Arsene Wenger: Did defensive display show that Arsenal manager has finally forgotten his stubborn streak?

ANALYSIS: The Arsenal manager set his team out to defend, rather than attack, in the brilliant 2-0 victory at the Etihad on Sunday

Tom Sheen
Monday 19 January 2015 12:10

In beating Manchester City at the Etihad on Sunday, Arsenal managed their first win against a team that finished in the previous season's top four for the first time since October 2011, when they beat Chelsea 5-3 at Stamford Bridge.

But unlike that game, where Arsenal's blistering attack brutally exposed Andre Villas-Boas' ill-advised high line, this Gunners win was borne out of his decision to play his team in a compact and defensive fashion - something Arsenal fans have not been used to seeing since the Highbury days.

When Arsene Wenger named his team it looked as if he would go with his usual 4-2-3-1/4-3-3 formation, with Santi Cazorla and Aaron Ramsey providing support to an advanced three of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Alexis Sanchez on the wings, and Olivier Giroud through the middle.

What quickly became clear was that Wenger had actually set his team out to play in a very deep 4-1-4-1, with Sanchez and Oxlade-Chamberlain almost on top of their full-backs to stop the attacking threat of Jesus Navas, David Silva and James Milner, then Stevan Jovetic, on the left.

Olivier Giroud was the lone striker, but even he spent a good portion of the game in his own half.

With Yaya Toure out of the side, Wenger was happy to allow Fernando and Fernandinho have the ball, confident the two midfielders would not be able to pick their deep defence apart. Neither Brazilian was able to stride beyond the central midfield three of Cazorla, Ramsey or the brilliant Francis Coquelin, with both playing way too deep, and playing too many sideways passes, to make an impact in the attacking third.

With James Milner anonymous on the left in the first-half, the creative burden fell to Silva, who tried his best but was crowded out by a deep Arsenal defence, while Coquelin had an excellent game as the midfield enforcer.

Manchester City’s David Silva is tackled by Francis Coquelin of Arsenal

Manchester City raised their tempo after the break and for a 10-minute period Arsenal forget their game plan and forced themselves forward in search of a second - at no other time during the 90 minutes did they look more vulnerable.

The home side were able to find more space and looked much more threatening. The space usually fell to Jesus Navas on the right but he was unable to complete the telling pass, connecting with City team-mates on just two of his 19 attempted crosses. When Navas did put in one great ball, Laurent Koscielny was able to poke the ball just out of reach of Aguero. Rather than continue in an attacking vein the Gunners regained composure and settled back into their defensive shell, the second goal coming soon after.

Sergio Aguero being below full fitness helped, of course, but he was well marshalled by Koscielny and Per Mertesacker, who were deployed deep to stop the Argentine from exposing the German's lack of pace.

Yaya Toure missing was also a crucial part of Arsenal picking up three points, but the most impressive facet of the match was Wenger's approach.

It was a far cry for Wenger's usual tactics in big matches away from home, where he has previously attempted to outplay superior oppoenents. As was seen at Stamford Bridge in October, when Chelsea won 2-0, Wenger wanted to be the more creative, more attacking team, but could not handle the power and quality of his west London rivals.

Arsenal scored from a penalty and a set-piece

Wenger seems to have learnt something from his Portuguese rival, the master of the defensive display away from home. In fact, scoring from a penalty and a set-piece, as well as threatening from the occasional counter-attack, was exactly how Mourinho's Chelsea have done it down the years.

A new defence-first approach in certain matches appears to be paying dividends this season

Against City on Sunday Arsenal posted their lowest possession total of the 32 matches they have played this season, 36 per cent. Arsenal have only had less possession than their opponents on six occasions in 2014-15 but, crucially, they are undefeated in all of those, winning four.

Those matches came against Besiktas at home (1-0), City at home (2-2), Dortmund at home (2-0), Galatasaray at home (4-1), Liverpool away (2-2) and West Ham away (won 2-1).

When Arsenal defend, good things happen.

Arsenal fans will welcome a defensive approach in big away games

Of those, the only other game where Arsenal have had less than 40 per cent possession in a game this season is the draw at Anfield, where Liverpool needed a late Martin Skrtel header to equalise.

Arsenal are now just a point off Manchester United in fourth place. With visits at White Hart Lane and Old Trafford and home matches against Liverpool and Chelsea still to come this season, Wenger's defensive approach could yet have a huge impact in the Premier League.

The Frenchman's critics have spent years criticising his open approach in big games. Finally, the 65-year-old seems to be learning.

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