Talking Points from Arsenal's 1-1 Draw with Manchester City at the Etihad

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Talking Points from Arsenal's 1-1 Draw with Manchester City at the Etihad
Alex Livesey/Getty Images

The pile up after Laurent Koscielny's equalizer for Arsenal in the 82nd minutes of the team's Premier League day-five encounter with Manchester City was an image worth a thousand words.

The equalizer was a fitting reward for a team that had worked hard right from the beginning of the match, and by a near-unanimous consensus—from a quick sample of the rash of review articles—was the better side of the two teams. 

I should like to highlight a few points from this encounter.


Success. Getty Images.

 

1. Belief Not Delusion

The following from Arsene Wenger's press conference after the match encapsulates what I think should be the right attitude in response to the current team:

I am pleased because [a point] was the minimum we deserved today. I am pleased also with the quality of our performance and our spirit. Also a bit frustrated because I feel there was room to do more. We had early chances and very late chances, especially Gervinho at the edge of the box where he missed the target. But overall I hope this will reinforce our belief and confidence and reassure us about our potential in this league.

I took a quick survey of opinions from Gooners in the minutes just ahead of the match. What I found was a dose of healthy optimism mixed with what I felt was an unhealthy expectation.

There was the feeling among some that this was a weakened Manchester City team, an opinion based on City's track record from their five games so far in the current season, and that as such, Arsenal would (or should) easily streamroll them, much like Real Madrid had done in midweek.

I felt that such thinking bordered on the delusional.

First of all, I believe the thinking that Manchester City are a weakened team is flawed. I highlighted City's big names in my own preview article: Carlos Tevez, Sergio Aguero, Mario Balotelli, Edin Dzeko, David Silva, Yaya Toure and Vincent Kompany.

Any team with these players can't be weakened.

Second, I believe that it is such grandiose thinking that has little bearing with reality that leads to the wild swing in reaction with which we are too familiarly acquainted, to wit: one moment the team or this or that player is great and the next either or both are dung.

The unhealthy expectation has an undergirding line that seemed to exalt Arsenal's capabilities beyond what I believe is normal, all things considered.

For example, I do not believe we have the deepest squad among the title aspirants: the two Manchester clubs and Chelsea. Nor do I believe the team has reached its peak yet. That is, there's still a great deal of room for growth and improvement.

The team must pass all kinds of tests to be certified great, equal to, greater or better than its rivals. The Manchester City match was just one such test, as was the second half of the Champions League match against Montpellier last week.

Here, the team locked horns with one of the best teams in the Premier League and emerged with its pride intact. Now we can begin to relax, since there are few teams out there that are bigger challenges, at least not in the EPL anyway.

The fact that the team conceded against a top and quality team was a stiff test. Would it be able to recover or would it fall apart? Would it be able to score against a top team strong in defense and offense? If so, how would the goal be made?

Beyond the EPL, there are tougher teams out there: Juventus, Bayern Munich, Real Madrid, Barcelona, etc. To be considered great, this Arsenal team would have to face such oppositions and emerge relatively unscathed. 

It is only then should we allow our expectation to run wild.

On the domestic front, the tests aren't over, not just yet.

We all know that September is the big test for the team, as it has had to play away from home in the Champions League (a test it passed well enough), besides playing away to the Champions of England in the EPL, a test it has also passed with sufficient enough marks.

This weekend, the final test will come in the form of the current European Champions, Chelsea, a team with not a small number of stars in its own ranks.

As fans, we would, of course, expect the team to win against Chelsea, what with the home advantage on our side. But this will just be another test the team will have to pass in its quest for legitimacy.

The proper reaction, then, is to believe in the team.

Belief, though, should be tempered by reality, not grandiose expectations that have no bearing on the real world. Such expectations, as I pointed out above, yield unpredictable reactions.


What is the true worth of this team? Getty Images.

 

2. The Enigma of You-Know-Who

In an excellently pitched article, Daniel Taylor of The Guardian says this of Arsenal's attack:

Their problem is an obvious one, namely how to make do in attack without Robin van Persie. Lukas Podolski was substituted after a peripheral performance while Gervinho is too erratic, his touch frequently poor. One superb pass from Ramsey sent him running clear, at 0-0, but the striker's clumsiness wasted the opportunity, knocking the ball too far ahead and allowing Hart to cut out the danger.

