I am never afraid to lay into the team - and even moreso the manager - when things have gone wrong. So, fair is fair. Every last man in a yellow shirt today fought and bled for the badge, and the manager was absolute aces in his tactics and substitutions. Never mind the best performance on the road, or against a big team, this is the single best performance I can remember Arsenal having, since...fucking hell, could it be the 0-0 at home to Real Madrid in 2008?
It was obvious from the opening whistle that we had set our stall to defend, soak up pressure, and hit them on the counter-attack whenever possible. Hector Bellerin was preferred to Calum Chambers at right back, Francis Coquelin kept his place at defensive midfield, and David Ospina stayed in goal (which I disagreed with, and for the record I still do).
Unlike virtually every other match of any magnitude in recent times, Arsenal displayed no nervousness. There was one hiccup early on when Laurent Koscielny took a deserved yellow card, but the men in yellow closed ranks immediately thereafter. The Gunners were compact, disciplined and ferocious in their determination to not allow City any easy path through the yellow-clad Praetorian Guard. Everyone did their bit - I distinctly remember little Santi Cazorla flinging himself into a full-blooded sliding tackle to dispossess one of their lot at one point.
Seriously, how many heroes were there today? Coquelin was a beast in the center of midfield, all snarling piss and vinegar. He broke up attacks, clogged up passing lanes, and made a general nuisance of himself to the home side all game long. Bellerin made a mockery of the idea that he'd be out of his depth, as he calmly locked down City's left wing. Alexis Sanchez didn't make the scoresheet, but he harried their attackers and made it more difficult for them to get into a rhythm in the early phases of their attacks. Cazorla was all over the place, putting in a shift on defense before haring forward as the heartbeat of our attack int he middle of the field. Koscielny and Per Mertesacker looked every inch like the dominant center-half partnership that they were last season.
Also, whatever history we've had with Mike Dean (and believe me, he's been nothing but an odious little troll for years), he called a good game today. Maybe one or two of our bookings were a bit harsh, but he got every major call right. He just did.
Not least of those was the penalty that City conceded in the 23rd minute. Cazorla was the catalyst, unsurprisingly. He played a slick one-two with the excellent Nacho Monreal, setting our left back free in the penalty area. Vincent Kompany - who had an absolute mare on the day - stupidly hip-checked him, and Dean pointed to the spot immediately. It was a stonewall penalty, but I do admit my shock that Dean actually gave it to us. Anyway, Santi showed no guile with his kick. He basically told Joe Hart "I'm shooting to your left, try and stop it." Thankfully, his strike was true, and there was nothing England's No. 1 could do to keep it out. Great hit.
I had feared a ferocious comeback from City once they realized the danger that they were in, but it simply never came. Part of that was on their end, of course. Passes were misplaced, runs weren't made, that sort of thing. But, I think most of the credit has to go to Arsenal's organization and discipline. All told, City had 15 or 16 corner kicks on the day, and couldn't do anything with any of them. What odds could you have gotten on that pre-match, eh?
Manuel Pellegrini made a change at halftime to try and spark his team to life, but I don't think it was the right one. The anonymous James Milner came off, his place taken by Stevan Jovetic. The Montenegrin is a definite talent, but if it were me I would have opted for Edin Dzeko's raw power and physicality. We don't always do well defending against that type of player, and frankly I'm stunned that the Bosnian didn't start.
That said, the home side were slightly better after the interval, but it was nothing that this newly-stout Arsenal defense couldn't handle. Frank Lampard also arrived on the hour mark, but he too did little to change the narrative of the match. As for us, a tiring Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was replaced by action-man Tomas Rosicky. I always bag on the manager for his subs, as I've said before, but that was the perfect change at the perfect time.
Our boys put the match to bed soon after. It was a real "Introduction to the Opposites" moment too, as City defended a set piece like...well...like we normally do. Cazorla curled a beauty into the penalty area, as the men in light blue stood in a static line across the top of the 18. Olivier Giroud simply ran past them and nodded past the stranded Hart. Get in, you beauty.
That left the home side half an hour to try and rescue the match, but they never did manage to seriously threaten Ospina in our goal. There was one moment where the Colombian should have come for a high ball and didn't, leaving Monreal to try and awkwardly slice it away. It thankfully went to safety, but I've seen those loop into the defender's own net plenty of times.
And that, friends, is why I continue to believe that Wojciech Szczesny should play. He's simply the better goalkeeper out of the two, and his command of the penalty area is vital in matches like this. He would have caught that one, and he also would have caught another where Ospina unconvincingly punched when he should have corralled it. It didn't happen today, but mark my words - if we persist with Ospina in big games, it's going to cost us eventually.
Anyway, Arsene again came up with perfect substitutions in the dying minutes of the match, as he brought on Kieran Gibbs and Mathieu Flamini to shore things up. City half-heartedly attacked a few times in those last few minutes, but Arsenal saw it out with a minimum of fuss and that was that.
So, despite all of the statistics favoring their lot - 65% possession, 8-6 in shots, 16-3 in corners - Arsenal emphatically beat a bogey team on their own patch, and looked brilliant in doing so. Finally, FINALLY, we parked the bus in a big away match and it came up trumps.
Of course, the trick now is to keep this going and to cobble a run of 7 or 8 of these in a row. There's still a lot of work to do between now and the end of the season, but as long as the boys show this level of heart and drive and fight the rest of the way, I can forgive the odd bad result every now and then.
The Modern Gooner Player Ratings:
Ospina 7, Monreal 8, Koscielny 8, Mertesacker 8, Bellerin 8, Ramsey 7 (Flamini 7), Coquelin 9, Sanchez 8 (Gibbs 7), Cazorla 9, Oxlade-Chamberlain 8 (Rosicky 7), Giroud 8.
Man of the Match: This was a hard one. Nacho Monreal is making a mockery of my previous criticism of him, Bellerin looked like a player with 10 more years of experience than he actually has, Coquelin bossed the middle of the field and gave us the platform to counter where possible. But, Santi Cazorla was in the thick of everything and was simply the best player on the field.