Welcome back. What a win we ended up enjoying last night and what a performance by the boys. From the peerless Petr Cech in goal, all the way through the team to our tireless target-man Olivier Giroud at the tip of the attack. We were focused, committed, industrious, classy, clinical, but above all I thought, aggressive.
I was more nervous than usual pre-match but not just because of the quality of the opposition. Also because the game against Manchester City was our first ‘big’ test without our first-choice midfield pair of Santi Cazorla and Francis Coquelin, and when the teams were announced, we learned Alexis Sanchez hadn’t made the bench after all and was out of the squad completely.
Our starting line-up was as expected though, with our first-choice back five intact, Mathieu Flamini and Aaron Ramsey in the middle of midfield, Mesut Ozil flanked by Theo Walcott and Joel Campbell, with Giroud leading the line.
Also as expected, without a ‘passer’ behind Ozil, we struggled to find fluency in our build-up play in the opening 30 minutes of the match and, to me at least, it felt as though City were the likeliest to open the scoring. Particularly when Sergio Aguero sent Kevin de Bruyne racing through on goal around the half-hour mark, only for the Belgian to shoot past the post with David Silva in space square of him, begging for a pass. Per Mertesacker’s positioning undoubtedly played a part in De Bruyne’s decision to go it alone but in fairness, it was a massive let-off for Arsenal.
So having nearly conceded, we then took the lead ourselves just a minute or two later through Walcott. The move actually began with Ramsey in possession in midfield and gesticulating his frustration at a lack of options to distribute to. He eventually settled for playing the ball back to Laurent Koscielny, who looked up and in an instant found Ozil in a pocket of space with a pacey pass. The German tried to find Nacho Monreal on the overlap but Walcott intercepted the pass, teed himself up, and unleashed a ferocious, side-footed curler into the far corner beyond the reach of Joe Hart.
‘Just get to half-time without conceding’, I was thinking, as the clock ticked towards the interval, but we went one better and doubled our lead in added time before the break. City’s Eliaquim Mangala tried to find a team-mate from his centre-back position but Walcott picked up possession, fed Ozil and he effortlessly found Giroud who’d peeled away from his marker to the left. The Frenchman shot low and hard, stunning the ball through Hart’s legs and into the corner before wheeling away in celebration.
I thought the goal owed as much to the industry and determination of Campbell on the right in the build-up to Mangala’s misplaced pass, as it did to Walcott’s quick distribution, Ozil’s sublime assist, and Giroud’s intelligent movement and unerring finish. Work hard, get lucky. Or something.
City, who in my opinion had done a pretty good job of stifling our attacking play, largely due to their deployment of Fabian Delph just in front of Hector Bellerin to stop the full-back’s usual forays forward, found themselves two down having played pretty well for most of the half.
The second period was inevitably a more open affair. They replaced Delph with Raheem Sterling at half time and there were chances at either end, with Campbell firing over for us when he should have hit the target at least, and Wilfried Bony, I think, placing a header straight into Cech’s hands at the other end.
Then with around ten minutes to go, Yaya Toure pulled a goal back for the visitors with an exquisite left-footed strike into the top corner following a one-two with Bacary Sagna. That signaled a nervous end to the game for anyone Arsenal but thankfully, we held on to go four points clear of City and close the gap on leaders Leicester to just two points.
I would highlight individual performances but that would be unfair because it was a genuinely outstanding team display. The one disappointment on the night was the news that Sanchez has suffered an injury set-back, will miss the festive fixtures and be unavailable until mid-January.
On the bright side though, he’s finally getting a rest and if last night is any kind of gauge, we’re strong enough to beat any side in this league, with or without our brilliant number 17.