Despite the heroics of Leicester City this season, Arsenal’s game with Manchester City was always going to be the one that gave the clearest indication of whether this Arsenal team is ready to be a serious and genuine title contender. Without Alexis Sanchez, Santi Cazorla, Francis Coquelin, Jack Wilshere, Danny Welbeck, Tomas Rosicky and Mikel Arteta, it was never going to be easy. As it turned out, Arsenal had to run themselves into the ground to hang on and grind out a 2-1 win in an enthralling and intriguing pre-Christmas stress-fest at the Emirates.
Having been 2-0 up and then conceding with nine minutes to go, previous, weaker, Arsenal teams would have folded and the match would have been drawn. But Arsenal’s players had to dig very deep into the energy reserves as they worked incredibly hard to hold onto the three points as every player was willing to chase lost causes, throw themselves at the ball to block it and commit themselves to making important tackles. Critics always want Arsenal to show some steel and not crumble when the pressure comes on. There were plenty of nerves late on, and the Gunners didn’t have much control in the midfield during the latter stages of the game, but they displayed the determination and desire needed to hold themselves together and get the result.
For all of Arsenal’s steel and strength, the win also owed a lot to the silk of Mesut Ozil. Regular watchers of Arsenal this season know of the brilliance he brings to the side, but when the game was tight in the first-half and Arsenal had struggled to impose themselves on the visitors, the German glided into space and provided two assists to break the game open for the Gunners. Arsene Wenger said recently that Ozil is always able to play the right note, and in music terms, it is almost as if Ozil plays the plays the magnificence individual solo but leaves the ending perfectly set-up for the lead guitarist to apply the big finish.
Many would want the big finish themselves, but that doesn’t seem to bother Mesut.
The finish that accompanied Ozil’s first assist was certainly big and mightily impressive from Theo Walcott. Receiving the ball around the left corner of the penalty area, he spun into some space and bent a brilliant shot into the bottom corner. That it was Arsenal’s first shot of the game and came past the half hour mark was a surprise, but it showed Arsenal are developing a ruthless instinct. It was the highlight of a good evening for Walcott, who contributed more defensively than usual.
Arsenal’s clinical efficiency came to prominence again in the added minute before half time as a loose pass out of defence was seized on by Walcott just inside the City half. He found Ozil, who inevitably slid a perfect through-ball forward for Olivier Giroud to run onto. Showing the confidence he’s gained from his recent goal scoring exploits, Giroud drilled the ball between the legs of Joe Hart to give Arsenal a 2-0 lead at half-time after only firing off two shots in the whole of the first 45 minutes.
That was, in part, down to Arsene Wenger deploying similar tactics to the ones that worked so well in the 2-0 win at the Etihad against Manchester City back in January. The team sat a bit deeper and allowed Manchester City to have more of the ball, but without a taller centre-forward to aim crosses towards, Arsenal were content with City working the ball wide. Apart from when Kevin de Bruyne had space to run free towards goal on the right, the Gunners generally held City at arms’ length during the first period.
The second half was a lot more frenetic and stretched as players tired and the tension was ramped up. Arsenal should have alleviated those nerves with a third goal, but Joel Campbell and Aaron Ramsey were the main culprits of missing presentable opportunities in the City penalty area. Unlike the visitors, Arsenal did have a aerial threat up front, and there a bit of panic in the City back-line when Giroud was battling to get on the end of crosses.
But as the game went on, it was increasingly about the Arsenal defence holding firm. It took a wonder goal from Yaya Toure to get past a commanding Petr Cech, and therefore make the Czech wait before breaking the record for the number of clean sheets in the Premier League.
Cech’s presence does bring a calm to the Arsenal team, and it was needed in the final ten minutes as nervous energy filled the Emirates Stadium. Arsenal missed the guile and control of Santi Cazorla near the end of the match as he might have looked after the ball a bit better to relieve some of the pressure in the middle of the pitch, but Aaron Ramsey and Mathieu Flamini, and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Calum Chambers when they came on, undoubtedly put in a great shift defensively.
Everyone in the team pulled their weight on Monday night and contributed, but there is one man who won’t make many headlines but is deserving of a lot of praise; Per Mertesacker. Despite City having some quick players, the big German was never caught out and he made some vital tackles, clearances and interceptions during the night. He took responsibility as the captain to bark out orders every time the ball went out of play and to remain calm as everyone else was ready to press the panic button when Manchester City scored. A captain’s performance.
The relief at the final whistle was extraordinary. It felt significant, even if it was just another three points. Did the match confirm that Arsenal are serious about challenging for the title this season? Yes, it did. Despite the injuries, the squad showed a togetherness to get the job done despite not playing thrilling football for most of the game. Besides, with the best player in the league at the moment wearing Arsenal’s number 11 shirt, so long as he creates a few chances in a game, Arsenal can be clinical to make it count.