Unlike their counterparts at Leicester City, we are not quite at the point where Arsenal’s supporters are emboldened enough to sing about winning the league. They are, however, entitled to think their team must have an outstanding chance if they can keep this momentum going and, just as importantly, Manchester City continue defending in a way that helps explain why the sheikh and his colleagues in Abu Dhabi are apparently intent on ushering in Pep Guardiola.
Arsenal are still two points off Leicester but they now have a four-point lead over City in third position and, though there were some heart-stopping moments after Yaya Touré’s wonderfully taken 83rd-minute goal, Manuel Pellegrini’s insistence afterwards that his side had been the “dominant” team was generous, to say the least, and largely ignored their deficiencies. This was their fifth defeat already this season and a more accurate reflection would be that Arsenal had the better blend between defence and attack.
The bottom line for City is they cannot expect to defend this badly and get away with it. They badly miss the organisational skills of their captain, Vincent Kompany, and left themselves with too much ground to make up after the first-half goals from Theo Walcott and Olivier Giroud that swung the game in favour of Arsène Wenger’s team.
City’s goals-against column is worse than Watford, Crystal Palace and Stoke City, and Eliaquim Mangala’s part in the second goal was particularly wretched. His shanked pass, when under no pressure, immediately put his team in danger. Giroud ran on to Mesut Özil’s through ball to fire a low, angled shot beneath Joe Hart and, for Mangala, the harsh reality is that this has become a recurring theme. At £42m, his progress continues to be interrupted by a tendency to make costly errors.
Özil also played the final pass for Walcott to open the scoring 12 minutes earlier with a curling, diagonal finish. The German has now set up 15 of Arsenal’s league goals and, to put it into context, the next player on the list of assists, Gerard Deulofeu, has contributed seven for Everton.
Arsenal found a way to subdue David Silva, who was eventually substituted in the second half. City found it harder trying to pin down the elusive Özil and, with Walcott and Joel Campbell getting the better of Bacary Sagna and Aleksandar Kolarov, Arsenal could also reflect on several chances at 2-0 to extend their lead. Pellegrini was right that City had spells on top but so did their opponents, creating the better chances.
The score at half-time was slightly misleading because City did look like the more rounded side in the opening half an hour. Pellegrini had chosen to abandon his normal formation in favour of a new 4-1-2-2-1 system that, early on, seemed to have identified Arsenal’s left side as a potential weakness. As well as Kevin De Bruyne operating on the right, Silva also seemed to be under instructions to drift to the same side and double up on Nacho Monreal.
Those two caused plenty of problems during the opening exchanges but on the one occasion Arsenal looked really vulnerable, with only two defenders back and Laurent Koscielny hopelessly out of position, De Bruyne chose to shoot when Silva was free to his left, shouting for the pass that would have almost certainly led to the opening goal. The shot flashed past the post and De Bruyne’s error of judgment was compounded in the next attack when Walcott, operating on the left, collected Özil’s pass and was given far too much space to line up his shot.
City had plenty of defenders inside the penalty area but none of them took decisive action. Sagna hung back while Kolarov appealed for offside and then positioned his hands behind his back as if anticipating the shot. With nobody closing him down, Walcott took a touch inside, shaped his body and sent the ball around Hart with just the right amount of curl and pace.
De Bruyne suffered an ignominious moment early on when he went to take a corner, accidentally kicked the flagpole and ended up on the floor, but it was that wasted opportunity that can be traced back as the moment the game turned in Arsenal’s favour. Until that point, City had been knocking the ball around confidently and controlling the tempo. Thereafter, they looked dishevelled and accident-prone. They lacked cohesion at the back and it needed a couple of sprawling saves from Hart to prevent Campbell and Aaron Ramsey punishing them again in the first 15 minutes of the second half.
Pellegrini brought on Raheem Sterling for Fabian Delph at half-time and, after 63 minutes, there was the now-familiar sight of Agüero gingerly making his way to the touchline, accompanied by a member of the medical staff. Silva’s influence had dropped and Sterling found it difficult to get into the match until Touré, with an elegant swish of his left boot, directed a rising, diagonal shot into the top right-hand corner of Petr Cech’s net. It was a beauty, ensuring a nerve-shredding finale. Wilfried Bony, who had replaced Agüero, turned one shot just wide and Arsenal had to endure four minutes of stoppage time. They held out and, as Wenger noted, these are the kind of wins that give a team chasing the title new belief.