Mark Ogden of The Telegraph invokes the same ghost:

Just imagine if Robin van Persie had chosen to stay. For a start, Manchester United would be languishing in mid-table, while Arsène Wenger’s team would have a razor-sharp cutting edge to take advantage of the brilliance of Santi Cazorla. Without Van Persie, Arsenal are having to rely on Gervinho and Olivier Giroud. Gervinho missed a hat-trick of chances on Sunday.

First of all, notice how Ogden states a contradiction, although making an excellent observation about You-Know-Who vis-a-vis Manchester United: In the absence of him, "Arsenal are having to rely on Gervinho and Olivier Giroud." 

It is a contradiction because it implies that with him in the squad, Arsenal wouldn't be reliant, which clearly isn't true. The result would merely be another form of reliance. And by the way, wasn't that the byword of last season for Arsenal, too much reliance on You-Know-Who?

I do not deny that when Gervinho misses "a hat-trick of chances" that this is a "problem," as Taylor notes. But I doubt that this is sufficient reason to resurrect the ghost of Him-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named.

There's certainly no need for the following incantation:

Bone of the father, unknowingly given, you will renew your son. Flesh of the servant, willingly given, you will revive your master. Blood of the enemy, forcibly taken, you will resurrect your foe. (Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire ,641 642)

And since there's no need for it, there's hardly any need to analyze the incantation, either.

It was just last week that the media was abuzz with the idea that finally Arsenal have exorcised the ghost in question, that Gervinho and Podolski have finally come to life, that this current Arsenal team seems to be stronger in the absence of the ghost in question than it otherwise would be with the ghost in the team.  

Is one match, after all this excitement, sufficient, then, for a change of heart? But what about Manchester City's own attackers (world class, presumably) who didn't score against Arsenal? Should we conclude, then, that they too need You-Know-Who?


Gervinho. Getty Images.


3. It's All About Negation

The following quote from Taylor's article is a window into the next point:

Tevez and Balotelli could not bring a new spark to City's attack when they came off the bench, while Silva struggled to find his touch and Sinclair remained quiet with his new club.

One often hears the flawed notion about big stars not rising to the occasion in big games. It is flawed because it betrays a misunderstanding of the nature of big games.

Big games are big for just that reason. These are two strong teams locking horns, and if each does not possess enough quality to match the other, it won't be deemed a big game, nor would it be proper to classify it as such.

It is a fact of life that when stars meet, they cancel each other out.

Thus, Ricky Hatton might look very good in a moderate pond, but when he is compelled to swim in bigger waters, suddenly, he does not look so good. Manny Pacquiao, to take another example, is suddenly not so awesome when he meets his nemesis in Juan Manuel Marquez.

If someone is apt to say that Yaya Toure was not really influential against Arsenal (unlike him!), that "Silva struggled to find his touch and Sinclair remained quiet," that Sergio Aguero looked ordinary while "Tevez and Balotelli could not bring a new spark to City's attack when they came off the bench," or that Podolski did not rise to the occasion when this big game required that he did so, such a person would be displaying the aforementioned flawed thinking.

In the past, it has been said that Lionel Messi has failed to rise to the occasion when playing for Argentina, especially in the two World Cups in which he has featured. And of Cristiano Ronaldo the same has been said about big games involving Real Madrid.

This thinking is a child of insufficient grasp of the nature of these big games, for in them, the big teams cancel each other out.

Think for a moment. If Arsenal had not negated Yaya Toure, then they'd had no business being considered title aspirants, since through the influence of Toure, City would have run them ragged. 

Again, if Arsenal had not found means of negating Aguero, Dzeko and Silva, they'd have been run ragged and wouldn't be worth taking seriously.

The same is true of City.

If they hadn't found a way of negating the influence of Abou Diaby and Lukas Podolski, then the dominating Arsenal would have been more dominant, and City wouldn't be worth taking seriously, either.

So as we see, it's all about negation.

Top teams make top stars look ordinary. It is what makes them top teams. Weak or middling teams make top stars look good. It is why they are top stars, that is, head and shoulder above the weaklings and the middling lot.

If we say that Barcelona do win against most teams and, likewise, the Spanish national team, then we must realize that it is because both these teams are head and shoulder above everyone else at the moment. What the rest of the field can hope to do is find ways to negate their powers.

If you can't find ways to negate the powers of top and superior teams, then of course you'd be run ragged.

