Not in a decade have Arsenal played like they did against Manchester City on Sunday. Despite claiming just 35 per cent of possession there was an assurance and an unfamiliar defensive solidity to the Gunners’ play. Arsene Wenger probably watched most of the match from through his fingers, bemoaning the dilution of his famed philosophy, but what he got in reward was his side’s best performance for years.
Many have taken Arsenal’s win, and manner of performance, against City as vindication of Wenger’s stewardship – as if providing proof that the French coach is still the man to take the Gunners back to the top.
If anything, however, Sunday’s result should be taken to the contrary. The Premier League moved on without Wenger at its forefront a long time ago, and Arsenal’s performance at Man City showed that they too have moved on without the Frenchman.
Against City the Gunners demonstrated just how well they can play, and that for the most part Wenger is holding them back. He may have got his tactics right this once, but Wenger is not one for changing his spots quickly. The Arsenal manager’s stubbornness is both his greatest strength and biggest weakness. Every so often the blind faith Wenger places in his players pays out – see Aaron Ramsey, Olivier Giroud, Theo Walcott, Robin Van Persie et al for example. But from a tactical standpoint Wenger’s refusal to adapt has seen him – and his team – become something of an irrelevance over the past decade.
Arsenal are European football’s most tedious club, with their perennial target of finishing in the Premier League’s top four a tragically smalltime objective for a team that once led the English game in every sense. Far too often in the past Wenger has bullishly refused to adjust his natural, attacking style of play on the big occasion – simply turning up at the grounds of the Premier League’s best clubs and hoping for the best. Arsenal, however, arrived at the Etihad with a game plan, and it worked.
The Gunners had just 35 per cent of possession against City – something that would usually irk Wenger – but what little possession they did have was used shrewdly. The Gunners dominated the centre of midfield, with Francis Coquelin – a player who was at Charlton Athletic just a few weeks ago – providing the protection Arsenal’s defence has desperately lacked this season.
I am very pleased because our defence have been questioned a lot, Wenger gushed, trying to keep the smug smirk from his face. The target was to put it right, and to win a big game away in the league which we’ve not done this season.
Indeed, Arsenal’s feebleness in games against top-end Premier League opposition has completely undermined any title aspirations they may have harboured in recent season, with the Gunners’ taking just 28 points from a possible 99 against top-four rivals over the past five years.
Yet against City Wenger finally surrendered his principles to the betterment of his team. So will this prove to be a light-bulb moment for the Arsenal boss? Almost certainly not. They may have been rare in occurrence, but the Gunners have turned in similarly impressive displays only to regress almost immediately after.
Arsenal’s 2-0 win over Borussia Dortmund in the Champions League earlier in the season was carried off with similar self-assurance and swagger, with Wenger negating his opponent’s strengths just as he did against City. Yet the Frenchman reverted to his default setting soon enough, as if nothing had been learned from beating the Bundesliga giants.
There was also the 5-2 demolition of Spurs in November 2012, which was immediately followed by draws against Aston Villa, Everton and a home defeat to Swansea. The 2-0 win over Liverpool last season was encouraging too, but it hardly marked the start of a new dawn at the Emirates.
Wenger must prove that, unlike in previous cases, he has taken lessons from victory over City. Of course, precedent suggests that he won’t and we haven’t been afforded a glimpse of New Arsenal, but nothing more than an anomaly. Sunday’s performance didn’t show that Wenger should stay, it underlined that he should go.
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