That turned out better than expected. And to have hooked Piers Morgan in the process was a huge, glorious bonus.
That Ryan Bennett’s ‘did he or didn’t he’ was the Gooners’ biggest talking point of the afternoon spoke volumes of City’s display of grit and organisation which came laced with a sprinkling of quality.
And it’s the latter of those three qualities that marked this performance apart from the narrow defeats at the Etihad and Stamford Bridge.
Along with the obdurate defending and the respective banks of four and five that shuffled efficiently from side-to-side there was a verve, zip and intent about City’s attacking play that since Alex Neil’s emergence as the Pragmatic One has been virtually unseen.
At least there was for the final hour. Prior to the Arsenal goal Neil’s men struggled to strike that difficult balance between absorbing pressure while still carrying a threat on the break, but having gone behind, and tasked with having to create something in order to get something out of the game, they prospered.
All too typically however, Mesut Özil’s goal, while clinical in its creation and execution, was borne of a catalogue of errors – Martin Olsson’s back-pass to John Ruddy’s ‘wrong’ foot, Ruddy’s awful kick and Gary O’Neil’s mis-control – and it seems regardless of Alex’s back-four permutation the ricks continue.
Until they desist, City’s opposition of the day will invariably fancy their chances.
But it’d be wrong to focus on what went wrong because once the heads had been cleared there was so much more that went right.
As ever, Tuesday morning’s debrief will deal with areas that need improvement but Team Neil deserves the plaudits for formulating a plan that carried City to within a palm of Petr Cech’s glove from a famous win. And alongside the finely honed plan they should also be lauded for a brave team selection.
The audible cry of “what the f—?” at 3:15 could have been for any number of things, and my money was on the recall of Messrs Whittaker and Russell Martin. But as it transpired it was the inclusion of Lewis Grabban as the lone striker that had provoked the collective expletive.
Yet, for all the question marks (and expletives), it was ultimately a selection that was justified. Wholly justified.
Alex sees something in Grabban that, it appears, 90 per cent of fans do not. He likes the way he plays the lone striker role. He likes the fact he has a silky first touch. And he likes the way his clever runs offer options to the Bradys and the Hoolahans.
And, but for him going walkabouts to Rotherham Central while, en route, hurling toys from his pram, I suspect he would have had plenty of game time. The manager is a fan – no question.
So when the mandatory report analysing Arsenal’s playing style landed on his desk last Monday morning and identified the need of a striker who can hold the ball up he turned to the best man for the job – Grabban.
It wasn’t a popular decision and, in addition to the collective gasp, my pre-match stroll down King Street was punctuated by folk deriding the decision.
“How come he pick him and dun’t give ol’ Lafferty a chance? Wos he dun wrong?”
But it was the right decision, even if those same good folk of King Street were waiting throughout to pounce on Grabban’s every mis-placed pass and are probably still refusing to accept that Alex called it right.
Ironically, the horses for courses approach dictates that if, next Saturday, a new plan requires someone to get in the faces of Watford’s central defenders Grabban may find himself out of the team. Such is life under Sir Alex. I’m not expecting to hear ‘Norwich are unchanged’ between now and next May.
Yet there are one or two who right now are ‘un-droppable’, the most obvious being Robbie Brady whose season continues apace on an upward curve. With Martin Olsson also finding his best form City are now strong both defensively and offensively down the left side right and, in truth, the injured Matt Jarvis has barely been missed.
In fact, minus the services of Jarvis, the need to deploy Brady in a more advanced role has proved to be a bonus all round, and his ability to offer protection to Olsson and support for the lone striker was a feature of his man-of-the-match performance yesterday.
And to think many of us scoffed at £7 million.
Andre Wisdom was another to catch the eye yesterday and gave us undoubtedly his best performance in a City shirt; the back-four, even with the ongoing desire to self-destruct, beginning to have a more solid, consistent look and feel to it.
In midfield Gary O’Neil and Graham Dorrans did as their manager requested and, particularly in the second half, gave a more than passable impersonation of Messrs Cazorla and Flamini; the former in particular using every bit of Premier League nous to organise, cajole and inspire those around him.
So, only a point but still a performance to be proud of. And one that if replicated through December and January could yet see us keep our heads above water – even if few outside the Canary Nation believe us capable.
And further confirmation that we’re in safe hands.
As a fellow River-Ender reminded me as we departed the stadium: “Alex is the man with the plan”.
Well said Phil.