18 January 2015

On 1 January 2015 Arsenal were sixth in the League, 13 points behind the league leaders, and there were, what was by then, the regular demands for the sacking of the manager, not least for the fact that we were behind Tottenham, and “clearly” not even going to qualify for the Champions League next season.

Worse we then lost 2-0 to Southampton in that game on New Years’ Day, and although this was followed by the defeat of Hull in the FA Cup, that hardly gave much reassurance.  Even the 3-0 home win over the team who were by now as much of an enemy as Tottenham (Stoke City) at least in terms of their playing style, did not reassure everyone that Arsenal were on the way back up.

Especially as the next game, on 18 January was against Manchester City. Away.

It was however a match which stunned critics of Arsenal, not just for Arsenal’s victory (Giroud and Cazorla scored) but the style of play in which Arsenal conceded possession to Man C for much of the game.  Having lost to Southampton on New Year’s Day this was now Arsenal’s third win in a row without conceding.  It also turned out to be part of a run of eight wins in nine games and just three defeats in the last 26 games of the season.

Even the normally anti-Arsenal media found it impossible to knock Arsenal’s achievement in this game, This was City’s first defeat in 15 matches in all competitions since CSKA Moskva’s win at the Etihad Stadium on 5 November 2014 and was Arsenal’s first win at the home of the Premier League’s reigning champions since a 1-0 win at Manchester United on 8 May 2002.

That game of course was also important since it was part of the run which meant Arsenal became the first top flight team to go through a season without losing an away game since Preston North End in 1889.  It was also the case that the last time Arsenal won at the defending champions by more than a single goal margin was on 26 May 1989 when Thomas’ last minute goal at Liverpool won the title just as the commentator was saying what plucky losers Arsenal were.

And to cap it all the referee was Mike Dean!

So what did Arsenal do and how do they do it?

In fact what Mr Wenger did was change the team’s style of play, setting the side up to defend, often with all 11 players back behind the ball defending in depth with a work rate that could not be criticised, and a previously unseen 4-1-4-1 formation which left Giroud on his own up front and Francis Coquelin lying in between the back four and a midfield four of Alexis, Cazorla, Ramsey and the Ox.

But there was more, for Arsenal averaged only 35% possession, and it was hilarious to hear the TV commentators proclaim how Arsenal were going to get hammered “if they don’t manage to keep hold of the ball.”  In fact Opta later said that it was Arsenal’s lowest possession rate since 2003, when they started keeping records.

Meanwhile Monreal and Bellerin held their positions at the back and refused to get drawn forward – which was clearly the opposite of what the Manchester City players had been told to expect.  If one did go forward, another player held back to make sure the back line was intact.

It meant Arsenal were never caught with too many men forward, and you could tell that was definitely part of their game-plan because of what happened when they did get carried away.

For when Monreal did forget himself and got involved in an attack, Francis Coquelin gave him a reminder in no uncertain terms of what the game plan was.  And Coquelin was entitled to lay down the law, for he made more clearances and more interceptions than anyone else on the pitch.

Equally outstanding was Santi Cazorla, who was hailed by the media for being both creative and fearless.

But what really made the game so memorable was the way the media had built it up, seeing Arsenal as a soft touch and Wenger as a one dimensional manager.

The run that followed was one of 16 wins in 19, another top four finish, and to cap it all, our most emphatic FA Cup final win of all time – 4-0 against Aston Villa.   It didn’t all come from this day, but I am certain it made the team believe they could play this way, and win.