The Arsenal Monday verdict: Belief is the key
It was only a draw at Manchester City, but Gunners showed they can live with the best this season
If it was a little unusual to see Arsenal celebrating a draw at the final whistle on Sunday, it was perhaps understandable. This could prove a hugely significant performance, and result.
Arsenal had been by far the better side in the first half, only to be hit with a sucker punch set-piece goal but, at the home of the champions who had won 29 of their previous 31 league games on their own turf, the Gunners showed the strength of spirit to battle back for a point.
It was the second time in a week they had come from behind in an away game. Commentators and pundits all made the same point; last season Arsenal would not have managed that.
This season there seems to be a strength of resolve, a higher level of belief. While heads dropped momentarily after Joleon Lescott’s needlessly conceded header, the Gunners rediscovered their poise and stayed in the game in the second half before getting their reward with Laurent Koscielny’s superbly-taken equaliser.
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Even after that, you suspected Arsenal might cave in and concede a winner with City calling on substitutes of the calibre of Carlos Tevez and Mario Balotelli. But Arsenal clung on.
Arsene Wenger called it exactly right afterwards, saying he was pleased with the point but slightly regretful not to be going home with all three. That was how well his team had played, and he knew it. But he also knew the value of avoiding defeat, of maintaining momentum and, above all, of instilling more belief in his players that they can fight toe to toe with the title contenders.
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“I am pleased because it was the minimum we deserved today,” said Wenger afterwards. “I am pleased also with the quality of our performance and our spirit, but also a bit frustrated because I feel there was room to do more.
“Overall I hope this will reinforce our belief and confidence and reassure us about our potential in this league.”
It certainly should do. Arsenal took the game to City from the start, and Wenger got the better of his opposite number Roberto Mancini with his midfield selection.
The decision to play Aaron Ramsey on the right side of the attacking midfield three was vindicated by the Welshman’s energetic and creative display, tucking inside to far greater effect than a wide player such as Theo Walcott would have done. In tandem with Santi Cazorla the duo had the edge on City’s much vaunted duo of Yaya Toure and Javi Garcia.
Ramsey, a substitute in every other game so far this season, has had to be patient for his chance, but he certainly grasped the opportunity. Wenger has the kind of selection headache he won’t mind for this weekend’s meeting with Chelsea.
Arsenal looked slicker, and quicker, than the champions. Kieran Gibbs gave the kind of display that illustrated why Gael Clichy was now playing in sky blue, Mikel Arteta was efficiency personified in front of the back four, in which Koscielny stepped in seamlessly for Thomas Vermaelen.
If there is one area where Wenger still has cause to worry, it is surely the identity of his lone striker. Olivier Giroud was back on the bench after his underwhelming display in Montpellier, but Gervinho had a day to forget, the worst moment of which was his awful attempt to control Ramsey’s perfect ball that sent him clear in the first half.
While the current trend to play one man up front is widespread amongst the leading clubs both here and on the continent, the feeling persists that that player has to be one who can finish chances that come his way.
Despite three goals in the previous week, Gervinho did not look like that player on Sunday, and it was hard not to imagine just how the Gunners may have fared if Robin van Persie had still been at the club. That is a futile argument now, however, but Lukas Podolski may get another chance leading the line soon.
However, concentrating on the negatives would be harsh on Arsenal, and Wenger, after this result. An unbeaten first month of league action capped with a winning start in the Champions League is the kind of run the Frenchman was pining for this time last year. Three tough away trips – Stoke, Liverpool and now City – have been negotiated and there is plenty of cause for optimism.
“We look like a proper team,” said Wenger, and that much is undeniable. There was a sense that, despite a good start, the trip to City and the meeting with Chelsea would prove the undoing of Wenger’s new-look side.
The first part of that double-header has been negotiated, even if it was only a draw. Chelsea, it should be noted, have started the season even more impressively and have won four out of five.
With the furore surrounding John Terry only adding to the mix, Saturday already has the ingredients to be quite a game. This season Arsenal look to have the appetite for such occasions.