Arsenal discover there’s a Plan B

Defensively well-organised, disciplined in possession, full of heart and courage, lethal on the break, skilful in meaningful areas, tactically astute.

But this wasn’t Chelsea — although they benefited from the result. This was Arsenal.

Arsene Wenger, who has stuck so stoically to ‘the Arsenal way’ of passing teams to death and throwing defensive caution to the wind — despite seven years of poor results against the ‘big six’ away from home — finally discovered there is a Plan B.

So the same Arsenal that has crumbled so often in the past — the team that was thrashed 5-1 at Anfield, 6-3 at the Eithad and 6-0 at Stamford Bridge — produced a performance that was a million miles away from those sorry days.

It may well be the moment that changes Arsenal’s season and finally allows them to achieve their potential — because there were so many positive in all areas of the field for Wenger as his side seriously damaged City’s title challenge but transformed their own ambitions in the process.

It would be fascinating to watch this victory alongside a recording of last year’s 6-3 defeat at the same venue, because the statistical comparison between the games is an eye-opener.

Last year Wenger’s side were mauled after adopting an open approach in a match in which they were disappointed to have only 48% possession. This time, with a more pragmatic approach, they had only 35% — the lowest figure ever for an Arsenal side in Premier League history — but were nevertheless worthy winners.

The same defence that has looked so wobbly in the past looked stoic in the face of 16 Manchester City corners, and restricted the champions to only four shots on target in the entire game. Suddenly Per Mertesacker, so often the butt of jokes, looked a giant after being handed the captain’s armband in the absence of Mikel Arteta — and he demonstrated the kind of leadership qualities that Arsenal have been missing for some time.

In midfield Santi Cazorla, playing a central role, was quite remarkable — his energy, drive, determination and skill on the break personifying Arsenal’s performance as he made more than a 100 touches and produced a passing accuracy of 92% — no surprise he was named man of the match. But alongside him young Francis Coquelin is proving a real, if inadvertent, find for Wenger, providing defensive discipline in a side that has rarely displayed either of those qualities in recent times.

The performance impressed Gunners legend Thierry Henry.

“It was amazing,” he said. “What impressed me was they controlled the game, not in an Arsenal way but in a different way. I don’t know when the last time was that an Arsenal side didn’t look like they would concede a goal, but that’s how it was today.”

Wenger later insisted it wasn’t a case of a new approach, just a good performance — but his observation that “we had good discipline, were well organised and kept a good control of the game” summed up the success of his players against a team that had lost only one league match before at home this season and are regarded as the only side that can seriously challenge Chelsea for the title.

“We wanted to make space very tight, especially in front of the box where Sliva is so dangerous,” Wenger said, explaining his tactics. “We did it well — in fact we could even have done better on counter attacks to conclude what we started.”

The result certainly has huge implications for both teams, because City must now win at Stamford Bridge on January 31 to revive their title hopes — while Arsenal finally have an opportunity to end their reputation as a team that folds under pressure in big away games.

Plan A has entertained us all for a long, long time; but finding Plan B could have a huge impact on Arsenal’s future.


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