Our first trip to Manchester since that fateful day in late August was always going to carry a certain weight. Back then, a very different-looking Arsenal side had left thrashed, embarrassed, and ashamed. This time, we might not have brought back any points, but we can at least hold our heads up high on the back of an impressive performance.
It’s indicative of how far we’ve come. Since Old Trafford, we’ve added experience, steel and belief to the squad. Arsenal entered yesterday’s game as an unfancied underdog, and ended up trading blows with a the richest club in world football. It is typical of Arsene Wenger’s relentless ambition that after the game he was disheartened at what he felt was the end of our title challenge. Personally, I have felt for some time that City will win the league at a canter, and that in any case our bad start was far too big a handicap from which to launch a bid for the championship. A Champions League spot, however, remains a realistic target. In August, even that seemed unlikely.
We started somewhat shakily, as it swiftly became evident that City are the strongest side we’ve faced in some time. The movement and skill of the likes of Silva, Aguero and Balotelli had our defence chasing shadows, and twice we relied upon impressive saves from Wojciech Szczesny to keep the score at 0-0.
Alex Song was yellow-carded for a cynical trip after just ten minutes, and spent the rest of the game walking a precarious tight-rope. It was a tight-rope that the likes of Micah Richards attempted to topple him off by throwing themselves to the ground every time Song even thought about going in to a challenge.
As the half wore on, we settled and began to offer a threat of our own. The pace and movement of Gervinho made him a constant menace, but he suffered from the now familiar flaw of failing to convert promising opportunities in to final product. When he did muster a shot on target, Joe Hart was able to turn it away at the near post.
Having reached half-time at 0-0, there was a growing sense that Arsenal could pull off a major result. However, our momentum was disrupted when, just two minutes in to the second half, Johan Djourou was withdrawn with an injury problem. The Swiss had been doing a fine job at right-back, but his withdrawal meant shifting Laurent Koscielny on to the flank. Vermaelen stepped in to to the centre alongside Mertesacker, and substitute Miquel played at left-back. It’s odd how injuries seem to strike in one particular area – we’re now without our five first choice full-backs (Sagna, Jenkinson, Gibbs, Santos, Djorou).
The reshuffle worried me. In an ideal world you’d bring on a like-for-like player, as it’s very difficult for a defender to reorientate himself during the game. And so it proved just five minutes later, with Koscielny caught out of position, leaving Balotelli free on the left flank. He skipped inside a cautious Song and fired in a shot with Szczesny parried. Aguero was first to the ball and his header was poked in by David Silva.
At this stage, Arsenal threw caution to the wind a little earlier than was necessary, and were very nearly punished. As men poured forward in search of an equaliser, City had several opportunities to extend their lead. Fortunately, we were spared. Samir Nasri, who had been afforded a rare start by City, made his major contribution to the game when he overhit a simple pass across goal, preventing Balotelli from tapping in to seal the game. Bizarrely, the City PA announced him as Man of the Match towards the end of the game – a stupid, inflammatory decision which clearly had nothing to do with what had transpired on the pitch.
It was clear we had them rattled though. A fierce Walcott drive was tipped over by Hart, and Robin van Persie chipped home, only to be flagged (correctly, but marginally) offside. On another day Micah Richards’ handball might have been deemed purposeful, or Van Persie might have connected truer with Gervinho’s cut-back.
If you were to fault anything yesterday, it would have been the lack of convincing attacking options from the bench. City were able to call on the likes of Edin Dzeko. We, however, were forced to gamble with Arshavin and Chamakh, both of whom are woefully out of form. There are increasingly fervent whispers that Arsene will look to strengthen the attack in January, with Thierry Henry one of the names most commonly-mentioned. However, signings aside, one does have to question how long someone under performing as badly as Arshavin can prevent the exciting Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain from superseding him in the pecking order.
In all honesty, our biggest goal threat after Robin van Persie probably came from Thomas Vermaelen. The Belgian had headed on target in the first half, and late on he saw one side-footed effort from the edge of the box tipped over by Hart, before bending a thirty yard strike just outside the post. Hart performed well on the day, but even he would have been unable to keep that effort out.
And so the day ended in defeat. Arsenal now have to pick themselves up in time for Wednesday’s trip to Aston Villa, who surely can’t be as poor as they were in a lifeless defeat to Liverpool. Alex Song will be suspended, but fortunately we will be able to rely on the sure-footed Mikel Arteta. I thought the Spaniard was brilliant in Manchester: disciplined, intelligent, and composed. The more one sees of him the more one wonders why Arsene waited so long before taking the plunge.
My overriding sense from the City game is that these sorts of occasion need hold no fear for us anymore. The scars of Old Trafford were entirely invisible: this was an Arsenal side playing with belief and a sense of entitlement that they belong on this stage, at the top table of English football. Between now and the end of the season, we need to pick up enough points to snatch fourth place and ensure we remain there.