What a match that proved to be. Played at a frenetic pace, with each sides boasting large spells of dominance (during which the opposition would score), City left the Emirates with a late draw that on another day might have been a win.
With one eye turned to his team’s midweek match in Munich, Pellegrini fielded a rotated starting eleven, that saw "Super" Frank Lampard play in midfield alongside Fernandinho. Milner and Navas both started on the wings, with Silva as the #10 and Aguero as the lone striker. Hart remained in goal (perhaps because of his top performance for England against Switzerland), Demichelis and Kompany in the center of defence, while Clichy and Zabaleta both made their returns to the side.
Wenger, who seems determined to play in a 4-3-3 (or a 4-1-4-1 if you’d rather), started Welbeck up front with Oezil (again played wider than he'd prefer) and Sanchez on either side of him. It was a central midfield trio comprised of Flamini, Ramsey and Wilshere, with the Frenchman sitting deep to shield Mertesacker and Koscielny in central defence. Debuchy, Monreal and Szczesny completed the defence.
The first half saw Arsenal control much of the tempo and see more of the ball, especially in the center of the pitch as Wilshere and Ramsey proved far too much for a probably-too-old-for-a-top-four-clash Frank Lampard. Even Silva seemed to struggle at the start, playing a far too lacksidaisical back-pass that played Welbeck through on goal – though thankfully his audacious chip hit Hart’s post and bounced straight back into his waiting arms.
While Arsenal’s midfield superiority eventually waned, it provided City a chance to play more on the counter-attack than is often possible – and perhaps showed a blueprint for Wednesday’s Champions League match against Bayern. Indeed, the opening goal was a brilliant show of pace, as Navas chased down the ball after Aguero’s sliding tackle on Flamini and raced towards the Arsenal box before playing a perfectly weighted pass onto Aguero’s foot, rewarding the striker not only for his near post run, but also for his defensive workrate and contribution.
Halftime saw Pellegrini, perhaps in fear of a yellow-to-red sending off for Frank Lampard, withdraw the former-Chelsea man in favor of Samir Nasri. The substitution came with a tactical tweak that saw James Milner, previously playing on the wing, move to the middle of midfield to play alongside Fernandinho. It was that move that, in my opinion, categorically changed the game – and in City’s favor, too.
Where before, Lampard was unable to stay with Ramsey and Wilshere, Milner was now able to provide Fernandinho the midfield partner he needed. Prior to halftime, Lampard, obviously playing in the middle, attempted 26 passes, completing 21 of them (80%). Milner, while on the wing in that first half, attempted 24 passes, completing 19 of them (79%). After halftime and now playing in the middle, Milner attempted 46 passes – almost twice that of Lampard – completing 39 of them (85%). Below are the passing graphs of each player; I’ll leave you to identify which is which.
The point, of course, is that Milner’s shift to the center of the pitch drastically improved City’s midfield play. The possession increased, the passing increased, and the tempo settled to City’s preferred pace. So naturally, Arsenal scored twice. Such was this game: City went one goal up following Arsenal’s spell of dominance only for Arsenal to return the favor by scoring twice while City were comfortably the better side.
City’s reaction, away from home and against a top side, was remarkable – albeit aided by Wenger’s naïve managing. Having quickly gone up 2-1 with both goals coming against the run of play, while also (presumably) watching his side struggle for even a small bit of control in the second half, Wenger might well have been suited to an early (by his standards) substitution in an effort to subdue City.
Instead, it was Pellegrini who made the incisive change. Risking any semblance of midfield security by removing Fernandinho for Kolarov, Pellegrini forced his best crosser and set piece taker onto the pitch. And that change, as we all now know, proved to be worth a point – and almost three – as Kolarov provided the delivery for Demichelis’ equalizer before also striking the post three minutes from time.
Already this season, we’ve seen the patient Pellegrini (against Newcastle), the pragmatic Pellegrini (against Liverpool) , the frustrated Pellegrini (against Stoke), and on Saturday, we saw the resilient Pellegrini. On Wednesday, it would be nice to see the mathematic Pellegrini.