Arsenal take a big step towards the title with nervous win over Manchester City
A big win for Arsenal in their title chase as they scrape through a tense final period against Manchester City22:26 Monday 21 December 2015, 22:26 21 Dec 2015
Arsenal's title aspirations were given a boost on Monday night as they put in a commanding display for 80 minutes against Manchester City.
The opening stages of the game were a timid affair, as both sides looked content to simply hold the ball, stroking it across the pitch without any real direction and maintaining their shape.
That style of play, which Wenger once termed "sterile dominance", did no favours for the spectacle of what was supposed to be the two real title contenders (insert Leicester fan outrage here) going head to head with a huge three points on the line.
Just after the half hour mark, the game sparked into life as a ball from Mesut Ozil found Theo Walcott in the box. His first touch took him back outside to the edge of the area, where he shifted on to his right foot and fired a shot past Joe Hart in to the far corner of the Manchester City goal.
Image: Adam Davy / PA Wire/Press Association Images
Manchester City looked a bit shell-shocked, and having started with Sergio Aguero up front, he was beginning to cut an increasingly isolated figure as they failed to supply anything of real value to him. The game plan seemed to consist of going wide and whipping the ball in, which only served to highlight the complete mismatch of Per Mertesacked and Petr Cech against the diminutive Argentine.
The drama wasn't over in the first half as, just before the break in the 46th minute, a sloppy ball from Eliaquim Mangala in the middle of the park was cut out, and Walcott found Ozil with a short pass. The German provided his 15th assist of the season with an incisive pass to cut open the Manchester City defence and Olivier Giroud made absolutely no mistake as he finished in between Joe Hart's legs.
Image: John Walton / EMPICS Sport
The second half went similarly for the most part, as Pellegrini brought on Raheem Sterling and Jesus Navas on the wings to supply width, something that hadn't actually been a problem in the first period. Aguero made way, after a clash of heads, for Wilfried Bony, and his physical presence made the tactic of firing in crosses a more sensible one.
However, they eventually found the away goal that has eluded them since September. Yaya Toure almost passed the ball into the back of the net, connecting brilliantly with a shot that demoted Petr Cech to the role of spectator as the ball flew into the top corner of his net.
For that final ten minutes, they made life very uncomfortable for Arsenal, as they swapped Calum Chambers for Walcott and put everyone behind the ball. While there were some dangerous moments, Pellegrini's side were unable to find that decisive moment that would have given them a point they scarcely deserved.
Image: Alastair Grant / AP/Press Association Images
Both the manager and the fans will be frustrated by the way that, when Toure finally found the back of the net, the whole team seemed to come to life and play in the way that a side assembled at such ludicrous expense should approach every game, but they were beaten by a more disciplined side on the night.
Perhaps most impressively, Arsenal were without Alexis Sanchez for this fixture. Up to this point, they have rushed him back for big games, seeing him as one of their main attacking threats. While that is most certainly the case, Wenger's side made do with just 36% of the possession, and looked to catch their opponents on the counter. They kept their shape, got two banks of four behind the ball for much of the second half and frustrated their guests.
With the inspirational Chilean to return, Arsenal will be looking ahead to a run of fixtures over the festive period against Southampton, Bournemouth and Newcastle that are eminently winnable, as they look to push towards the title.
After the match, Arsene Wenger stated that it was the "spirit, organistaion and brilliance all together that gave us the three points".
Hinting that the more tactical, counter-attacking approach might be seen more often, he added that "every win strengthens your belief, but what we want is to take care of our performances, of our spirit, because I think we have something really special there. You earn the right to win in these games, and that's what we did today".
For Manchester City, they're facing a record breaking run if they want to be crowned champions, as no side has won the league after losing five games before Christmas since 1986.
Speaking to Sky Sports, Pellegrini said "I don't know about statistics, I only think about the future. We have 63 points left to play for, and if you're only four or five points behind the leader and you don't believe you can do it, you shouldn't be in this profession".
The very best bits delivered every weekSubscribe now