Arsenal prove they can cope just fine without Nasri
Hunger was the difference at the Emirates yesterday as Arsenal's midfield bustled and scurried their way to a late winner, leaving a five-point gap between themselves in third place and Chelsea in fifth.
Mikel Arteta's tackle and shot with three minutes left was characteristic of his team. Manchester City, featuring the peripheral Samir Nasri, once of these parts, could not cope with the pressure or the pace.
Arsenal started the game with just as much purpose and control as they did in this fixture last year. Then, a City side obviously hoping for a 0-0 managed to procure one, after withstanding a ferocious barrage in the first 20 minutes.
That was a very different Arsenal midfield, run by Jack Wilshere, Cesc Fabregas and Nasri. The personnel at the Emirates yesterday was perhaps short of the dazzling quality which those three brought to Arsenal last season. But the outcome was similar. Arsenal's midfield controlled the game's first 20 minutes, hassling and harrying City off the ball. The combination of Alex Song and Mikel Arteta behind Tomas Rosicky and Yossi Benayoun was the same that so stirringly turned the north London derby here six weeks ago. In doing so, they turned Arsenal's season. What looked worryingly like a slump into the drudgery and embarrassment of Europa League football led in fact to seven straight league wins: Arsenal's best run since October 2007.
Aside from Robin van Persie, it is Rosicky to whom Arsenal are indebted for saving their season. Much like Arteta, Benayoun and Song, he is certainly technically gifted but knows that he has to play with the most intense commitment if Arsenal's place in England's elite is to be preserved.
Without Nasri, Fabregas and Wilshere Arsenal do need to work harder to create chances, especially when Van Persie is merely playing like a mortal. But yesterday the midfield started as if keen to show Nasri that the club was still healthy without him. They played to demonstrate that wit and technique are certainly useful gifts for a midfielder but that 90-minute, twice-a-week commitment is also worth something.
Their early dominance of the ball did not yield quite as many chances at they might have hoped, though. Rosicky and Arteta were excellent at winning the ball back but, rather than playing through City, they often decided to play the ball to Bacary Sagna or Theo Walcott on the right wing, with little to show for it. But it was an important statement of intent. There were special cheers for tackles on Nasri, from Song in particular.
Nasri himself was as peripheral as he has been for much of this season at City, who improved when David Pizarro and James Milner were brought into the middle and Nasri moved to the wing. While City were more comfortable for the middle section of the game, the Arsenal midfield, sensing that the game was there to be won, raised the pace for the final 20 minutes.
Roberto Mancini replaced Nasri with Aleksandar Kolarov, switching to 4-4-2. The Arsenal fans, delighted to see Nasri removed, questioned whether his signing was the best deployment of City's wealth.
But with one fewer midfielder, City were more exposed than ever. Pizarro let the ball escape from him and Arteta, hungrier and sharper than ever, robbed it from him. With no pressure on him, Arteta took a touch and fired the ball past Joe Hart's dive into the bottom corner. Hunger had told.