Arsene Wenger’s stubborn resistance to the voice of the masses has been listed among his faults during Arsenal’s plunge into reduced circumstances this season.
Wenger has often appeared alone with his principles amid calls for changes in personnel, policy and even the manager himself in some cases as Arsenal’s stretch without a trophy extends to seven years.
Even those who argue against a change in Arsenal manager have voiced the view that the current Arsenal manager needs to change.
And yet that stubborn streak, that belief that what he is doing is right, was a compelling force for Arsenal’s good in a north London derby that took all logic and shook it until the bits dropped off.
If Wenger had a desire to pander as a populist, he would have bowed to the baying of the mob and substituted Theo Walcott to spare him the volume of criticism he was receiving from his own Arsenal fans as Spurs went 2-0 up in this magnificent exhibit for the Premier League.
Louis Saha’s deflected shot and Emmanuel Adebayor’s penalty, generously given by referee Mike Dean after Gareth Bale’s theatrical tumble in contact with Arsenal goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny, had elevated the frustration levels around Emirates Stadium.
Arsenal were not playing badly but it was the view of many of the paying public that Walcott was – and boy did they let him know it. The exclusion of the exciting Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain threw Walcott’s struggles into greater relief but Wenger stood by his original selection.
He admitted later that occasionally you do a player a favour and remove him in the face of such treatment but Wenger stayed true to his belief that Walcott offered a serious threat.
And so it proved during an Arsenal comeback that carried such force that Spurs buckled quite spectacularly, shipping five goals in 28 minutes and threatening to lose even more emphatically than they eventually did.
Walcott, on the receiving end of some fairly X-rated abuse from some Arsenal fans in the first 45 minutes, added the final two flourishes in swift succession to finish off a comeback fashioned around goals from Bacary Sagna, Robin van Persie and Tomas Rosicky.
It was such a transformation in fortunes that, when Walcott was replaced by Oxlade-Chamberlain with nine minutes left, his name thundered around the stadium, accompanied by a standing ovation.
Fickle old football. And that fickle nature was scattered around like confetti with Walcott, Wenger and Spurs manager Harry Redknapp playing the central characters.
Seven days earlier, Spurs fans were united in ironic song at Stevenage as they pleaded “Arsene Wenger – We Want You To Stay” with Arsenal in desperate straits following a Champions League mauling at the hands of AC Milan and an FA Cup exit at Sunderland.
If Arsenal and Wenger were not quite on their knees going into this game they were certainly badly wounded. Rarely had Spurs looked so in command of north London’s football territory. And in Redknapp they had a manager who was almost assuming the role of “The People’s Choice” as the man most likely to succeed Fabio Capello as England coach.
Redknapp’s CV is no more dented by this loss than Arsenal’s problems have all disappeared as a result of 90 minutes – particularly a first half – that scrambled the senses of many observers.
At its conclusion Wenger announced: “Arsenal is more alive than anybody thought before this game.” There was certainly plenty of life on show in a performance that did not simply contain the attacking decoration that has been their trademark in the past – but also a character and resilience that saw them creating chances and applying pressure even when they were behind.
Arsenal’s season has contained some wild results such as an 8-2 defeat at Manchester United and a 5-3 win at Chelsea – add this to another madcap moment in this campaign. Wenger suddenly has his sights trained on fourth place once more but if this season has told us anything, it is that the evidence suggests Arsenal are the team that cannot be trusted completely.
There was so much to admire from the Gunners here. The fluid play, the support for Van Persie – although his most magical moment was all his own work, a precise finish that curled tantalisingly beyond Spurs keeper Brad Friedel to put Arsenal level just before half-time.
Fit-again Sagna gives balance and attacking threat as he scored once and was involved in creating one of Walcott’s goals, while Laurent Koscielny and Thomas Vermaelen persisted long enough to ensure any lingering Spurs threat was snuffed out.
And yet all praise for Arsenal comes with a giant note of caution attached. It does not suit their purposes to play like this against Spurs if they are to retreat back to the timid at Liverpool next week.
For Spurs, it is a not time to throw the baby out with the bathwater on the strength of one desperate afternoon. A fairly horrendous defeat cannot undo so much good work done this season. Once wounds have been tended, they still lie seven points ahead of Arsenal in third place.
If Redknapp was angry at Spurs’s capitulation, he saved it for the dressing room. In his post-match inquest he was measured and tried to put the performance into context while giving Arsenal their full credit.
There were points of concern for Redknapp, however, especially in the manner they threatened to collapse even before actually doing so. The pace of their play has been a high point all season but here Arsenal carried all the tempo and momentum, which Spurs were unable to contain.
In the face of Arsenal’s vibrant attacks, captain Ledley King looked to be struggling in his fight to keep playing despite being unable to train. He laboured throughout and Redknapp admitted to his struggles later.
Spurs faded badly as Arsenal thrived and Scott Parker’s sending off, while an irrelevance here, may have serious implications when he misses Manchester United’s visit to White Hart Lane next week.
The midfield battle was lost so decisively that Redknapp made alterations at half-time with the scores level. Sandro and Rafael van der Vaart replaced Saha and Niko Kranjcar but the horse had bolted.
