Is Arsenal’s victory over Manchester City down to the manager or the players?

I don’t quite know what to make of Arsenal’s win over Manchester City. My initial response was, like yours, one of shock. An Arsenal side guilty of making the same mistakes again and again appeared to have suddenly learnt from them. Frustration at their slow uptake was secondary to the joy of an unexpected victory. Arsene Wenger had got it right, and in doing so acknowledged he was wrong.

And then came his tetchy post-match interview, in which he effectively denied his side had done anything dramatically different to their normal gung-ho approach. Ignore it, I thought: he’s just struggling with publicly compromising his principles. No-one wants to climb down from their aesthetic mount on national television.

But then came this Olivier Giroud interview (“The boss didn’t say to stay back and counter-attack”), in which he appears to reveal that the players weren’t specifically instructed to let City have the ball. Arsenal’s tactical masterclass, Giroud seems to suggest, came about as much by accident as design.

Now, there is evidence against Giroud’s crude ‘big bang’ theory that re-establishes the divinity of Arsene. For example, our approach at City was fairly reminiscent of our cautious display at Stamford Bridge earlier this season. There were indications then that we had adopted a more conservative set-up. The difference, as so often in these big games, was the first goal. Individual errors granted Chelsea the lead, and recovering from that deficit away from home proved impossible.

However, if we take Giroud’s comments at face value, what does that mean for Arsenal’s newfound resolve and discipline? Where does that come from? Certainly not Steve Bould, who appears to be as impotent as Pele before his lucrative endorsement deal.

A potential answer arrives in the form of the players. Is it possible that, in spite of their manager’s intransigence, they have simply adjusted of their own accord? There are enough new ingredients for me to believe it’s possible: the eerie calm of David Ospina, the fearless physicality of Francis Coquelin, the inspirational athleticism of Alexis Sanchez. Perhaps this Arsenal, with these personnel, has taken matters in to their own hands. If the manager wasn’t prepared to teach his team some necessary lessons, perhaps certain players have – inadvertently or otherwise.

In reality, our win may be down to both players and manager. The two possibilities are in no way mutually exclusive. That would certainly fit with Wenger’s ethos: he is always eager for his players to take responsibility for their own actions on the field. The intriguing thing is how difficult that makes it to apportion credit.

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ps. TRANSFER BUSINESS: I talked about it on Twitter the other day, but my understanding is that Arsenal are confident they would secure a work permit for Villarreal defender Gabriel Paulista without too many problems. The Spanish club are holding out for something close to his €20m buyout fee, which sounds a lot until you remember just how hard it’s proven to find a half-decent centre-half. For more on Paulista, read this profile piece I wrote on him for ESPN.

Meritocratic selection sees off Stoke + Arsecast Extra 50

Arsenal v Stoke City - Premier League

Arsenal recorded their 13th consecutive home win over Stoke City, and in doing so put in one of their most cohesive performances of the season.

It was interesting to see that Arsene Wenger’s team selection was not swayed by the renewed availability of some big names. The manager chose to keep Mathieu Flamini, Aaron Ramsey, Mesut Ozil and Theo Walcott in reserve, giving the likes of Francis Coquelin, Tomas Rosicky and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain a chance to extend their run of impressive form.

I suspect that even if Kieran Gibbs had been fit, Nacho Monreal might still have got the nod at left-back. Gibbs was very poor at the Britannia, and Monreal has emerged as a rugged and reliable option at full-back. His last seven starts have all resulted in wins, with five clean sheets along the way.

It seems Arsene has adopted a meritocratic selection policy, rewarding those in good form and making some players accustomed to an automatic spot bide their time. That’s ostensibly a decent plan, but it’ll certainly be put to the test when Arsenal face the giants of Manchester City next week.

The one selection decision I was not entirely convinced was based on performance levels was the one that saw Wojciech Szczesny dropped for David Ospina. As much as Arsene insists that call was made purely on form, it looks to me like a clear disciplinary issue.

