Thank you, Wenger! Chelsea rejoice as Arsenal outfox Manchester City
The Gunners boss went a long way to proving his doubters wrong by masterminding an impressive away victory against the champions, but his eureka moment has boosted the Blues
By Peter O’Rourke at the Etihad Stadium Has the penny finally dropped for Arsene Wenger? The Frenchman has masterminded Arsenal’s deserved 2-0 victory at the home of reigning champions Manchester City, and it was the perfect away performance.
Arsenal were hammered 6-3 by City last season and it had been over four years since the Gunners won an away game against teams that went on to finish in the top four. That was against today’s opponents, too, and it was after Dedryck Boyata was sent off after five minutes. But there was no chance of last season’s humiliating defeats on the road at City, Chelsea and Liverpool being repeated as Wenger decided to set up his team to play the way that teams have played against them for so long, enjoying so much success against the Frenchman’s troops.
Wenger has never seen eye-to-eye with arch- rival Jose Mourinho on their approach to the game, but this performance was almost the carbon copy of Chelsea’s 1-0 win at the Etihad last February.
It is remarkable to think it has taken Arsenal so long to play like this away from home against one of the big guns in the Premier League, but it could prove a turning point for Wenger and his side.
It was Arsenal’s results against their main rivals away from home last season that cost them the chance of having a major say in the outcome of the title race, but it looks like Wenger has, belatedly at least, learnt the lessons from those defeats.
Wenger went against his normal attacking instincts to go with a more compact formation and all his players were well-drilled and played their part in the kind of away performance not seen by Arsenal in many, many years.
They got a break with the opening goal with a soft penalty for Vincent Kompany’s clumsy tackle on Nacho Monreal, which man of the match Santi Cazorla converted, but they probably deserved the break for their hard work and endeavour.
Once Olivier Giroud headed in the second goal midway through the second half the result never looked in doubt in what is surely one of Wenger’s most satifying wins in recent years.
At the Etihad they had their lowest possession, just 35%, since Opta started keeping records 11 years ago, but it was what they did without the ball that formed the cornerstone of their impressive victory at the home of the champions. This was very un Arsenal.
Wenger has come in for criticism for his tactics in the big games in the last four or five years, and although some may regard him a tactical genius after this victory one big question remains: Why now? Why didn’t he set up his team like this before?
It was at the start of December that Wenger was jeered by some of his own fans when boarding his train back to London after the 3-2 defeat to Stoke, but there is no doubt they will be singing the Frenchman’s name from the rooftops on their way back down to the capital tonight.
On the other side it was a case of unlucky 13 for City as they saw their 12-game unbeaten run come to an abrupt end at just at the wrong time to give Chelsea a five-point lead and the upper hand in the title race.
City went into the game knowing there was no room for error after Chelsea’s 5-0 thumping win at Swansea, but they struggled to work out how to get the better of Arsenal’s unexpected set-up.
It should be noted that City have failed to win any of the four Premier League games that Yaya Toure has missed this season (drawn three, lost one) and how the big Ivorian’s absence was keenly felt as City struggled to have any impact in midfield against Arsenal’s well-organised ranks.
Manuel Pellegrini made a mistake in playing with two defensive midfielders in Fernando and Fernandinho as neither could offer what Toure does for his side with his match-winning cameos when he leads by example.
Vincent Kompany looked rusty on his return from injury and was foolish in conceding the penalty which gave Arsenal something to cling to.
Worringly for City and Pellegrini they have conceded two goals in three consecutive home league games for first time since 2002 and their defensive fraility has cost them crucial points in the title race.
After narrowing the gap between themselves and Chelsea on New Year’s Day from eight points to none they could now see that lead return when the top two go head-to-head at Stamford Bridge in a fortnight’s time.
If City lose that game to fall eight points behind
Chelsea again that could be the end of their title chances with just 15 games left. Mourinho is unlikely to let an eight-point lead slip from his grasp for a second time.
Given they had taken just six points from a possible 45 against City, Manchester United and Chelsea in recent years, few would have seen this Arsenal performance coming. The great irony is that Wenger’s ‘eureka’ moment has gifted old rivals Chelsea and Mourinho an unexpected and very welcome boost.
But the Arsenal boss is unlikely to care too much after proving his doubters wrong after all this time. For now, the question marks are surrounding City, and they will have to come up with all the right answers at Stamford Bridge on January 31.