Flexibility isn’t generally a word associated with Arsene Wenger. The Arsenal manager has stuck rigidly to the same approach of the last few years – technical midfielders playing attacking football, almost regardless of the opposition. The team fielded against Manchester City appeared to be more of the same, but the execution was significantly different and best embodied by Santi Cazorla.
The XI named by Wenger didn’t appear capable of the kind of hard-working, disciplined defensive performance that ensued in the 2-0 victory. Francis Coquelin was the only defence-minded midfielder and he wasn’t in Wenger’s plans earlier in the season, spending time on loan at Championship Charlton Athletic. Behind Coquelin was a defence containing the inexperienced Hector Bellerin, the injury-hit Laurent Koscielny, widely-criticised Per Mertesacker and Nacho Monreal, usually back-up to Kieran Gibbs.
This defence, with question marks over each one of the back four, needed protecting but it seemed protection would be at the back of the minds of an attacking selection, Cazorla joined by Aaron Ramsey, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Alexis Sanchez. Yet somehow, it worked. Cazorla picked up 40
Cazorla is more usually seen influencing matches in the opposition’s defensive third but his best work was done further back on the Etihad Stadium pitch. It was dogged and dirty work, in the first-half focused around depriving David Silva of the ball, interceptions the order of the day rather than intricate passing on the edge of the City penalty area. What combinations there were came mostly to get the defence out of a sticky patch and Cazorla’s dribbles alleviated the pressure on the backline as much as set the Gunners on a new attack.
Spain international Cazorla has flitted in and out of the heart of the Arsenal team in his time at the Emirates Stadium, offering glimpses of why he has earned a place in the Roja set-up but also why he’s never been among the first names on the team sheet. It’s also unreasonable to expect Cazorla to play as he did against City on a regular basis – it was a performance, from the individual and the team itself, which was conditioned by the particular challenge of facing the Premier League champions.
But it did give an insight into what Arsenal could be capable of – if they played with greater consistency, if they compromised their free-flowing principles once in a while, and maybe if Wenger signed some players who could defend and attack in equal measure. Cazorla was central to Arsenal’s success on Sunday and with a performance as intelligent as that, the impression is strongly that he’ll be crucial to anything Wenger’s team achieves this season.
The victory leaves Arsenal in fifth place, a point short of Manchester United, who hold the last Champions League spot, eight behind second-place City and 13 adrift of leaders Chelsea. Wenger prioritises qualification for the Champions League above almost anything and it remains a distinct possibility, though why stop there? The irony may be that in limiting his side’s attacking instincts, he has opened up new ambitions.