In a week where football took a back seat to the very components that give it life – the players – as Cristiano Ronaldo was crown the world’s best footballer, Arsenal responded by showing that they are not a one-man team. Talk before The Gunners’ 2-0 win over Manchester City revolved around the two teams’ star-men: Alexis Sanchez and Sergio Aguero. However, both decidedly underwhelmed with the collective rising above the individual, and Arsenal surprising everyone with an approach that was broadly defensive, but all together very necessary.
The issue wasn’t so much whether Arsene Wenger could adapt his approach to suit opponents, (because there have been enough examples in the past few seasons that prove he can – though more than enough the other way to suggest it’s reluctant trade-off – and he essentially revealed to everyone pre-match how Arsenal would set out), but whether the players could rise above the conviction deficit they tend to have in big games.
It’s all about mentality. The manager and the players believe that their way is superior and so often, they are anxious to make a stylistic impression that they can lose courage in their play. Indeed last season, perhaps Arsenal might have faltered against Manchester City’s high-intensity physicality: instead, they rose above it, imposing their own authority in the game by running harder and maintaining focus.
That meant that Arsenal had to cede something at the other end, and by the end of the game, the Gunners only accrued 35% of the possession. It’s hard to believe that Wenger and the players didn’t squirm at the figure because in the second-half they came out with a measure of complacency, committing bodies forward, believing that it wasn’t a true reflection of their quality. Sure enough, a couple of attempts at David Ospina’s goal soon had them retreating back into their half.
If Arsenal couldn’t afford to be truly fluent, they relied on getting the ball to the front men quickly, and Oliver Giroud’s ability to take the ball down from the air. Some of his touches were glorious and by the end of the game, he made 45 passes, the 2nd most of Arsenal’s players, while he was found by Ospina and Nacho Monreal 10 times respectively. His header, to put Arsenal 2-0 up, highlighted the variation Arsenal had, and the lack of for Manchester City who barely found Sergio Aguero in the corridors between the centre-back and the full-back he loves to play in.
Alexis Sanchez was technically less assured, at times the self-imposed pressure to be the decisive player getting to him. On 50 minutes he had a pot-shot after a slaloming run down the left, when he could have crossed, partly due to the growing frustration that each time he managed to jink clear of Pablo Zabaleta he was quickly closed-down. Other times, he was guilty of holding onto the ball, ignoring passing options, though one dribble resulted in a good shot.
In a sense, this sums up Arsenal’s inconsistencies in the final third in certain matches because they expect to play in a certain way, for the ball to be bumped between each other quickly, that runs are sometimes made in advance, too hurriedly, instead of players arriving in the positions at the right time. On the other hand, it shows you the whimsical nature of partnerships, because they seemingly happen by accident, but it needs time for habitual patterns to develop, and Alexis can still subscribe to the team’s style.
Nevertheless, Alexis’s energy was infectious and this time, seemed to galvanise the team instead of showing them up. Arsenal showed the right balance between discipline and aggression, with the usually snappy Francis Coquelin typifying their approach. Indeed, it was a huge pleasure to see Coquelin rein in some of his impetuousness, because in the five-and-a-half matches he has played this season, his tackling trod a fine-line between recklessness and perfection.
Yet, at the same time, there is a joy in seeing him propel himself into challenges with a shark-like muscular ripple because tacklers are rare these days. But that precisely is also the sticking point in regards to Coquelin: Sam Allardyce says you can’t train players to tackle anymore, rather it’s about having the awareness to intercept, because “most tackles are fouls now”. Coquelin’s performance against Manchester City showed there is substance to his game.
In the end, though, the key player was somebody not known for his defensive acumen – Santi Cazorla. Football goes in cycles: in the early-to-mid-2000s, physicality reigned, allowing enforcers and destroyers to proliferate in the midfield and pushing deep-lying playmakers such as Pep Guardiola out of the game. It was about specialisation and individuals, scorned legendary AC Milan coach, Arrigo Sacchi, not about the team. Sooner though, Guardiola returned, this time as coach, to revolutionise the game, dominating with his Barcelona side through the technical proficiency that should up teams who played with destroyers. Possession was king though they had one other factor (beyond an infectious coach and the best player in the world) that denied other clubs from copying – superior fitness levels.
Now conditioning has reached a peak – though Guardiola still flies the flag for voracious keep-ball – and that means players must be universalists. That is footballers who can adapt to different situations and play in a multitude of positions. With the game moving towards “completeness”, it has given rise to the small, scuttling, scurrying type of player in deeper midfield positions, formerly those that might have played in the number 10 role, but because of their nimble footwork and glide on the ball, considered to be ever-more crucial in turning defence to attack. Their altruistic mentality means that they work the other way too, capable of switching between going forward and staying back seamlessly.
In a broad sense, football is about transitions now and in the 2-0 win over Manchester City, Santi Cazorla was the perfect exponent of that, frequently picking up loose balls in front of penalty box and switching defence to attack quickly. His ability to turn away from players – both ways – is a great weapon for Arsenal which, at the same time, provides a balance as they search for defensive stability.
However, it was the way Cazorla completely erased his Spanish counterpart, David Silva, out of the game which was most impressive, playing just left-of-centre in midfield in Arsenal’s 4-1-4-1 formation, and then in the second-half, as Silva switched to wide right, followed him to the other side, defending on the right of Coquelin. (Here’s a great example of Santi “owning” Silva – trust me, this happened a lot).
Silva’s movement is all about drifting to the channels, particularly to the right so he can open his body to attack the goal. Arsenal, however, cut out the opportunities for City to feed the ball to him in the half-space. It was a fantastic piece of in-game management from Arsene Wenger because he couldn’t have chosen a player who better understood Silva’s game more than Cazorla, yet it also required a selfless adjustment of mentality that many players would have baulked at.
Cazorla didn’t, and instead, remained diligently aware of Silva’s positioning all game, while staying true to his positional responsibilities. On the other side, Aaron Ramsey was imperfect, though his ability to run long distances with the ball was as much a welcome relief as Cazorla’s skill to turn away from Man City’s high press. If David Silva was more inclined to the left touchline, he could have taken advantage of the space Ramsey left behind at times, but the Spaniard prefers the right channel, and as such, Arsenal cut out the supply lines on that side.
Arsenal’s meticulousness in preparation was refreshing, not just in the way they altered their defensive approach (something which I recommended here), but from set-pieces too with Per Mertesacker taking solely man-marking duties up against Vincent Kompany, while Nacho Monreal rose to the occasion as a key component of the line of zonal defenders, clearing from corners 5 times.
Overall, it summed up the flexibility of approach from Arsenal and though individually, nobody was found wanting, it was hard to escape, with a goal and an assist, there was a truly decisive player and it was Santi Cazorla.