A strange thing happened Sunday in the Etihad. A tall, slender man who looked vaguely familiar, walked into a stadium wearing a fancy three piece suit. He wasn’t adorned in a large puffy jacket that usually hides his now-aging body, but even without it, he convincingly assumed the persona of one Arsene Wenger.
Behind this man, walked 11 more men. These too, looked vaguely familiar in skin tight kits, adorned on the left chest with what we know to be the Arsenal crest. Some of these men looked more familiar than others, but still, there was a sense of the familiar about it all.
It was then the match began, because in truth, what eventually became a strange sequel to “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” was after all, supposed to be nothing more than a simple and straight forward football match. Instead, the 45,596 spectators who made the trip to The Etihad were treated (or in others case exposed) to a plot twist that not even 1999 M. Night Shyamalan seemed capable of delivering.
You see, I don't know who it was that City played on Sunday, but I do know it wasn't Arsenal. Or rather, it was the Arsenal of the last few seasons. Because that Arsenal follow in the spirit of their stubborn and tactically inflexible manager. And this Arsenal, following this Arsene, were in fact the opposite of that. Tactically flexible and mentally strong.
It wasn’t so much what Arsenal did with the ball – because they so rarely had it – but rather, what they so successfully managed to do without it. Willingly conceding City 65% possession at The Etihad seems a risky strategy for any side, not least one so infamous for being tactically naïve, defensively deficient and mentally weak – because for better or worse, this is what Arsenal have been accused of being in the last few years.
And yet, there they were, playing in a Sunderland-esque 4-5-1, dropping nine players behind the ball and daring City to play the intricate football that has come to define the Pellegrini era. And there, exposed for all to see, was a City side that seemed utterly unable to unlock a defensively secure Arsenal side. (Do you know how weird that sentence was to type? Weirder, I assure you, than it was to read.)
Without the ball, it was the tactical defense of space by players like Francis Coquelin and Santi Cazorla, that made David Silva and Sergio Aguero little more than spectators. Coquelin, sitting in front of the Arsenal centre-backs, made it almost impossible for Aguero to receive the ball at his feet and without that threat, Koscienly’s speed and physical ability further negated Aguero’s pace to latch onto through balls played into the channels between the centre-backs and the full-backs.
Meanwhile, it was Santi Cazorla – the standout player for both sides – who minimized David Silva to the point of near-anonymity. On a day when City were without Yaya Toure and Samir Nasri, the home side could ill afford to have their diminutive, fancy-footed Spaniard outshone by Arsenal’s diminutive, fancy-footed Spaniard. And yet, that’s exactly what happened as Cazorla stole the show and has since been praised by anyone with a keyboard.
Comprised of Coquelin, Ramsey and Cazorla, Arsenal’s three-man central-midfield dealt so well with Silva and Fernandinho, that it forced most of City’s offensive play out wide to the flanks (more on this in a moment). And this is what should be so disconcerting ahead of a now hugely important away fixture against Chelsea. That is to say, if that midfield three could so easily dominate City’s, what will Matic, Cesc and Oscar do in two weeks time? And with Yaya and Nasri unavailable for three more weeks (one away on AFCON duties and the other injured) who do City have that can turn games when City are stalled?
Fernando is altogether incapable of playing a pivotal part in a match that requires intricate and precise passing in the opponent’s final third, and Fernandinho, for all his strengths (of which, I still believe are many), cannot bring to City’s attack nearly that which Yaya can. And while it’s unfair to ask him to, it’s not unfair to note that when Yaya Toure is unavailable, City are so often unimpressive.
Lacking its usual central-midfield dynamism and Aguero being a terrible combination of rusty and well-defended, City turned to the wings – only to find little of use. Navas, who did consistently win corners (more on that in a moment), did little else that might provide an opening to goal and Milner on the other side, did even less than that. Navas (36/49 passing) and Milner (17/20) combined to create two chances and three shots, while completing 3 of their 21 attempted crosses. I’ll let those numbers sit there by themselves and let you assign whatever meaning you’d like to them.
Pellegrini’s only real role of the dice was to remove the ineffectual Milner at halftime in exchange for Jovetic, and while that did spark City into life, it also failed to result in a goal. It also opened City’s midfield up, allowing Arsenal to attack more than they had in the first half. Pellegrini clearly had limited ways of changing the game, but it might have been nice to see him try something a little more adventurous than simply pulling Milner for Jovetic.
He could have earlier to switch Milner and Navas and see if the Spaniard’s speed could cause Arsenal’s young right-back problems. Or perhaps he could have removed Fernando, dropping Milner into midfield beside Fernandinho and putting Jovetic out wide. It would have at least given City more technical quality in the center of midfield – something City clearly lacked. Or weirder, perhaps he could have gone 4-3-3 with Aguero, Dzeko and Jovetic up top with Fernandinho, Milner and Silva in the center. The problem was an obvious lack of creativity, both in the City lineup and in Pellegrini’s changes.
Meanwhile, Arsenal’s long ball tactic worked wonders, as Giroud proved a remarkable outlet both for Ospina and Monreal, who each completed ten passes to the Arsenal striker. It was his goal that ultimately put the game away, but long before that, it was his ability to make himself an available outlet and alleviate pressure that allowed Arsenal’s defensive tactic to work so well.
Lastly, a note on corners: City have had 139 corners since one of them last found the net. And of those 139, only 60 of them (43%) have found a City player. That sort of ineptitude requires a systematic problem that certainly needs addressing. Either Pellegrini isn’t paying enough attention to set-pieces (unlikely) or his approach to them simply isn’t working. Either way, it’s a legitimate problem that needs a real and tangible response. And soon, because time is running out as Chelsea are running away.
Actually, this is the last note: I am aware that there was a noticeable lack of Kompany critique in this piece. That, dear reader, is because I am in the process of formulating my more immediate opinions of the City skipper, and to write about it now would be purely out of frustration and concern. And I’m not entirely sure that’s entirely warranted . . . yet.