They paraded Dave Brailsford’s Olympians on the pitch at half-time and Manchester City certainly need to catch a little of that champion class, because the early signs of this season are still not encouraging for the team who are defending the title.
Two wins from six, three leads thrown away, no clean sheets in seven matches and another public ruck between the manager and Mario Balotelli. Whichever way you tot it all up, City are not emphatic. Roberto Mancini, the manager, claimed no recollection of how he shoved his young striker down the tunnel at the end of the game, though the suspicion is that it was something to do with him getting only six minutes of football.
“I don’t know if he’s asked me something. Mario thought it was important, probably,” he said. “I’ll probably ask him next time.”
But don’t let the latest piece of Balotelli burlesque be a distraction from the real story of the day: Arsenal, yesterday’s gold standard bearers who, having arrived in the season seeming depleted and diminished, currently look as good as anyone in the Premier League.
All the spirit was theirs, as was evident in the huge heap of players they formed when Laurent Koscielny’s equaliser came eight minutes from time. In that glad moment Arsenal were vindicated for playing by far the better football and for having looked harder for players and bought more intelligently, if the evidence of six weeks of football can really tell us anything.
Santi Cazorla, the £12.7m Spaniard, looked a very great deal better value than City’s Javi Garcia (whose role in the starting XI suggests he has already pushed Gareth Barry down the pecking order) or Scott Sinclair, who frankly looked out of his depth before he was withdrawn at the break. Barry has grounds for feeling extremely unfortunate if yesterday is anything to go by and you imagine that the man he will be sharing his sorrows with might be James Milner. The England international hasn’t even featured on the bench in the past three games. Another player whom the national manager, Roy Hodgson, will have some trouble scouting.
Arsène Wenger, however, has some selection challenges of his own. Koscielny got his chance yesterday only because Thomas Vermaelen was left at home with flu and he more than staked his claim. “We have three classy centre-backs, you know,” the Arsenal manager reflected with some satisfaction last night. “No matter who [is] left out can feel it is not right.” The same contentment can be extended to the right-back Carl Jenkinson, who looked like a player thrown to the Premier League wolves this time last year but was first in front of the Arsenal support at the end last night.
In their excellent first-half, Arsenal’s football – clean, neat, incisive – was engineered completely by Aaron Ramsey in a way which challenged Wenger’s decision not to have started with him once this season.
That is not say that the old characterisation of Arsenal – can’t finish, can’t defend – didn’t come back to haunt them at times. Wenger admitted that Gervinho – lucky to have been granted a full 90 minutes of football – should have finished the gilt-edged chance which Ramsey provided him with when he carved a ball inside of Gaël Clichy to send him through. But the Ivorian’s heavy first touch on that occasion was compounded by a further three misses.
That was why the goal which took City ahead, five minutes before the interval, was so desperate. Kieran Gibbs, whose final pass from wide had also hindered Arsenal’s attempts to press ahead, conceded a needless corner, at which Koscielny and Vito Mannone were at fault – Koscielny allowing Joleon Lescott to power above him and head home the ball David Silva had lofted over. “Mannone made a little mistake on the corner and was very frustrated with it,” Wenger disclosed. “I’m very pleased it didn’t affect his game after. He looked very solid. I like what he’s doing.”
Mancini tinkered with and thundered at his players, flipping Sinclair and David Silva, and City did finally find some life. The uncommon strike partnership of Edin Dzeko and Sergio Aguero – not used since the infamous night in Munich a year back, when Dzeko resisted substitution – did not coalesce, though Aguero looked the fearsome threat he almost always is.
Gibbs put in a vital challenge after David Silva’s pass allowed the Argentine to get beyond Koscielny to shoot. Then Aguero drove wide after Koscielny could only clear straight at him, following one of Yaya Touré’s drives through the heart of the opposition midfield as the game drifted towards its last 10 minutes.
Arsenal had done enough to earn their point, though. City’s goalkeeper Joe Hart required all his athleticism to claw away a Cazorla strike and there was some symmetry to the way that Koscielny atoned, at Lescott’s expense, for his late first-half error. He seized upon a very poor headed clearance from Cazorla’s corner to thunder the equaliser high to Hart’s left.
Mancini insisted that City, who have conceded three goals from set pieces in the last four games, were not still living off the euphoria of last season. “I hope not. What we did is finished. It’s in the past. Now we are like all the other teams,” he said. “I don’t know why [it’s happening] but probably we don’t have enough concentration in some situations.”
But it was Wenger, with his belief in footballing self-sufficiency and distaste for City’s largesse, who was feeling the first sense of vindication after a wretched summer. “I’m pleased and happy because it’s the minimum we deserved,” he said. “I’m frustrated because there was room to do more with the early changes and the late chances. I hope the game will reinforce our belief and confidence and reassure us about our potential in this league.”Reuse content