Is Arsenal’s victory over Manchester City down to the manager or the players?

I don’t quite know what to make of Arsenal’s win over Manchester City. My initial response was, like yours, one of shock. An Arsenal side guilty of making the same mistakes again and again appeared to have suddenly learnt from them. Frustration at their slow uptake was secondary to the joy of an unexpected victory. Arsene Wenger had got it right, and in doing so acknowledged he was wrong.

And then came his tetchy post-match interview, in which he effectively denied his side had done anything dramatically different to their normal gung-ho approach. Ignore it, I thought: he’s just struggling with publicly compromising his principles. No-one wants to climb down from their aesthetic mount on national television.

But then came this Olivier Giroud interview (“The boss didn’t say to stay back and counter-attack”), in which he appears to reveal that the players weren’t specifically instructed to let City have the ball. Arsenal’s tactical masterclass, Giroud seems to suggest, came about as much by accident as design.

Now, there is evidence against Giroud’s crude ‘big bang’ theory that re-establishes the divinity of Arsene. For example, our approach at City was fairly reminiscent of our cautious display at Stamford Bridge earlier this season. There were indications then that we had adopted a more conservative set-up. The difference, as so often in these big games, was the first goal. Individual errors granted Chelsea the lead, and recovering from that deficit away from home proved impossible.

However, if we take Giroud’s comments at face value, what does that mean for Arsenal’s newfound resolve and discipline? Where does that come from? Certainly not Steve Bould, who appears to be as impotent as Pele before his lucrative endorsement deal.

A potential answer arrives in the form of the players. Is it possible that, in spite of their manager’s intransigence, they have simply adjusted of their own accord? There are enough new ingredients for me to believe it’s possible: the eerie calm of David Ospina, the fearless physicality of Francis Coquelin, the inspirational athleticism of Alexis Sanchez. Perhaps this Arsenal, with these personnel, has taken matters in to their own hands. If the manager wasn’t prepared to teach his team some necessary lessons, perhaps certain players have – inadvertently or otherwise.

In reality, our win may be down to both players and manager. The two possibilities are in no way mutually exclusive. That would certainly fit with Wenger’s ethos: he is always eager for his players to take responsibility for their own actions on the field. The intriguing thing is how difficult that makes it to apportion credit.

-

ps. TRANSFER BUSINESS: I talked about it on Twitter the other day, but my understanding is that Arsenal are confident they would secure a work permit for Villarreal defender Gabriel Paulista without too many problems. The Spanish club are holding out for something close to his €20m buyout fee, which sounds a lot until you remember just how hard it’s proven to find a half-decent centre-half. For more on Paulista, read this profile piece I wrote on him for ESPN.

Meritocratic selection sees off Stoke + Arsecast Extra 50

Arsenal v Stoke City - Premier League

Arsenal recorded their 13th consecutive home win over Stoke City, and in doing so put in one of their most cohesive performances of the season.

It was interesting to see that Arsene Wenger’s team selection was not swayed by the renewed availability of some big names. The manager chose to keep Mathieu Flamini, Aaron Ramsey, Mesut Ozil and Theo Walcott in reserve, giving the likes of Francis Coquelin, Tomas Rosicky and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain a chance to extend their run of impressive form.

I suspect that even if Kieran Gibbs had been fit, Nacho Monreal might still have got the nod at left-back. Gibbs was very poor at the Britannia, and Monreal has emerged as a rugged and reliable option at full-back. His last seven starts have all resulted in wins, with five clean sheets along the way.

It seems Arsene has adopted a meritocratic selection policy, rewarding those in good form and making some players accustomed to an automatic spot bide their time. That’s ostensibly a decent plan, but it’ll certainly be put to the test when Arsenal face the giants of Manchester City next week.

The one selection decision I was not entirely convinced was based on performance levels was the one that saw Wojciech Szczesny dropped for David Ospina. As much as Arsene insists that call was made purely on form, it looks to me like a clear disciplinary issue.

I’m generally more comfortable seeing Szczesny between the sticks, but that’s largely because I haven’t seen enough of Ospina to make a valuable judgement. My suspicion is that the Pole will be back in the goal before too long – read why over on Mirror Football.

The Arsenal fans’ joy at seeing off Stoke was capped by the news that their train home was cancelled. This was met by cheers from most, but a perturbed silence from the few who realised this meant that Stoke fans would be patrolling the streets of London for longer than was strictly necessary. Deeply unpleasant.

As you’ll have noticed from the big play button at the top of this piece, there’s a new Arsecast Extra out today. It’s the 50th of its kind, and the familiar beep of the Arsecast lorry makes a return to mark the occasion. Have a listen: we chat about Debuchy’s injury, the goalkeeping situation, and whether Morgan Schneiderlin really is worth £30m.