Just 13 days ago the Arsenal players abandoned ship at Selhurst Park, betraying Arsene Wenger, the fans and the club itself to deliver one of the most embarrassing defeats of the Wenger era. Here, less than two weeks on, at the other end of London, they all clambered back aboard.
Arsenal are often infuriatingly predictable but this was one of the great surprises of recent years. Confronted with superior opposition, on the biggest stage of all, with the rest of this season and the political harmony of the whole club on the line, the players did what no-one seriously expected: they dug in and fought for Wenger.
Back on Thursday morning Wenger spoke confidently about how the change of scene, from the fight for fourth to a cup semi, would inspire the players. “It’s a different competition and every competition brings a psychological atmosphere,” he said. “The players don’t carry the negative vibes of bad experiences into the competition.” It sounded fanciful in the extreme, even for one of football's expansive optimists.
And yet here Wenger was vindicated. No it was not a classic Arsenal performance, although after the season they have had who could have expected that? If anything it was more admirable for being the type of scrappy messy ground-out battle that Arsenal never win. Certainly not when it matters this much. If the Palace defeat was an argument against the viability of Wenger continuing as Arsenal manager, this was the exact opposite, a sign that these players can still work for this manager, at least under these circumstances. Maybe the next Wenger contract is not doomed to failure after all?
Arsenal came into the game sticking with the back three that helped them to their crucial three points at Middlesbrough on Monday night. Wenger said that was to help their “defensive solidity” after the bad beatings they took at West Bromwich Albion and Crystal Palace, and understandably so.
It felt desperately patched up, especially with Rob Holding drafted back into the team, but it did at least cause City problems. They were forced to go round the sides and the one time they did that, Leroy Sane’s cross being fired in by Sergio Aguero, Arsenal got lucky with Craig Pawson’s flag. But Arsenal were fighting, competing, and when Gabriel’s kick on David Silva forced the Spanish genius off the pitch, that was not exactly a bad outcome for Wenger’s team.
It was actually when Arsenal abandoned their dogged physical uncharacteristic approach that they cost themselves a goal. Their back three pushed high up the pitch early in the second half, trying to take the game to City after spending all of the first half camped near their own goal.
So when Aaron Ramsey lost possession on the edge of City’s box, suddenly the Arsenal defence were stranded where they did not want to be. Yaya Toure played a perfect pass over the top and the Arsenal backline were hopeless to stop him.
But that goal, as definitive as it felt at the time, was just an isolated moment in a half where Arsenal were the better team. Even when they equalised it came about from the wing-back system which Arsenal have only been training with for a matter of days. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, a revelation at right-wing back, burst down one side and whipped a cross to Nacho Monreal, darting in at the far post. Jesus Navas at right-back was not prepared for the overlap. Sometimes plans work exactly as they are intended.
The longer the game went on, the more open it became, the more dangerous Arsenal were. If this was going to be a shoot-out then Arsenal, with the energy of Danny Welbeck off the bench, had more to offer than City. Wenger, unlike Pep Guardiola, trusted his substitutes to change the game. City’s leggy defence could never really handle Welbeck and he very nearly put Arsenal ahead from a tight angle. It did not matter, as he teed up Alexis Sanchez’s winner soon after. Wenger set the tempo here, with his formation and his substitutions. For a manager often accused of being too passive, his was in control here, and Guardiola could never respond.
Arsenal hung on, Petr Cech making some crucial saves, and now they will be facing Chelsea in the FA Cup final one month from now. A season that looked like spiralling into disaster could now end in glory if Arsenal can just produce one more big win and deny Chelsea the double. It could even justify, to fans worrying about the club's future, the retention of Wenger for another two seasons. In truth, this performance, with not much possession, lots of fight, plenty of patience and a bit of luck was not very different from Chelsea’s yesterday. But given the season Chelsea are having, that is no bad thing.