When the unpredictable Gervinho found himself on the edge of the Manchester City penalty area in space with just a few minutes remaining, a sudden and fantastic chance to inflict defeat on the Champions of England, their first at home since late 2010, presented itself.
True to his erratic performance, however, The Brain™ sliced wildly at the ball, sending it flying over the bar to leave Arsenal supporters all over the world holding their heads in their hands.
Yet the drama and disappointment of that late miss and the glory that would have accompanied it cannot hide the exciting conclusion that on this evidence Arsenal, our team, will be fighting for the title this season.
Before the game I suggested that with City coming off a loss to Real Madrid in Spain and generally struggling defensively, we were catching them at a good time. That theory appeared to be supported by the opening half-hour of football by our boys. Helped by the excellent retention skills of Aaron Ramsey, a surprise selection in an advanced position on the right-hand side of midfield, we kept possession well and our transitions from defence to attack were perfect.
The moment that perhaps best summed our excellent opening half-hour came when clever play from Santi Cazorla allowed Ramsey to slide through a delightful pass to put The Brain™ clear on goal. With Gäel Clichy trailing in his wake the man with the giant forehead produced a piece of miscontrol that would be hard to repeat and the ball rolled timidly into the arms of Joe Hart.
There were other chances too — the most notable of which created for Lukas Podolski by the fast-improving Carl Jenkinson’s lunge-busting burst down the right — while Sergio Agüero ensured Vito Mannone in goals was kept on his toes.
What also impressed in the first half was our boys desire to hold shape when not in possession. This has been a common theme this season and with Abou Diaby slotting next to Mikel Arteta in the centre of the park and Podolski and Ramsey displaying their positional skills, we were able to create two lines of four dedicated to clogging up the central areas of the park.
A common theme is emerging that even when opposition teams do manage to work their way through our two lines of four, the weight of numbers eventually allows the opportunity to get a foot in or pump a rushed clearance into touch. When the situation presents itself, a strong tackle or clever interception is creating superb transitions and laying the foundation for some devastating counter-attacks. It made life difficult for City, who rarely troubled us, and laid the platform for some excellent chances.
Nevertheless despite a strong opening forty minutes it was City who took the lead when Joleon Lescott headed home from a corner that was conceded by Kieran Gibbs due to a lack of communication at the back. Mannone’s role in the goal was disappointing but it is important to consider that if we are going to play a zonal marking system on set pieces, a perfectly reasonable system if deployed correctly, individuals taking responsibility to attack the ball is paramount. It is also worth noting also that if the goalkeeper comes to claim the ball and fails to get there, it is bound to surprise even the best defenders.
The second half was a different game due to two factors. One was the introduction of Rodwell for Sinclair (who had been dominated by Jenkinson) and the second was a general weariness that crept into the team. Rodwell’s introduction combined with City holding a lead meant the home side were less adventurous and our major weapons, those scintillating transitions, were unable to be used effectively.
In many ways the second half was the opposite to the first: City found more space on the break and really should have been given a penalty when Agüero’s honesty saw him denied a foul in the area. Despite a rash challenge on this occasion, Koscielny and his partner-in-crime Per Mertesacker were magnificent throughout the 90 minutes — particularly during City’s period of pressure in the second half — consistently breaking up attacks with their clever positioning and anticipation.
While City had their best period of the game, our boys seemed to labour for a good half-hour until the introductions of Theo Walcott and Olivier Giroud around the 70-minute mark. Fellow supporters were surprised at Podolski and not Gervinho being replaced, but it made perfect sense to me. Podolski is a player who works exceptionally hard each and every game, but he tends to fade after an hour or so. Plus, despite his wayward finishing, Gervinho was proving a handful for City and still looked full of beans.
The changes gave our side the boost it required and we again looked the better team. Cazorla came to life again, forcing a thrilling save from Hart, and Koscielny hammered in from the resulting corner. It was a tremendous goal, a real striker’s finish fired into the roof of the net, and provoked one of the wildest Arsenal celebrations I have seen in some time, illustrating our team spirit.
In truth City should have retaken the lead moments later when Vincent Kompany’s amazing bicycle kick attempt was parried by Mannone before Agüero slid his shot wide. Gervinho then fired wide and the game ended 1-1, a tremendous result for a team that had outplayed and out-fought the champions on their own turf.
The bold conclusion that we are a team ready to fight for the title is based on how quickly Arsene Wenger has established a balance between organised, counter-attacking football based on intelligent positioning and quick transitions and our usual possession-based football that breeds confidence and gives the defence time to breath. It has varied our attacking options and perhaps more importantly, improved our defending.
A terrific day of football and one that should grow the optimism and belief of both supporters and players, even if only one rather than three points was the immediate reward.