Arsenal’s one-one draw with Man City at the Etihad stadium did nothing to suggest that they have reached a conclusion as to whether they are they a possession-based team or a more counter-attacking team. Instead they are, on the basis of the first five games, a tactically flexible team who can dominate possession when needed, hold the ball in the opposition area, score goals from corners, and sit back and defend when the opposition do gain a foothold in the game – all of which happened against City. In short, Arsenal look like they are becoming the type of team that many Arsenal supporters have been asking for.
Wenger surprised many with the inclusion of Aaron Ramsey in the starting lineup. Playing in the more “right-sided” midfield role, Ramsey started for one specific purpose: to help Arsenal dominate possession. Which they did to an astonishing tune of 59%. Ramsey, Jenkinson, and Arteta recycled the ball between them and kept it out of City’s hands throughout most of the first half.
The possession numbers were in Arsenal’s favor and so was the run of play. Early on, Gervinho was slipped in behind the City defense for a golden opportunity and running at full Gervinho speed, the Ivorian promptly booted his touch straight at a thankful Joe Hart. City would reply with a goal off a corner as Lescott rose slightly above Koscielny and past the flapping Mannone to head home. It was the first time an opponent had a headed shot on target this season, and it was the first goal Arsenal conceded off a header.
That Arsenal should have gotten something out of that first period, that City opened the scoring off the first headed shot on Arsenal’s goal, and that Mannone was found flapping at the punch elicited groans of “same old Arsenal” and prompted the pundits into a frenzy of hating the zonal marking system. Never mind that zonal marking concedes fewer goals and that the commentator on the stream I had in the States even admitted as much, the fault was the zonal marking. But it’s true, the best defensive system is always the one that’s the opposite of the one being used at the time Arsenal concede.
It’s telling that Mancini brought on Rodwell at the 45 minute mark to help break up Arsenal’s midfield dominance and that for the first 20 minutes or so it sort of worked. Man City won almost 40% of their duels (tackles/aerial challenges) during that period of the game. Still, Arsenal kept the ball in the City final third and so it was through swift counters that City generated as many shots in that 20 minute period as they had during the entire first half.
But that’s where Arsenal’s new found confidence in defense helped immensely. They were able to weather the storm and in fact the confidence they gathered from that period helped them believe that they could get something from the game — which they ultimately did.
There is a hunger in this Arsenal team that perhaps comes from competition for places and a bit of a ruthless twinkle in Wenger’s eye. Players like Arteta are always going to give you professional performances. They are always going to gladly shift from the shuttler role in midfield to the holding role. They are old pros and know what their jobs are on a team like Arsenal. Younger players, though, are a bit different. Ramsey is no longer a guaranteed first choice starter at Arsenal. He spent most of last season in the attacking midfield role and that has been taken away from him by the superb Santi Cazorla.
So, having dropped behind Diaby and Cazorla in Arsenal’s starting lineup, Ramsey played like he was auditioning for the club. And based on that audition and the drop in form of Diaby over the last few games, I’d have to say the Welshman might have earned his starting spot back. For now. But he has to keep that hunger.
This idea that there’s a new-found fire at the club might also explain why Arsenal are taking so many shots from distance. In the first five games of the season, Arsenal are averaging 8.2 shots per game outside of the box. And four of the first five games, more than half of their shots came from distance. Compared to the last five games of last season where Arsenal took just 5.2 shots from distance per game and where they had a game like Norwich where they took 21 shots in the box and just two outside.
I’m not suggesting that Arsenal should exclusively shoot from distance, but rather we saw what can happen when players try shots from distance. Cazorla’s speculative effort forced the corner from which Koscielny
headed footed home for the equalizer. And more important than the simple chaos that long-range efforts bring to the offense, the reason Cazorla is trying those shots is that there’s a hunger there from Cazorla.
I get the sense that almost all the positions at Arsenal are still up for grabs and that’s a great thing at this point in the season. Mertesacker was hugely important against City as he read their passes with ease and kept Arsenal’s high line nice and tight. And despite the missed header by Koz to let Lescott score, it was the only header he missed all game besides which his goal set the record straight. The important thing is that after the match, Wenger spoke about his conundrum with center halves and how he needs to find a way to rotate between Koz, Mert, and Verm because they are all working so hard to earn a starting berth.
Starting keeper is also up for grabs, Mannone’s missed punch was dreadful but was it as bad as Szczesny’s dropped claim? Probably. But then you also have to credit the Italian for some special saves in the second half that ensured Arsenal the point. I even wrote a chant for Mannone after his last save: “when the ball hits his hands and he palms it to the stands, that’s Mannone.” Has he done enough to take Szczesny’s spot? Not yet. But he has done enough to warrant serious consideration. Let’s see how hungry he is against Chelsea.
And finally, I wondered earlier in the week whether Jenkinson could put in a performance that would qualify him to take the starting right back role away from Bacary Sagna. Many fans have been effusive about his performance against City but I think this is a case of dribblers getting preferential treatment. He had three successful dribbles (of four attempted) which is good for a fullback. He also had several spectacular plays which he will be rightly lauded – my favorite being the one where he basically shucked Gul Lescott to the ground and then played a perfect ball to Podolski who uncharacteristically skied his shot into row Z.
But the problem is that his performance was very much overshadowed by that of Gibbs. Gibbo had what was a nearly perfect game: 94% passing, 2nd in passes in the enemy third (20), created two goal-scoring chances to Jenks’ one, made both of his tackles (Jenks missed his only tackle), and had four interceptions to Jenkinson’s one. He also had more clearances, won more aerial duels, and didn’t commit a single foul all game. Someone complained that I didn’t include Jenkinson’s numkbers in my By the Numbers piece but the problem was: they were kind of pedestrian. In short, aside from the spectacular dribbles by Jenkinson it was Gibbs who looked the part of the solid starter for Arsenal.
This is not to denigrate Jenkinson, he had a good game against the reigning champs. Instead my point is that to get to Sagna’s level – the level of a finished first choice French international and one of the best fullbacks in the Premier League – he’s still got some work to do. I love the player and his commitment to the cause. I also love that Wenger is able to find these types of players and polish them. I just want to hold off on the open bus parade, for a little bit.
Of course, I simultaneously don’t want to hold off on any celebration. Seeing the team in that man pile after Koscielny’s equalizer, you could tell what it means to them. They are starting to look like a team that not only wants to compete against each other for roster places, but who want to fight for each other on the pitch. And that would be something we haven’t seen in a while at Arsenal.