I’m generally more comfortable seeing Szczesny between the sticks, but that’s largely because I haven’t seen enough of Ospina to make a valuable judgement. My suspicion is that the Pole will be back in the goal before too long – read why over on Mirror Football.

The Arsenal fans’ joy at seeing off Stoke was capped by the news that their train home was cancelled. This was met by cheers from most, but a perturbed silence from the few who realised this meant that Stoke fans would be patrolling the streets of London for longer than was strictly necessary. Deeply unpleasant.

As you’ll have noticed from the big play button at the top of this piece, there’s a new Arsecast Extra out today. It’s the 50th of its kind, and the familiar beep of the Arsecast lorry makes a return to mark the occasion. Have a listen: we chat about Debuchy’s injury, the goalkeeping situation, and whether Morgan Schneiderlin really is worth £30m.

5 questions from Arsenal’s defeat at Southampton

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Will Arsenal win three consecutive league games this season?

We haven’t managed it yet. Arsene Wenger is quick to point out that consistency will be the key to making the top four, but it’s precisely that which evades us at present.

Every time we seem to be building some momentum, that nefarious handbrake slams down to foil us once again.

Nevertheless, six points from nine is more than I expected from our festive fixture list. Watching our defending at St. Mary’s, the victory at Upton Park began to look ever more miraculous.

I still think we’ll make the top four, but I think that case more about an absence of quality elsewhere in this league than any positive attributes of our own.

Is Francis Coquelin the answer to our defensive midfield problem?

Not for me. Coquelin’s tenacious displays don’t make me think we ought to anoint him as the long-awaited “DM” — rather, they convince me of how much better we’d be with a top class player performing in that role. However, Coquelin does look as if he will give Mathieu Flamini a run for his money until a superior player arrives.

At present, Coquelin’s certainly a better option in that role than Calum Chambers. According to Squawka, Chambers didn’t make a single tackle during his return to his former club.

That stat doesn’t necessarily mean quite as much as you might imagine — interceptions are just as important, and tackles can be a desperate last resort prompted by poor positioning. However, it was clear watching the game that the Englishman is a long way from ready to play regularly in central midfield.

Is Wojciech Szczesny good enough to be our number one?

I think so. He has the talent. Is it being properly harnessed? That’s another question (but, crucially, not one in bold. Got to stick to the five. #SEO)

Look at where David de Gea was two years ago and where he is now. That’s surely down to coaching. Has Szczesny made the same strides forward? Probably not. He relies on his instincts and his preternatural self-confidence. Technically and tactically there are still flaws in his game.

The identical errors made by Almunia, Fabianski and Szczesny can’t be mere coincidence. The problem must lie on the training ground.

What’s up with Laurent Koscielny?

Although Szczesny was painted as the villain of the piece, Koscielny also endured something of a personal nightmare against Southampton. Aside from misjudging the run of Saido Mane on the opener, he also played a weak back-pass that ought to have resulted in a third for the Saints.

You know, it’s almost as if he’s being forced to play through a debilitating chronic injury. Tendinitis doesn’t just disappear. His is a condition that requires careful management. It’s been said many times, but Wenger has to buy a central defender with the ability to cover a prolonged absence for Koscielny. Relying on him is a risk we can not afford.

On the subject of the back four, much will understandably be made of how shoddy we looked with our first choice defensive unit in place. However, in their defence it was the first time those five players have played together this season. All change — even position change — can be disruptive. It will take time for that unit to click.

What sort of team will we see in the FA Cup?

Ideally, I think Arsene Wenger would like to field a rotated side after a demanding Christmas period. However, a glance at our subs bench at Southampton suggests he has very few options at his disposal. Theo Walcott should start his first game in a year, while David Ospina is guaranteed a game in goal. Other than that I expect it to be fairly similar team.

One man who may get a run-out, most likely from the bench, is Chuba Akpom. It seems clear Wenger is launching a charm offensive to convince the young striker to extend his deal beyond the summer. The development of Joel Campbell does not seem to be quite such a priority for our manager.