Quick question: what did Arsenal’s 2-0 victory over Manchester City on Sunday afternoon have in common with their 1-0 triumph over United on May 8, 2002?
Well, incredibly it was the first time Arsenal had toppled the reigning Premier League champions on their own patch – a run which stretched a colossal 4638 days – since Sylvain Wiltord’s tap-in secured the Double at Old Trafford.
Arsenal beat the reigning Premier League champions away from home for the first time in 4638 days. (1-0 win vs. Man Utd on May 8th 2002).— Squawka Football (@Squawka)
Arsenal had amassed a paltry four points from a possible 30 on their visits to the defending champions over the past 12 seasons prior to their trip to the Etihad (as the below table illustrates). As Chelsea and City flexed their new-found financial muscle, the Gunners became increasingly lightweight and found it near-impossible to beat their chief rivals on a regular basis.
The Gunners were humiliated in the big games on the road last season, slipping to defeats at City, Liverpool and Chelsea by an aggregate score of 17-4. In fact, they only won on their travels against one of the top nine clubs – and even that was only the short trip to fierce rivals Tottenham.
Which is why it must have been a peculiar feeling for the Arsenal support to remain in their seats long after the final whistle at the Etihad. The alarmingly regular trudge back to north London was replaced with a collective disbelief; Arsenal really had beaten the Premier League champions. And what’s more, it was fully deserved.
Arsenal fans on London train without the usual big-away-game scowl. Great win. City disturbingly poor, given need to respond to Chelsea win.— Paul Hayward (@_PaulHayward) January 18, 2015
There was no sign of the pushovers. Long-absent defensive steel was the focus, rather than committing an army of men into the opposition half and later wondering why they were so ruthlessly exposed.
The tireless work of Francis Coquelin – on loan at Charlton barely a month ago – and Santi Cazorla was fundamental to victory. The former sat back, allowing the Spaniard to sweep across the pitch and launch lightning counter-attacks. But when City had the ball, Cazorla dropped in and made a number of crucial challenges and interceptions – providing protection for the back four and denying David Silva and Sergio Aguero the pockets of space they love to occupy.
Whether Coquelin is a temporary or permanent solution matters little at this stage. He showed what Arsenal were missing by simply banning himself from the opposition's final third. It was as though the visitorshad finally rediscovered their old selves, merging discipline with incisive breakaways. They ditched their usual possession game for an approach City were not expecting. And it worked. The hosts never recovered after Vincent Kompany conceded a controversial penalty and Arsenal could have feasibly left the Etihad with an even healthier winning margin.
But why has it taken Wenger so long to get it right? After building the Invincibles of 03/04, he has overseen their demise season after season. Any Arsenal fan could have pointed to the side’s vulnerability in big games and the lack of protection in front of the back four. Would Wenger really have deployed the same 4-1-4-1 system had the likes of Mikel Arteta and Jack Wilshere been available? We can only speculate.
Still, Arsenal have steadied themselves at an optimum time. They’re nestled in fifth spot, with a favourable Champions League tie against Monaco to follow, leaving them with plenty to aim for this season.
It’s only one victory. They’re still 13 points adrift of leaders Chelsea. Question marks remain over Wenger. But what they did on Sunday was prove they can mix it up on the big stage and suggest, finally, that they might be turning a corner following their FA Cup triumph last May.