When or if you find ways to negate the powers of superior teams, then you make their top stars look ordinary, and this isn't because the top stars aren't good; they are, of course. You just have found a way to cage them. This is a basic principle of warfare.

Therefore, I see no reason why we should lampoon our own stars when other top teams find ways to cage them.

I, of course, am not saying that Gervinho shouldn't score when put through on goal. What I'm saying is that there's no ground to think that Podolski, for example, was disappointing in this match. He wasn't.

This sort of thinking is often the reason why Theo Walcott has been sorely vilified. (Although I think he should sign and get on with it.)


Lukas Podolski. Getty Images.

 

4. It's All About Mistakes

Here's another quote from Taylor's article:

The early-season improvement in Arsenal's defending was not particularly obvious, too, for Lescott's goal, originating from a Silva corner that the otherwise impressive Kieran Gibbs need not have conceded. Vito Mannone, deputising for the injured Wojciech Szczesny, came off his line but never got close to claiming the ball. Lescott had Podolski and Koscielny in close proximity but still managed to head the ball inside the far post.

As I mentioned earlier, I liked Taylor's article. I'm only citing it as a bridge to the points I seek to make.

There's a tendency to be reactionary against the status quo when things don't go well. For example, the feeling after Arsenal's conceded goal seemed to imply that zonal defending isn't a particularly good animal.

Then again, neither is man marking. Goals are conceded from both. To stop concession of goals from corners, a simple solution is necessary. Don't concede corners, period. But this is impossible.

Therefore, as long as teams concede corners, they'll pay for this mistake for sufficient enough number of times. Against Stoke City, Arsenal conceded a lot of corners, but did they concede goals from them? No.

Do Arsenal always concede goals from corners? No. Do they concede goals from corners from time to time? Yes. But this is true of every team, and it isn't because they are zonal marking or man marking.

The fact is, if you concede corners, you are bound to be punished for it.

Nor is the apoplectic reaction in regard to who was at fault for the concession of goal a valid reason, insofar as the study goes beyond finding ways to improve defending for future benefit.

The fact is, goals (almost a hundred percent of them) are products of mistakes. Without mistakes, no team would concede goals, and without mistakes from the opposition, no team, no matter how good, would score goals.

This fact exposes the hypocrisy inherent in the whole affair of goals. You rejoice and shout when you exploit the mistakes of your opponent and score, but then go bunkers when your own mistakes are exploited.

The fact is, mistakes can't be avoided in matches. Should they be, then there'd be no goals, and what, then, would be the point of football?

The lesson here, then, is that, indeed, there's room for improvement in defending, the need to minimize your own mistakes, for when you do so, you minimize goal concession.

And when you minimize goal concession and maximize your own ability to make your opponents commit errors, you increase your chances at scoring victories. And when you do, you are bound to win something big.

 

Arsenal score. Getty Images.

 

5. Arsenal Have Earned Respect

This phrase is from Taylor's article: "Arsenal's system, however, was neat and effective." I'd say this is a fair assessment of Arsenal against Manchester City.

Jamie Redknapp, discharging his usual role as a pundit for Sky Sports, was full of praise and appreciation for Arsenal:

I felt it was a really interesting match-up tactically. There were two different formations, but I felt Santi Cazorla for the whole game caused Manchester City so many problems.
Javi Garcia didn't know what to do at times. He didn't know whether to push in and mark one of the other midfield players or go and mark Arteta or Cazorla.
Both of them looked a little bit tired from their exploits in midweek at Real Madrid because it was a tough game in Madrid and it was tough for them today. It was two against three and every time they were outnumbered and they couldn't quite get hold of the ball.
You didn't see Yaya Toure having any real influence, Javi Garcia hardly had a touch and that's where I felt Arsenal could dominate.
That's exactly what they did today.

What has been remarkable in the last three weeks is the new-found respect from journalists. Right now, Arsenal aren't the usual or the favorite whipping boy of the media. 

Of course, you'd find a stray one now and then who is still trapped in the idea that lambasting Arsenal is the "in" thing to do.

This isn't unlike those mindless articles that are churned out religiously in learned journals, where students (or "scholars") spew one cliche after another: "imaginary," "Otherness," "...the semiotics of..." "denial of individuality," "the evolution of" this or that, etc.

The tone of the reviews following this match were respectful and appreciative of Arsenal's display in this match. One hopes this continues.

For Gooners, I hope we continue to believe and stand behind our team. The players and the coaching staff need the support.

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