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.

Arsenal 2-2 Manchester City: Might we be this year’s Liverpool?

This game reminded me a little of the 1-1 with Everton last year…
From beginning to end – and from end-to-end – this was a frenetic and fabulous spectacle. In truth, either side could have come away with three points. This was a game Arsenal could have lost, and yet arguably should have won.

The reason it reminds me of that Everton match – apart from the calibre of entertainment of show – is that at one stage it seemed we were going to make a real statement with a victory. It felt like we were on the verge of a landmark win. Instead, a late equaliser rather took the wind out of our sails.

Nevertheless, there were plenty of encouraging signs. Jack Wilshere and Alexis were both outstanding. Amid the hurry to hail Diego Costa as sliced bread’s superior successor, his impressive acclimatisation to the Premier League has gone almost unnoticed.

For more detailed thoughts on the game, check out my Player Ratings for ESPN.

Danny Welbeck nearly had the perfect start…
I’m in the camp that says his effort off the post was unlucky rather than profligate. I liked the imagination and confidence he showed to take that shot on. When Yaya Sanogo plays, he looks more likely to chip a tooth running in to a post than chip an international goalkeeper.

The injury to Mathieu Debuchy was horribly predictable…

Arsene Wenger’s decision not to strengthen his defensive options before deadline day was effectively the equivalent of climbing in to a bull pen, naked except for bright red body paint, and bellowing “come on then you cow twat let’s see what you’ve got”. The boss was asking for trouble, and it has promptly arrived with Debuchy’s severe ankle knack. If the latest reports are to be believed, Nacho Monreal has also suffered a minor injury. We are down to the bare bones, and it feels like only a matter of time until those bones snap under the weight of a gruelling schedule. We are in the midst of a mini ‘Death Run’. Let’s hope the rest of our defenders can survive it.

Mesut Ozil looks lost…

…and I don’t think it’s anything to do with playing on the left. It seemed to me that he was granted the freedom to roam wherever he likes from that flank, frequently swapping with Alexis Sanchez on the other wing and even drifting in to his preferred central role. The heat maps appear to verify that.

The greater problem is what happens when he has the ball at his feet – or rather, what doesn’t. According to Opta, Ozil has 3 assists in his last 19 games. I think I’m right in saying he’s only scored one goal in the same period. For a player with his undoubted talent that is well below-par.

I sensed a bit of a sea-change in attitudes towards Ozil after the City game. Thus far, while he has attracted criticism from outside the club, the Arsenal fans have been stoutly defensive of him. That’s shifting. I think it’s partly due to the fact that we have another expensive plaything in Alexis Sanchez, and I don’t think it’s helped by the fact that Ozil is now being directly compared with Cesc Fabregas, who is excelling at Chelsea.

I’m not sure what’s required for Ozil to click back in to gear, but I’m not convinced that playing him through the middle will be the panacea some suggest.

Could we be this season’s Liverpool?
Watching the City game, I wondered if we might be capable of being this season’s Liverpool. Hold your vomit, readers: I mean it as a good thing. Sort of.

The frenzied high-press we employed in the game’s early stages was reminiscent of the tactics Brendan Rodgers used to blow teams away for much of 2013/14. We should know: we fell victims to it ourselves. A front line of Alexis, Welbeck and Walcott certainly bears comparison with the trio of Suarez, Sturridge and Sterling. Both sets of strikers are characterised by relentless movement and blistering pace. If we get our attacking blend right, we could be as irresistible as the Anfield side were last term.

Unfortunately, at present our team also seems to share some of Liverpool’s defensive vulnerabilities. It’s vital we iron those out if we want to climb up the Premier League table.

For more…

…be sure to tune in to this week’s Arsecast Extra over on Arseblog.

Arsenal vs. Man City: Back to the beginning

This Saturday, Premier League football returns to the Emirates Stadium. In more than one sense, it feels as if we’re going back to the beginning.

Back to the beginning in that we also opened up the campaign with a match against the Citizens. In the Community Shield at Wembley, Arsenal ran out 3-0 winners. Something tells me it won’t be quite so easy this time round.

Back to the beginning too in that this feels like the start of the season proper. It’s ridiculous that transfer deadline day falls several weeks in to the campaign. Squads are rarely fully assembled until the end of August. Everything that occurs prior to the deadline feels curiously underbaked. Business is not done, teams are in flux – even the Champions League contestants are still to be decided. In truth, those early matches feel like little more than an extension of preseason.

Arsenal’s performances have reflected that mood. It’d be fair to say the Gunners haven’t quite got going yet. We laboured to a win against Palace, scrambled a point at Everton, and scraped past Besiktas in the tightest of two-legged affairs. Our last outing was the dispiriting draw at Leicester.

In time, we might be grateful for that dour draw – not because I expect the KP Stadium to prove a particularly fearsome fortress, but because it probably went a long towards prompting the purchase of Danny Welbeck. Had Yaya Sanogo scored any sort of goal in an Arsenal victory, Arsene Wenger might have been convinced to persist with the fallible Frenchman. Instead, our problems in attack convinced him to move for a new striker.

Welbeck might not have been Wenger’s first choice. The indications are that he made late enquiries for Loic Remy and Radamel Falcao, only to discover he had been beaten to the punch by rivals.

At 7.30am on deadline day, Wenger telephoned a reputable football agency and asked them to help broker a deal with Manchester United and Welbeck’s brother and manager, Chris. Talks began over a £3m loan deal. By the end of the day, amid fierce competition from Spurs, Welbeck had signed a five-year deal with Arsenal for a fee of £16m. It may prove to be a masterstroke.

Anyone unconvinced by Wenger’s decision to bring the athletic Mancunian in should be forced to watch England’s 2-0 victory over Switzerland on Monday night. Welbeck grabbed a brace in an electric display, showing pace, power and a surprising dose of composure.

It’s back to the beginning for Welbeck too. He’s left behind the club of his life for a new start elsewhere. You have to admire his courage. This prodigiously talented son of Manchester has left home to make his fortune.

He couldn’t wish for a better start, facing off against the club he has been raised to regard as rivals. A goal on Saturday would make it a memorable occasion for all involved, and restart the season with a bang.

Everton Preview: My glass needs refilling

I’ve seen our draw with Manchester City cited as vindication of our abilities against the top teams. I can see why one might think that: it was a valiant fight-back against a team in rampant form who are still in the thick of the title race.

My glass, however, is half-drained. I’m more inclined to observe that we haven’t beaten either of Manchester City or Chelsea, home or away, all season. The aggregate scores aren’t pretty. We secured draws in the home games, but they were draws the opposition were more than happy to take. The point suited them far more than us.

Those results are ultimately what have knocked us out of title contention and in to a customary battle for a top four finish. Today we face Everton in what is being called a “six pointer”. Arsenal hope to have an FA Cup Final to look forward to, but this is undoubtedly Everton’s cup final. Lose, and they face an unexciting trudge towards the Europa League. Win, and they will believe they can overhaul us and reach the Champions League.

This is undoubtedly a huge game. However, it’s only become a huge game because we failed to win any of the other huge games. Everton are striving to climb the mountain; Arsenal to arrest the slide.

Given Everton’s challenging fixture list, a point would be fine. I think Arsenal might set up more conservatively than usual. If we avoid defeat today, our run-in looks manageable.

Come on you Gunners.