Goals: Lescott (42), Koscielny (83)
Arsenal earned a much deserved point at the Etihad stadium thanks to Laurent Koscielny’s 83rd minute equalizer in a game that they should have never trailed.
Arsenal lined up with a 4-4-1-1 formation. Vito Mannone again started at the goal due to Szczesny’s ankle injury. Vermaalen missed the game with a flu. Laurent Koscielny replaced him and was paired with Per Mertesacker at the center of the defence. Carl Jenkinson started at right back, and Kieran Gibbs was at left back.
In central midfield, Mikel Arteta was paired with Abou Diaby. Aaron Ramsey was stationed on the right side of midfield, and Podolski was on the left. Cazorla had a free role right behind Gervinho who played as the central striker. Giroud was left on the bench.
Arsenal started the game brightly and settled into a serene passing rhythm. The key to their possession game was Aaron Ramsey coming narrow from wide right and helping Arteta and Diaby to retain possession in the center. With Cazorla also dropping deep into space, the Diaby-Arteta-Ramsey-Cazorla quartet had Arsenal having 62% of possession in the first 20 minutes of the game. As in last week against Southampton, Gervinho played the central striker position like a winger, drifting towards the right flank.
Despite looking easy on the eye, Arsenal’s possession was somewhat sterile. Their first chance came when Gibbs found a lot of room in the box after Arteta’s delicate chipped ball, but instead of taking a touch and bringing the ball under control, he wasted the chance with a one time cross that was cleared. Arsenal created their biggest chance of the first half at the 15th minute mark: Abou Diaby won the ball from Zabaleta in Arsenal’s half and found Cazorla in the center circle. Before Yaya Toure could close him down, Cazorla (who makes you think that he was a puppet master in another life) took one touch and released Ramsey into acres of space in the center. The Welshman played a delicious through ball between the retreating Clichy and Lescott and set Gervinho with a completely free run at goal. Gervinho’s first touch, however, was like a bad joke and the grateful Joe Hart collected the ball with ease.
While Manchester City were having difficulty in putting together a move, they also created two half chances of their own. First, Aguero received the ball at the wide left position, cut inside Jenkinson and fired a low and hard drive from the edge of the box, which was parried away by Mannone. Minutes later, Sinclair lifted the ball towards Silva in the box, but Koscielny made a timely interception to deny the Spaniard.
As the first half progressed, Arsenal looked more likely to score, especially because of the ease and pace they broke forward whenever their 4-4-1-1 defensive shape swallowed a City attack. Midway through the half, after another City move melted down, the Ramsey-Cazorla-Podolski-Arteta quartet had a quick-fire passing exchange, and Arteta’s incisive ball fed Jenkinson’s hungry burst forward. The young Arsenal right-back (who is slowly but surely growing on Arsenal fans) muscled Lescott off the ball, but his cutback was blasted high by Podolski. A few minutes later, Gibbs intercepted a ball, raced forward, and found Cazorla in the hole. The Asturian puppet master held off challenges by Javi Garcia and Lescott and attempted to slip Gervinho through with a disguised ball, but Clichy’s last ditch tackle that took the ball away from Gervinho was brilliant.
Given Arsenal were well on top, the way they conceded 5 minutes from half-time was quite frustrating for Arsenal fans. Clichy’s aimless cross was sailing away from goal, but without any communication with his teammates, Kieran Gibbs headed the ball out for a corner. Arsenal’s zonal defending in this corner and Mannone’s control of his 6-yard box left so much to be desired, as Lescott headed the ball to the top left corner. The goal galvanized City further. Aguero caught Mertesacker off position on the wide left channel and cut inside the big German. Mertesacker’s tackle deflected the ball to Dzeko, whose curler was tipped over the bar by Mannone.
Roberto Mancini started the second half by taking off the ineffective Sinclair and sending in Jack Rodwell to beef up his central midfield. With the score advantage, Manchester City now sat much deeper. Rodwell helped Javi Garcia (who was completely overrun in the first half) to squeeze the space in front of the Manchester City defense. In this half, Arsenal were less successful in breaking into space due to City’s more defensive approach. Furthermore, while pushing forward for an equalizer, the Gunners looked vulnerable to counterattacks, especially after Dzeko was replaced by Carlos Tevez.
With City closing down more quickly, and Arsenal lacking a target man in the box, Arsenal’s moves were forced into switching the play from one flank to the other without any penetration. It was curious that Wenger delayed sending in Giroud as the target man, and Walcott to the right wing for more direct wing play until the 71st minute. Even after these substitutions, Arsenal seemed to be failing to break Manchester City’s dogged defensive cover. They were, however, brought back to life with a set piece. Cazorla’s right footed missile from outside the box was well saved by Hart. From the resulting corner, Lescott’s clearance fell to Koscielny who unleashed an unstoppable shot to the top corner from 10 yards.
Both sides could have won the game in the dying minutes. When Arsenal failed to clear a corner, Kompany chested the ball high and had a bicycle kick which was saved by Mannone. Koscielny inexplicably put the rebound in front of Aguero who missed by a small margin at the far post. Then Gervinho had a chance for Arsenal after he received Gibbs’ pass in front of the box, but the erratic Ivorian blasted the ball high and wide from a very good shooting position.
Arsenal deserved the point in their biggest test so far this season. While the way they conceded the goal after dominating the first half was quite frustrating and brought back memories of fragility, they were still able to become the second team since February 2011 to get a point at the Etihad. Aaron Ramsey (whose drive and energy was this time matched with a sense of discipline and responsibility) and Per Mertesacker (whose great positioning and timely interceptions in the second half prevented numerous City counterattacks from extending City’s lead) had particularly impressive performances. Carl Jenkinson also continued to grow into his role at right back and had an excellent overall game.