Manchester City blow chance to go top of the table as Arsenal show unexpected resilience to earn 1-1 draw
Arsenal produced a second-half comeback to earn a deserved draw against Manchester City at the Emirates Stadium on Saturday. The performance showed resilience and ensured the Premier League title race remains very much on. Daniel Storey was watching...
By Daniel Storey. Last Updated: 29/03/14 9:40pm
Right, let's just get the elephant in the room out the way shall we, and allow me to resort to football's most clichéd expression: "Well, wasn't that quite the game of two halves."
No but really, it was. As the Arsenal players trudged off at half-time, the discussion was of City domination and a stroll to the title, and such talk was completely understandable. It seemed a distinctly uninventive conclusion to make, but the first half had the hallmark of very good team beats good team.
Any doubt as to Arsenal's mental fragility, however, were blown away by a second half in which they displayed not just toughness and fortitude but a quality that matched their much-vaunted opponents.
Play like this from now until May and Arsenal will not win the title, but they will finish in the top four, welcoming Champions League football for the 17th consecutive season. More importantly, it provides a stunning riposte to the doubters who deemed this side consistently weak.
For City, however, an opportunity spurned. After Chelsea's surprise defeat to Crystal Palace, Manuel Pellegrini's side came in to short odds to be Premier League title winners, but have now passed up a perfect opportunity to stamp home their authority.
For the first 45 minutes, we saw exactly why they were such overwhelming favourites, but Pellegrini and supporters will have been concerned with the way an understrength Arsenal were allowed to get a foothold in the match.
It may only be nine league points dropped since November 10th, but during a season in which a record Premier League points total is likely to be set by a side in second place, leads should not be squandered.
STORY OF THE MATCH
Gunners surrender initiative
After the debacle at Stamford Bridge seven days previously, not conceding a goal was Arsenal's obvious mindset within the first few minutes, but their 'safety first' mentality simply played into City's hands.
Without a significant attacking threat from the hosts, Yaya Toure was able to move forward and join David Silva, Jesus Navas and Samir Nasri in hounding Arsenal's midfielders in possession. Winning the ball high up the field allows City to swarm over an opposition, and the early stages felt very much like the game at Old Trafford in midweek.
And then came the goal, a carbon copy of City's first at Old Trafford on Tuesday. Whilst the exact mechanics of the goal, with the ball rebounding off the post straight to a City player, could be considered fortunate, it would take a particularly one-eyed Arsenal supporter to suggest that City were lucky.
Of more concern must be how much space Edin Dzeko found at the back post, in five yards of freedom when found by David Silva. The Bosnian saw his strike hit the woodwork, but should never have been given the room to manufacture a powerful strike on goal without being significantly pressured.
That the reason for Dzeko's space came from Arsenal losing the ball high up the field, and full-backs being caught up the pitch, made Arsenal just look foolish, such is the frequency of such an occurrence. To paraphrase the great Barry Davies, "Arsenal have conceded because they just will not learn."
Arsenal left exposed
Lukas Podolski is a fine player, but his selection as a left winger was a huge gamble on the part of Wenger, and it failed to pay off during the first half.
There are two scenarios here: (1) Arsene Wenger picked Podolski in that position and permitted him to essentially act as a wide forward, with less defensive responsibility. If that is the case, it acted as a suicide note for Kieran Gibbs' chances of dealing with Jesus Navas, Pablo Zabaleta and even David Silva when he chose to drift wide. (2) Podolski was told to track back, but failed to heed instructions. If that was the case, very little appeared to change during the first period and Wenger did not demonstrably chastise the German.
Either way, Gibbs was left with little to no chance of holding the tide, left utterly helpless as he was forced to track the threat of Navas. More often than not, Silva simply appeared in the vacant pocket of space to cause danger, with Zabaleta also overlapping, conscious that Kompany and Demichelis would be more than confident in dealing with Giroud and Podolski, especially with Fernandinho acting as cover.
Would Arsenal not have been better starting with Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain on the left? His work-rate and propensity to work back may have better negated the threat of Zabaleta (thus giving Gibbs more protection), whilst Chamberlain's pace would also have given the Argentinean something to think about defensively.
Podolski's defensive contribution did improve during the second half, but the suspicion must be that his positive attacking influence is insufficient to make up for the flawed effect his presence has on Arsenal's solidity.
Before the game, Sky Sports showed a graphic demonstrating Olivier Giroud's record against the biggest teams in the Premier League, and it is now just three goals in 22 matches against the current top seven. This is a forward evidently more than just a flat-track bully, but out of his depth against the best defences.
Against City, the Frenchman once again toiled. He had three shots in the match, but found the target with none, also creating none of Arsenal's eight chances and completing just 23 passes, the lowest of any outfield player that started the match. His 35 touches of the ball was also less that all 22 starters, including both goalkeepers - the suspicion that Giroud fails to impact on the biggest stage is perhaps fair.
