Sunday 17 November 2019

Marathon man Carzola sparks Gunners' revival hopes

Spaniard gives midfield masterclass to lead City a merry dance

Santi Cazorla celebrates with Olivier Giroud after giving Arsenal the lead in their win over Manchester City at the Etihad. Photo: Alex Livesey/Getty Images
Santi Cazorla celebrates with Olivier Giroud after giving Arsenal the lead in their win over Manchester City at the Etihad. Photo: Alex Livesey/Getty Images

Paul Hayward

With socks rolled down and legs wobbling, Santi Cazorla left the pitch with a euphoric grin.

Olivier Giroud jogged over to worship him and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain gave him a piggy-back towards the tunnel.

Behind him, Arsenal's fans hailed a magnificent individual performance that broke the cycle of big-game frailty for Arsene Wenger's men.

Last season was calamitous for them at the big away grounds. They lost 6-3 here at the Etihad Stadium and 6-0 to Chelsea in Wenger's 1,000th game in charge.

Pretty much everyone in football had given up on the idea of Arsenal reviving the fighting spirit of The Invincibles, certainly against big-name opposition.

Even Thierry Henry, possibly their greatest player, had consigned their traditional toughness to history, telling Sky Sports viewers in his new pundit role that they lack a steely edge.


It was becoming faintly painful to hear this mantra about Arsenal's butterfly nature: their naïve refusal to balance defence and attack, their excessive faith in pretty passing, their embarrassing shortage of leaders willing to seize responsibility when things go wrong.

Well, either this was a monumental day off from those failings or the Gunners have finally heeded the lessons about what constitutes success in the intensity-driven Premier League.

If this 2-0 win over a limp and negligent Manchester City is to signal a permanent change in outlook, they can thank Cazorla - a man inspired in his new central role - as well as other less celebrated squad members such as Hector Bellerin and Francis Coquelin, who until recently was out on loan at Charlton, but spent the whole game here organising and cajoling in midfield - a job that had been virtually phased out until Mathieu Flamini returned to the club and restored glimpses of the old Arsenal machismo.

Cazorla's display was transcendent. He was the first and the last to declare intolerance of Arsenal's softness, which had left them sixth in the table with five defeats from 21 games.

The day was approaching when Spurs, Manchester United, Liverpool and Southampton could all file a stronger claim to a top four Premier League place than Wenger's perennial Champions League qualifiers.

If booking a place in Europe was always enough for Wenger's side, they were in severe danger of turning it into a one-way ticket to the Europa League.

After a slow start, this was a seismic game on two levels. It showed Arsenal how to beat a heavyweight on the road and it sent us back to thinking Chelsea will walk the league.

The contrast between their 5-0 win at Swansea and this flaccid City display told a heck of a tale.

Unless City can impale Chelsea at Stamford Bridge the weekend after next, then Jose Mourinho's side will feel they have the defending champions right where they want them.

Sometimes the script is flipped over. City's central midfielders were dismal, spraying the ball to opponents in the first half and then defending at half-speed after the break.

A stat well-worn by now is that Manuel Pellegrini's side have failed to win any of the four Premier League games Yaya Toure has missed.

Toure, of course, is at the Africa Cup of Nations with Ivory Coast and will not be back in time for the Chelsea fixture.

His replacement, Fernando, was distracted and careless. Minutes before spectating a few inches from where Giroud headed Arsenal's second unchallenged, Fernando trotted back from the half-way line during an Arsenal counter-attack, leaving others to deal with the emergency.

Then, after Giroud's goal, Toure's understudy watched with no apparent interest as Alexis Sanchez cut across him and fired low at Joe Hart.

Cazorla supplied the free-kick for that goal and scored the penalty after Nacho Monreal had thrown himself over when Vincent Kompany impeded him slightly in the box.


Given the context, and the juiciness of the victory, Arsenal fans will never forget the sheer verve Cazorla brought to his work through the middle.

In one 40-yard run deep in the second half, he swerved, slalomed, dribbled, tackled, fell over and got back up, with a smile, finally, because he knew he had reached that state of grace in which players sometimes surpass themselves.

He was like this all game: spinning, probing, changing the angle of attack. This, after Arsenal had deployed what continental coaches might call a "low block" - banks of yellow and blue kits that confused City's attackers.

"It was not the usual Arsenal we are used to seeing," agreed Pellegrini. There was no such obstinacy in Arsenal's big away games last season.

"For many years (our record in the biggest games) was our strength and, in the last two years, it is true that it has been a weakness," Wenger said before the game. "I think we are mature enough now to rectify it."

Few were inclined to believe him without hard evidence. Arsenal's away form had been four wins, four defeats, three draws.

Their brilliant new talisman, Alexis Sanchez, had scored only four of his 18 goals in all competitions away from Highbury and Islington.

But the deeper weakness seemed to be tactical and psychological. They were sauntering on to distant fields and expecting the opposition to stand aside and admire their passing game.

Think of the defending at Swansea, where Wenger's team suffered a collective failure of duty.

Countless times over the past few seasons fans and neutrals alike have lamented the arrogant streak in this Arsenal set-up.

Ego was not the problem so much as a refusal to yield to hard evidence showing they needed to make it harder for the other team.

They did that here and must do it again if they are to secure a top-four place and deliver Jam Today.

Sages across the land nodded when Graeme Souness described Arsenal on the eve of this game as a team of "son in laws" with "no rascal."

But it was City who came out of this game doubting their identity. Cazorla danced right through them.

By the end, the Spaniard was toying with City, rolling a ball under his studs beyond Gaël Clichy and into the City area.

That is the kind of flair he - one of his team's best technical players - possesses.

What turned that flair into a performance which will live long in the memory at Arsenal was the accompanying energy and drive.

Very few players can deliver both finesse and physicality like this; fewer still can maintain it deep into the second half of a match against the defending Premier League champions.

Aaron Ramsey, missing from the Premier League since the first week in December, contributed heavily to the resistance movement, too.

But it was Cazorla's energy which meant the most. We often hear about touch and vision in the attacking sense but his was equally demonstrable when Arsenal were on the uppers, trying to repel City.

And after holding the line, he had the vision to send the Gunners on their way.

The BBC's Pat Nevin last night memorably likened this performance to that of Emil Zatopek, the Czechoslovakian long-distance runner and 1952 Olympic gold medallist, and there certainly can be that worn-out look of a marathon man about the way Cazorla works up and down, box to box.

His decisive contribution to the goals - despatching the penalty and clipping the free-kick which Olivier Giroud did not even have to jump to head in - such was the failure of City's back line to defend it - were only a fraction of the story. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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