This is not a proper match report — I am still in Sweden for another two days and things will get back to normal for the Manchester City game on Wednesday — but a quick look at the things that stood out to me in our comfortable win over Birmingham.
Firstly, the squad rotation.
Arsene Wenger made eight changes to the team for the second game running, meaning the same side that ran out against Chelsea did so against Birmingham. Considering the way Manchester United fumbled and bumbled their way to victory over West Brom on Tuesday and considering the fact that Wenger can field as strong a team as he wants in the pivotal game against Manchester City, you have to say his gamble against Wigan was a fair one. Make no mistake, Wenger’s rotation will leave our team fresher than City’s on Wednesday and if we can come away with 10 points from 12, having played two of the other sides in the top four, it will be a terrific outcome.
Secondly, our defensive performance.
It seems in the absence of Thomas Vermaelen that Wenger has found his back-up defensive plan. Johan Djourou and Laurent Koscielny’s partnership laid the foundations for a terrific defensive performance against Chelsea and last night they largely responsible for our first clean sheet in nine games. Koscielny, like Vermaelen, is an aggressive battler on the ground and a wonderful tackler of the ball. Djourou is strong in the air, calm on the ball and positionally sound. Both players are extremely capable with their feet. What’s not to love?
Thirdly, Cesc and Nasri.
The adulation that Nasri has received this season has been fair, but somewhat misplaced. Just as Andres Iniesta is not Xavi, Nasri is not Cesc and does not have the ability to organise and run a team in the same way that our captain does. Many people have said that if we lose Fabregas in the summer we have, in Nasri, a player ready to step into his shoes. But this is not true and it’s a good thing.
Nasri has been so effective for us this season precisely because he isn’t Cesc. He has scored so many goals because he does not have to be involved in the play all of the time and his mind and body remains fresh when it matters most: around the penalty area. Cesc’s role is to establish the appropriate tempo and rhythm to our side, Nasri’s is to raise the intensity in and around the box.
In many ways Nasri is having the impact that we expected from Andrey Arshavin this season. Yet one of his greatest strengths is his versatility: an ability to play on both wings, in behind the striker or even more defensively to help out the team. He’s having a great season even if Cesc he is not.
Fourthly, Bacary Sagna.
Nasri has been most peoples choice for our best player of the season — indeed, the Premier League’s best player of the season — but what about Bacary Sagna? He’s having an absolutely storming campaign and Birmingham summed up everything good about him as a player: strong in the tackle, strong in the air, incredibly hard-working, increasingly dangerous going forward and hard as nails.
When Lee Bowyer stamped on his leg in act of petulance and an attempt at intimidation, Sagna barely flinched. When Bowyer later raked his studs down the back of Sagna’s calf he was back on the pitch to play in an instant. It’s an attitude towards the game we’ve seen time and time again and one which makes Sagna an remarkably endearing character.
In Australian sport we don’t give out awards for the best player in a season but instead, the best and fairest. For the first half of this season my award would go to Sagna. I cannot praise him enough.
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