The game was up long before the end, allowing Arsenal’s players and supporters to revel in the luxury of such a commanding lead in the closing stages, using the humiliation of their neighbours as a healing force on those recent wounds.
The trick for Wenger and Arsenal is to somehow make sure results and performances such as this are not isolated incidents. The task for Redknapp and Spurs is to make sure they are.
December 18, 2011
David Silva scored the winner in a match that should have produced more goals.
Roberto Mancini left out Edin Dzeko, which seems to be standard for big Premier League games. Gael Clichy was suspended so Pablo Zabaleta moved to the left with Micah Richards starting at right-back. Samir Nasri started in midfield over James Milner.
Arsene Wenger was short of full-backs and named an unchanged side from the XI which beat Everton 1-0 last weekend.
This was end-to-end and exciting – neither side ever had control of the game.
Both sides pressed heavily early on – City started in a similar fashion to they did in the defeat at Stamford Bridge last Monday, and Arsenal closed down well in midfield. There were various consequences of the pressing: lots of interceptions, a few fouls that had Phil Dowd reaching for his yellow card, and plenty of space in behind.
City were better at exploiting that space in the first half. Zabaleta got forward well to cross into the space behind Arsenal’s defence for Sergio Aguero for possibly the best chance of the first half – Aguero and Mario Balotelli both looked to spin into that space in central zones.
Arsenal’s approach was different, because their pace was on the flanks. City’s full-backs stayed quite conservative, though, which meant few opportunities for the wingers to speed towards goal. Gervinho played deeper and was good with his short passing but wasteful in the final third, whilst Walcott was much quieter. Robin van Persie played up against Kolo Toure rather than Vincent Kompany, which meant he was to the left of centre. This meant that:
(a) van Persie was in a better position to combine with Gervinho. Those two linked five times in the opening hour (ie before Walcott went off) whereas Walcott and van Persie didn’t link up once – a surprise since they usually enjoy a very good relationship.
(b) Kompany was more often than not the covering defender, and therefore it was difficult for Walcott to find space in behind as he was up against two defenders.
Aguero played high up which meant Arsenal often had 3 v 2 in midfield. When Yaya Toure and Gareth Barry looked to close down Alex Song and Mikel Arteta, Ramsey found himself in space but wasn’t really suited to the frantic end-to-end game, often picking up the ball with lots of space to motor into. He is better when he gets the ball into feet, and doesn’t look entirely comfortable in such an advanced role.
City had two midfielders coming into the centre – David Silva drifted across the pitch between the lines, whilst Nasri played a little deeper and sometimes acted as a third central midfielder. Those two weren’t as productive on the ball as you might expect, and them coming inside probably suited Arsenal’s makeshift back four, comprised of four centre-backs.
Equally, Arsenal weren’t as fluent as usual when they had possession, because neither of their full-backs was comfortable on the ball and capable of stretching the play to provide overlaps. In fact, with both sets of full-backs contributing little to the game in the attacking phase of play, the game was quite narrow overall.
Arsenal were forced to completely reshuffle their defence after Johan Djourou went off injured and was replaced by Ignasi Miquel, but they could have done more to stop the goal. A ball was played in behind their defence in a wide-left position, and Alex Song let Balotelli onto his stronger foot far too easily to get a shot in – Silva turned home the rebound.
City didn’t control the game very well when they were ahead. They continued to push for a second which was good for the neutral, but it was surprising Mancini didn’t introduce James Milner and Nigel de Jong sooner to give some balance and patience to their play in midfield. The game remained open, and both sides could have profited from that, but Mancini surely would have wanted a more ‘boring’ game after going ahead in the 53rd minute.
They still have a problem with giving the ball away too cheaply when Joe Hart is distributing – as shown below, they only really retain the ball when Richards can move high up on the right.
Arsenal fought back well and could have snatched an equaliser, but the two attacking substitutes (Marouane Chamakh and Andrei Arshavin) contributed next to nothing, and it’s difficult to understand why Yossi Benayoun remained on the bench – he would have loved the space between the lines. Thomas Vermaelen was a bigger threat than Chamakh or Arshavin with a couple of good long-range efforts.
This was a great game for the neutrals. So many of the matches between big Premier League clubs have been this season – we’ve had an 8-2, a 1-6, a 4-0, a 1-5, a 3-5 – and this could have been another high-scoring game.
But this should be praised only in terms of entertainment value. In tactical terms, teams may be ‘going for it’ more, but none of the big Premier League sides are good at controlling games. Ball retention is often poor, players aren’t capable of switching from an attacking mentality to a more conservative one, managers rarely use changes to slow the game down and protect what they have, and various clubs could do with another intelligent central midfielder to bring a degree of control.
This, in part, explains why English clubs have performed so poorly in Europe this season – they’re far too open, and seem to have regressed to style of play more fitting of English football ten years ago, albeit with more technical quality. That caveat means matches like this will be regarded as a positive, but had either side played like this against Barcelona or Real Madrid, they would have been soundly beaten. A good advert for the Premier League? Maybe, but not a good advert for English clubs on a broader level.