LONDON – The only possible complaint against Arsenal is that they do not do this more often. ArsÃ¨ne Wengerâ€™s side have been regarded as a soft touch for longer than they will want to remember against the top sides and then they show up at the home of the champions and play in a way that makes it seem bewildering that their own title challenge has already turned to dust.
It has certainly been a long time since Arsenal have taken on one of the elite and played with the greater sense of togetherness, the better work-rate and more effective tactics. They sieved six goals here last season and their record in Manchester has been appalling since the sun started to fade on the Wenger years, featuring only one point out of a possible 21 before this fixture and a goal difference of minus 21.
Yet they played with a level of wit and gumption that has become rare among visiting teams to this ground. Santi Cazorlaâ€™s performance, combining high skill and indefatigable running, could have been set to music and, in the process, he and his team-mates blew a gaping hole in Cityâ€™s aspirations of making it three titles in four seasons.
Manuel Pellegriniâ€™s team tend to spiral into this kind of carelessness only when they hear the Champions League anthem and they had better snap out of it quickly bearing in mind their next league game is at Chelsea. There was a dishevelled look about the beaten side, out-run and out-thought by a team that took the lead through Cazorlaâ€™s 24th-minute penalty, doubled it with Olivier Giroudâ€™s header midway through the second half and defended throughout with the nerve and conviction that has been so conspicuously absent when Wengerâ€™s teams have capitulated in other high-level assignments over the last few years.
Not too long ago this kind of rearguard action from Per Mertesacker, for instance, would have been inconceivable. Cazorla delivered a masterclass in midfield, always wanting the ball and having the supreme football intelligence to know what best to do with it. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was another huge influence while Aaron Ramsey and Alexis SÃ¡nchez also helped to ensure that Arsenal overwhelmed their opponents in midfield.
City badly missed Yaya TourÃ©, on international duty at the Africa Cup of Nations, and have not won a league match since last April when he has been missing. The bad news for Pellegrini is that TourÃ© will also be missing when they head to Stamford Bridge at the end of the month.
City will not be able to get away with defending this shabbily against JosÃ© Mourinhoâ€™s team. MartÃn Demichelis set the tone with two basic errors early on to give away the ball in his own half. The way Pablo Zabaleta lost a 50-50 challenge with Ramsey in the build-up to Cazorlaâ€™s penalty was unusual in the extreme and the defending for Giroudâ€™s goal was even worse.
Fernando lost his man in the penalty area but not a single defender reacted when Cazorla chipped his free-kick into the six-yard box. Giroud was the only one who showed any real intent and glanced his header past the exposed Joe Hart.
Arsenal chased after everything. They were quick to the ball, strong in the tackle, crowding out David Silva and providing a near-impenetrable barrier in front of David Ospinaâ€™s goal. It was not until the 36th minute that City managed a shot at goal and the people who keep these statistics were quickly out with the information that had not happened in a league game here since October 2012. The last time City lost one at home by two goals? Go back two more years.
Ospina barely had to get a scuff of mud on his kit and Francis Coquelin demonstrated again that he is better suited for the defensive midfield role than Mikel Arteta. Coquelin is relatively new to the side but at one point he could be seen bellowing at his team-mates, demanding they did not lower their standards.
Pellegrini, in stark contrast, should be startled by the way that kind of leadership was missing from the home side. Cityâ€™s manager complained afterwards that the penalty was unjust bearing in mind the minimal contact from Vincent Kompany on Nacho Monreal. Yet the City captain was silly to take the risk, leaning towards his opponent and away from the ball, and, however much disguise he tried to apply, the referee, Mike Dean, judged it well.
Monreal had played a give-and-go with Giroud and Kompany, at his best, would have anticipated the danger. He looked rusty, returning from injury, and Pellegrini did admit it was unnecessary for Kompany to make the body movement towards his opponent.
Sergio AgÃ¼ero likewise looked short of sharpness after his injury lay-off but the truth is that the service to him was generally poor. JesÃºs Navas is still unable to exert a huge influence on matches and James Milner did not last beyond half-time.
Briefly, there were some encouraging signs for City early in the first half and another possible feat of escapology when Frank Lampard was brought on as a second-half substitute. Giroudâ€™s header killed that idea stone-dead and a crowd that likes to sing to the team â€œfight to the endâ€ had started to disperse with 10 minutes to go.
Man of the match Santi Cazorla (Arsenal) – The Guardian