It is difficult to blame Giroud, however. Too often I think we judge a club's attacking prowess simply on the form of the strikers rather than as a unit comprised of different components, including attacking midfielders as well as strikers. Arsenal's first choice 'unit' would probably be comprised of Giroud, Theo Walcott, Mesut Ozil and Santi Cazorla, but with two of those absent Giroud is forced to carry out multiple roles within the system. Against City it was clear that he is being forced to be both provider and creator - that's simply too much to ask.
It's like expecting the leading man to win Best Actor at the Oscars without having a good enough supporting cast around him. There is an argument that Giroud is not of sufficient quality for a title-winning side, but if Walcott and Ozil were still fit and playing together it would sure help the striker to perform better.
Whilst City deserved their lead, Arsenal's response to going behind must be congratulated. Only a week after a first-half capitulation at Stamford Bridge, there was no sign of heads dropping immediately. Tomas Rosicky immediately looked to drive forward with the ball, and was Arsenal's best player in the first half.
All the half-time talk was of Arsenal resignation and City dominance, but the resilience shown by Wenger's side must be warmly applauded. They were brave enough after the break to hassle and harry City in possession, rather than gently playing their way into the second half. It caught City off-guard.
The fact that it was Flamini who scored the equaliser is indicative of just how high up the field Arsenal were pressing, and their ambition to get back into the game. It wasn't exactly a drilled finish, but the arrival of an unexpected attacking threat such as Flamini is one of the hardest things to defend against.
A lot of tripe has been written that Martin Demichelis is an awful defender, which is quite obviously untrue. He is not as good as Vincent Kompany, but is six years the Belgian's senior. He has played the majority of his career for Bayern Munich and has 37 caps for Argentina.
But Demichelis' evident flaw appears to be an issue of concentration. For large parts of the match, the Argentinean was excellent, almost flawless during the first half, but then (as so often this season) one mistake undermined all that fine work.
For Arsenal's goal, Demichelis can quite obviously see Flamini in his eyeline when Podolski collected the ball wide left. The Frenchman does not exactly scream out 'fox in the box', and yet a simple forward run allowed Flamini to meet the ball and level the game. Demichelis was left flat-footed.
Even more impressively, Arsenal's adventure didn't end with the equaliser. If before the match you had been told that the scored would be level going into the final minutes, the logical prediction would have been of concerted City pressure, but this was nothing of the sort.
Instead, Arsenal searched for a winner, buoyed by the response from a crowd invigorated by their side's response. Arsenal were often restricted to shots from distance, but after a first half in which they had just one effort on goal (off target), nine more followed in the second period.
There were still moments of defensive danger (Toure dancing around Wojciech Szczesny before being crowded out, for example), but Arsenal's endeavour to push for a winner was both hugely commendable and just as notable as hauling themselves back into the match.
It has not been an easy season for Joe Hart, but the goalkeeper must be complimented for the way in which he has responded. Flamini's equaliser was the first goal City have conceded in 651 Premier League minutes.
Hart's save from Podolski at 1-1 was vital as Arsenal looked to continue their ascendency, and was world-class, reminiscent of the great goalkeepers in the way that he spread his body and made himself big in order to stop the ball with any limb needed.
As suggested by Pellegrini at the time of his omission from City's first team, Hart has demonstrated that he is a strong enough character to deal with the knock to his confidence, and has responded in hugely impressive fashion. Remember when there was a debate about whether he would be England's no. 1 in Brazil?
So a chance missed for City, but spilt milk that should not be cried over. Even if Liverpool beat Spurs tomorrow, City can afford to draw at Anfield and still win the title by winning their remaining fixtures. Pellegrini will be concerned by the total of 10 points dropped from winning positions, more than eight other teams in the Premier League, and will once again feel let down by a lack of concentration in defence, but this was their second toughest test until the end of the season. The final six weeks of the season are not a time for panic to set in.
As for Arsenal, this was performance far removed from the capitulation of last weekend, and a match played without four first-choice midfielders (Aaron Ramsey, Jack Wilshere, Theo Walcott and Mesut Ozil) and a first choice central defender (Laurent Koscielny). Take those sort of talents out of any squad in the division (Nemanja Matic, Willian, Ramires, Hazard and John Terry, for example) and they would struggle - take them away from a comparatively threadbare squad and Arsenal simply couldn't have an expectation of anything other than plucky draw.
As it stands, this is a side heading for Champions League football for the 17th consecutive season, second only to Real Madrid in Europe with Manchester United surely failing on that front. Given that Real have spent approximately £748million on players in the last eight seasons alone, that's a hell of an achievement. Wenger clearly has his flaws, of that there is no doubt, but the way in which his players responded against City demonstrated an ability to roll up their sleeves and fight for their manager. Enough to justify a little faith.
A version of this article originally appeared on Football365