“I would come out of the match thinking Norwich were a good team”.
The words of Arsene Wenger in the direct aftermath of Saturday’s mauling and they’re worth clinging on to.
Of course you expect opposition managers to be magnanimous in victory – although there are some who still find it difficult – but in Wenger’s case you sense it was heartfelt, as is his admiration of Chris Hughton.
Typically the comforting words of the Arsenal chief were drowned out by the usual suspects who again took to Twitter and the messageboards to call for an immediate change of manager; a 4-1 defeat, regardless of quality of opposition, sufficient for them to mobilise.
In the real world, however disappointing the final score, there were positives to be had.
For the third consecutive match City passed the ball well and played the game on the front foot; the midfield triumvirate of Fer, Howson and Tettey again looking by some way the best combination at Hughton’s disposal.
That they came up well short was naturally disconcerting – crushing in fact in the hour or so after the game – but, as Neil Warnock has confirmed many times, perspective is a beast to grasp when the taste of defeat still swilling around.
Arsenal – as much as it pains me – were pure quality, yet Wenger admitted for the middle third of the game City made them “struggle”. And if Arsene says it…
He was right. Once the heads had been cleared after that fraught opening twenty-five minutes, City bossed proceedings and were able to replicate the head of steam they built up in the second half against Chelsea; only that sprawling save from Szczęsny denying Leroy Fer just before half-time as the Emirates crowd grew increasingly impatient.
The whistles as the interval approached told a story of their own; the Arsenal faithful, as opposed to the Yellow Army, urging Lee Probert to call an end to proceedings with City in the box seat.
It wasn’t just Wenger who knew they’d been in a game.
Even more encouraging was that City’s ascendancy continued after the break; the Arsenal chief’s team talk doing little to change the course of the game early on in the second period.
Alas with a goal not forthcoming – Gary Hooper ploughing a solitary and ultimately unsuccessful lone furrow – there was a horrible inevitability about the Gunners snatching a second on the break. And sure enough…
When faced with the likes of Wilshere, Ozil and Carzola, Cloughie’s old adage of “it only taking a second to score a goal” has never been more appropriate… in fact it was nine.
That’s how long it took the Gunners to shift the ball from the edge of their own penalty box – Fer’s attempt to slide in Hooper being initially intercepted by Koscielny – and on to the head of Ozil.
And that in a nutshell is what City were up against yesterday.
To their credit they refused to lie down and Howson’s consolation was no more than they deserved but, despite it reinvigorating the belief of the Yellow Army, it was a flicker that was soon extinguished.
Ironically it was Hughton’s desire to ‘go for it’ that was ultimately City’s undoing; the replacing of Redmond for Pilkington, and Hoolahan for Tettey both designed to provide the missing creative spark in the final third.
It didn’t work – Arsenal exploited the space vacated by the departed Tettey with clinical precision – but what what would we prefer?
Much was understandably made of Hughton’s approach at Tottenham, where a dire performance was exacerbated by a tepid and unadventurous approach – the upshot of which was a ‘respectable’ 2-0 defeat. The shift of approach at the Emirates was seismic and was hopefully a sign of things to come.
That City have suffered in consecutive game by twisting when the option was there to stick is not, as some have suggested, symptomatic of City being unable to adopt either approach successfully. It’s because the opponents in said games were Chelsea and Arsenal.
Some will accuse me of persisting with the yellow tinted spectacles, but I expect Hughton’s new-found bravado to pay dividends when we go toe-to-toe with those outside the top six. More of the same will ensure our stay in the bottom three is a temporary one. I’m convinced of that.
That some of our number rear up at every setback is as disappointing as it is damaging. Paul Lambert has gone, never to come back. Get over it.
Alas my fear is the ‘out’ brigade will not be happy until their target has been eliminated; their campaign being reignited off the back of every defeat. And that, more than a 4-1 defeat in Islington, is what is really troubling me.
On the pitch there are positives signs; in the stands and behind the keyboards we’re reaching a crossroads.