90 seconds. That is how long this writer looked at the Arsenal team sheet released an hour before kick off of the match at the Etihad Stadium against Manchester City. That time was spent solely trying to figure out how the players starting for Arsenal fitted in and into what formation.
With Per Mertesacker missing through illness and not even making the trip, Francis Coquelin replaced him in the starting lineup. Also missing but this time, dropped to the bench, was Alexandre Lacazette with Alex Iwobi replacing him. Had the manager ditched his favourite three at the back formation and reverted to playing four at the back, with Coquelin providing the extra body in midfield? Is this going to usher in new era where the manager tweaks his team specifically to counteract the opposition?
Arsene has been Arsenal manager for two decades now and has not changed much he joined. And he wasnt going to start with this match. When the Arsenal team lined up at the start of the match, it was immediately clear that Coquelin was playing at the heart of a back three with Alexis playing up front on his own. Shocker. Even the Arsenal twitter account had put Coquelin at the base of the midfield when it released the team sheet.
The Arsenal team seemed to be set out to press the Manchester City players high up, and when that high press was bypassed, fall back to a low block. For the first few minutes, that tactic seemed to work well with Manchester City struggling to find their feet. But a good team, and this Pep team is a very good one, cannot be denied for too long.
Soon they began to find spaces in the midfield, with Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva pulling the strings. The Belgian was particularly impressive, as he is generally is; to many the best player of this fledging season. It was perhaps fitting then that the first goal would arrive from his boot. His low drive from his left boot somehow escaped Petr Cech’s palms and into the net.
No one could really complain about the result at that stage. Not that City even relented; they continued to find gaps and spaces to create good chances and somehow managed not to convert them. By end of the first half, it was a mystery how City had only scored one. That didn’t stop Aaron Ramsey from forcing Ederson into a very good save down to his right as the half expired.
The game really turned on its head with the contentious award of the penalty to City, a few minutes into the second half. The ball was played long into Raheem Sterling on Arsenal’s left, Nacho Monreal came across to cover and tangled with Sterling’s feet. Of course, because it’s against the Arsenal, Michael Oliver pointed to the spot and Aguero dispatched the penalty in off the post. Very soft penalty, I still think.
A change was needed for Arsenal and the manager brought in Lacazette for Coquelin with the team reverting to a back four. Maybe it was the change in formation or maybe it was righteous indignation at the award of the penalty but Arsenal began to grow into the game. They got their just reward for their attacking endeavour when the £50m man fired the ball through Ederson’s legs from an Arsenal break. 2-1. Which of course raises the question why Arsenal’s record signing was not trusted to start a big game away. Again
The most controversial moment of the match of course came when one of the assistant referees neglected to notice that David Silva had strayed offside right in his eyeline. The Spaniard paused, saw that the match officials were derelict in their duties, resumed play and squared the ball to Gabriel Jesus who scored.
The most surprising thing was not that the officials failed to notice the City player offside, not at all. When you have followed Arsenal fo a while, you actually being to expect these blatant calls to go against you many times a season. Par for the course. What was actually puzzling was that some commentators and analysts were blaming the Arsenal defenders for not ‘playing to the whistle’, whatever that means. Still can’t get my head around that.
No doubt, Man City were the better team on the day and the best team in the league by a mile. But for few minutes when it was 2-1, Arsenal went toe to toe with them and didn’t look that much inferior. What didn’t help was the helping hand from Michael Oliver and his gang.