19 January 2015

Man of the Match? Arsène. None other than Arsène.

Amidst all of the Coq-stroking and Cazorla canoodling, it seems we've overlooked someone who deserves just a touch of credit for the result on Sunday. Let's revisit that result for a minute, shall we? After all, it was a clean-sheet win at the Etihad, something that Man City haven't experienced since, well, since October 2010 when they lost 0-3...to Arsenal. For as much as we've lauded the performance of Cazorla and Coquelin, among many others, it's well-worth reminding ourselves of the man who conjured this in the first place: Arsène Wenger. Never known for his tactical nous, he showed his critics that he does in fact know how to select a squad and set up tactics that can deliver results, even in difficult situations.

Manuel, how does it feel to outspend onlyto be outmanaged?
Let's make it clear: for as much as Arsène delegates on-the-pitch responsibility to his players, this one looked like one in which he gave them more structure and focus. It's hardly as if each player individually decided to play a role fundamentally different from the one he's played before, nor is it likely that the XI conspired against his vision. This one bears all the imprints of a manager bound and determined to prove his detractors well and truly wrong.

We've lamented and lambasted the 4-1-4-1 many times before, but this is one occasion when it bore fruit. Maybe those lamentations had something to do with the misuse of Mesut Özil, who had been thrust wide left in this formation, but it certainly had a lot to do with the presence of Coquelin and the performance of Alexis, Ramsey, and Cazorla, who showed a greater willingness to drop deep, both to defend and to receive the ball, rather than waiting more idly for the ball to find them. Keeping eight or nine players behind the ball largely negated the attacking threat posed by Silva and Agüero, who were denied the space they needed to work their magic.

It wasn't just the midfield, however, as Bellerín and Monreal were far-more conservative in their play, getting forward only as needed to augment the attack. Instead of both men getting forward, it seemed as if only the strong-side defender would get forward, while the weak-side defender would hew closer to home. With only one wide defender getting up the pitch to contribute to the attack, we had one more defender to blunt City's counters until we could re-establish our positions, with Monreal or Bellerín recovering, saving Koscielny and Mertesacker from having to commit to last-gasp tackles or fouls, and shielding Ospina from having to save shot after shot after shot. By contrast against other matches, then, we weren't relying solely on that famed Per-Kos axis to bail us out. We were defending as a squad, with those crafty, fleet-of-foot (but often light in the loafers) midfielders digging in deep to assist in defense.

Ordinarily, that commitment would strip a side of its attack, but, time after time, we saw counter-attacks launched through Cazorla or Alexis that would commence deep in our attacking third, catching City's defense too far-forward. Can you count how many times one or the other received the ball deep in our third and slalomed forward through City's defense? It's a wonder that we didn't score at least another goal or two, so wasteful were we when we had chances.

After last season's trips to the Etihad, Stamford Bridge, Anfield, and Goodison Park left us eviscerated and on the brink of existential collapse, this result suggests that Arsène does in fact have the chops to outmanage a squad that has so thoroughly outspent him. Clichy was a non-factor. Nasri was "injured." Sagna was a spectator.

To this point, we've grown accustomed to Arsène as a whipping-boy, as one who would endure the slings and arrows. Among a few other intangible virtues, this result should remind us that he has almost always shouldered the mantle of the squad's failures while he has always refused the mantle of the squad's successes. Contrast that against the mindset of other, more-grandiose managers who have been all too willing to palm off their failures on the players they acquired, and Arsène's master-stroke stands in starker contrast.

We have some time to take in and enjoy the ramifications of this result, and it would seem a travesty to overlook the manager's role in making it happen. What do you think? Share your thoughts in the comments-section below the fold...