Let's celebrate Santi
Over the last two Sundays Arsenal have produced their best performances of the season. Even more heartening and exciting than that is the fact that they were two totally different kinds of display, albeit both predicated on the defining principle of unquestioning hard work and discipline. Against Stoke we had less cause to defend, though working hard high up the pitch gave us the ball in advanced areas. Yesterday, against a far better side than Stoke City, it was more about being properly organised with a dominant midfield axis of Coquelin and Cazorla. I was sitting at home late last night and I thought about where I'd seen this kind of thing from an Arsene Wenger team in the past and I could think of two previous games like this - Old Trafford in 1998 and at home to Real Madrid in 2006. As was the case in those two games it wasn't just about defending as we were also very dangerous going forward. Where it was Santi Cazorla yesterday, it was Marc Overmars against Manchester United and Thierry Henry against Real Madrid those years ago. Where it was Coquelin yesterday it was Petit and Vieira at Old Trafford and Gilberto at beautiful old Highbury. When you watch football then it's performances like the one Arsenal produced yesterday that make you love it.
Regular readers will know I am not Arsene Wenger's biggest fan. He is too inflexible, too determined that his team must play "his" way and not adapt to the opponent. Well yesterday he showed that, when he wants to, he can do tactics. The side was set up, and sent out, to do a particular job and knowing that they have enough quality when they get the ball they could create opportunities.
I am utterly amazed, having just watched Match Of The Day from last night, that there is even a question of debate over whether or not we should have been awarded the penalty. Since when was a blatant body-check not a foul? Trevor Sinclair and Robbie Savage (remember the glorious careers those two had) accused Monreal of diving (or "simulation" as Sinclair put it). How the BBC can continue to market the show as a serious football programme while employing such poor quality "pundits" is beyond my comprehension. And the goal was the least that Arsenal deserved. Having contained City's attempts at a fast start I thought we were controlling them very well, and Alexis was causing them problems, albeit without much end product. My only disappointment, aside from the return of Aaron Ramsey's ever more infuriating back-heels, was that Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain chose a game against the worst full-back in the Premier League in which to have a stinker. For some reason Ox just couldn't get the ball under his spell enough yesterday and it let Clichy off the hook - when Rosicky and Flamini were on the pitch we finally saw what should have been happening all day long. The only times we looked like we might be in trouble were when City tried to break on occasion and expose the gap left by Ramsey who likes to sprint forward but jog back slowly (if Rosicky had come on for him instead of Ox then we'd have won by four goals easily). Thankfully Coquelin and Cazorla were in no mood to let City get in at Mertesacker and Koscielny.
I felt Olivier Giroud wasn't great before half-time, but his second-half display was surely the best of his Arsenal career. Vincent Kompany had no answer to Giroud's strength and first-touch. I've never seen him dragging the ball out of the air in the way he was yesterday and it was a joy to watch from a player who hasn't necessarily been at his best since coming back from injury. On the subject of Kompany, how did that guy stay on the pitch? I kept reading people on Twitter last night saying how well Mike Dean had done. What utter poppycock. Kompany could have gone for the foul on Monreal, yet wasn't booked. Millions of people then watched him repeatedly swear at the referee after he finally got a yellow card, only to be called back and warned by the ref (plenty of Sunday League officials will be thanking Dean for that). And then he took Alexis out with a quite disgraceful foul on the edge of the City box in the second-half and got away with that too! If that is Mike Dean having a good game then God help us! Giroud, meanwhile, got his reward with that well taken header for the second goal.
What can you say about Santi Cazorla? In the past I've lamented his inconsistency, but in the last two months he has been brilliant for Arsenal. Moved back in to the centre he has been dominant. People have gone on and on about Alexis, but Santi has been quietly influencing our best stuff for weeks. Yesterday he put in the sort of performance that becomes legend. He was making tackles in his own penalty area, winning headers, running with the ball with skill and pace, and making key passes in attacking areas. Quite simply there is no way Mesut Ozil can come back in to this Arsenal team at the moment. Why would you want to move Cazorla out of the centre, and why would you ever play Ozil out wide?
Of course there have been times in the past where Arsenal have played well and we've all wanted it to be the turning point. We've turned so many times that we've gone backwards more than once. However, yesterday was so different in the way we went about our business, and the quality of the opponent, that you just feel that maybe something has changed. Perhaps the penny has finally dropped. There is a fear that it makes Arsene Wenger feel justified in not supplementing this squad with a signing or three, but if it marks the point at which things change for the better then we might yet be on the verge of something special. The Premier League, of course, is gone but those tactics and that intensity can be applied against opponents in the European Cup too. Play like that and you've got a chance against anyone. And in a cup competition you only need to give yourself a chance and anything is possible. Let it be the point of change Arsene as I'd love to be proved wrong, and a trip to Berlin in June wouldn't go amiss.