear whether this team needs to be unshackled and be forced into taking creative risks. Perhaps greater strength-in-depth next season will allow Arsenal to continue at this pace. Indeed, it was a couple of years ago Wenger stated the desire a produce a speed of passing game and while that might have been rebuffed earlier this season when key players departed, Arsenal’ strong finish has rejuvenated that ideology and lifted the club.
Something of note…
Arsenal were superb in compressing play, so much so that City accrued no shots on target. Indeed, most of their threat came from set-plays but it will have mostly pleased Wenger because it showed Arsenal played as a unit – not only squeezing the space but also keeping the ball well. It was also interesting to note the work of the central midfielders who essentially marked when pressing – Arteta picked up Milner, Song picked up Barry and Rosicky Pizarro and they almost followed them around the pitch.
Arsenal had much joy in the first-half, attacking down the flanks and using the width of the pitch as the full-backs got forward. In particular, they forced Mario Balotelli all the way back down the right but Mancini was too slow to change it. Indeed, it was the wrong decision to play a striker down Arsenal’s strongest side and once he made the switch, Mancini made the point that the distances in the 4-2-2-2 was wrong. Balotelli was City’s best attacker nevertheless but Mancini didn’t help him but playing him wide. In the second-half, Arsenal dominated in the way they usually play – through rotation in the centre.
Arsenal’s domination can be neatly surmised by this chart presenting each minute-by-minute domination in the form of polka-dots. Red is Arsenal, Blue is Man City. For more like this, visit andrewcharding.com.