After Arsenal earned a rare away win at a top-four rival, Pete Smith assesses the fresh approach they adopted to get the points at Manchester City.“I didn’t think Arsenal were capable of playing like that.”
Graeme Souness wasn’t the only one surprised to see Arsenal surrender 65 per cent of possession to their opponents, sit deep to defend their lead and battle for a rare win at one of the Premier League’s elite.
In fact, Arsenal’s 2-0 triumph at Man City was just the third time in the past six seasons Arsenal have won away at an opponent who finished in the top four in the previous campaign.
Their last, a 5-3 win at Stamford Bridge, was achieved in stark contrast to their display at the Etihad. That October 2011 success was an end-to-end rollercoaster. Sunday’s win in Manchester was a calculated, clinical performance.
“This has been a masterclass from Arsenal, in terms of closing off those central areas and pockets City like to operate in,” said Sky Sports pundit Gary Neville.
City had to wait until the 36th minute before having a shot at David Ospina’s goal – the longest it has taken them in a game to unleash since October 2012 – which was testament to Arsenal’s closing down and pressing.
“I always say Arsenal are too easy to play against,” said Souness. “Today it was the opposite. I’ve been feeling this for five years but today the word that jumps out is discipline.
"They defended brilliantly, they never allowed spaces to develop between the midfield and two central defenders. If they could just bottle that they’d be a threat in any competition they played. They’ve gone from a team that gets rolled over consistently easily, to a team that could play like that anywhere and get a result.”
So, what sparked the change? Well, given Aaron Ramsey’s post-match comments, it seems last season’s 6-3 defeat at City was in the minds of the Arsenal players ahead of kick-off.
“The team felt we’ve come here a few times and been a bit too open - and we wanted to put things right,” said the midfielder.
“We definitely defended as a team, didn’t give them any room in the middle for them to get in the little pockets that David Silva likes to get in to, and forced them wide all the time.”
The result means Arsenal end the weekend where they started it, in fifth place in the Premier League, still 13 points behind table-topping Chelsea. But it feels as though they’ve taken a giant step forwards.
“We finally got a big win in a big game away from home,” a satisfied Wenger told Sky Sports afterwards. “We weren’t far away at Liverpool (in the 2-2 draw) but today we did it and that’s very pleasing.
“We have five important months in front of us and to feel you can do well is very important to a group of players.”
Arsenal don’t meet one of last season’s top four again until April, when Liverpool visit the Emirates. By then, Wenger will hope his side, who are still in the FA Cup and Champions League, still have plenty to play for on all fronts, so they can put their new-found discipline to good use.