Defence the best form of attack
Steve Bould's promotion to the Arsenal assistant manager's job over the summer has been credited with a tightening up of their defending. There is still room for improvement on that score, but perhaps his know-how at attacking set-pieces is starting to show reward too.
When he wasn't helping marshal Arsenal's offside trap during the late 1980s and 1990s, Bould's speciality was the near-post flick for Tony Adams to nod in. It didn't quite happen for them that way this time. But Bould, watching on from the bench these days, saw the visitors earn a thoroughly deserved point in a tale of two corners involving two centre-backs.
Joleon Lescott's first-half opener, against the run of play, came with a free header from a David Silva delivery as Arsenal's attempts at zonal marking went to pot. But Laurent Koscielny, the centre-back closest to Lescott as he headed in, had his revenge in the final eight minutes, firing in from close range after the England defender had failed to clear a corner. The goal meant a happy end to the afternoon for Koscielny, only selected because Thomas Vermaelen had been forced to stay at home with flu.
"I believe Laurent had a great game," declared Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger, who must now decide whether to retain Koscielny for next Saturday's Premier League meeting with Chelsea.
The equaliser left Manchester City chasing not only their first clean sheet of the season after a third draw in five league games, but also a sense of conviction. All is not well with last season's champions. That much was suggested by a minor confrontation at full-time, which saw Roberto Mancini appear to push substitute Mario Balotelli down the tunnel.
"I don't remember this," Mancini said initially after the game, before conceding: "It's possible. I don't know if he asked me something, maybe. Perhaps Mario thought it was something important. Tomorrow, I will ask him." Balotelli was perhaps frustrated at getting only five minutes as a substitute at the end, having missed out on the squad altogether for Tuesday night's 3-2 Champions League defeat against Real Madrid.
Mancini may be keen to foster competition for places, but he has developed a habit of tinkering with his line-up. In trying to keep players fresh for a push at domestic and European success, Manchester City's manager has left himself open to the dangers of a lack of continuity. The Italian has yet to field the same defence in two consecutive matches this season, while there has been consistent rotation in midfield and attack too. If his exclusion of Balotelli on Tuesday caused a surprise, the manager caused arguably a bigger one by dropping his top scorer Carlos Tevez to the bench on Sunday.
Against an Arsenal side whose ambitions this season may lie a little higher than simply finishing in the top four, Mancini's decision showed a huge faith in Sergio Aguero on his return after a month out with a knee injury and, to a degree, that faith was justified. Aguero was lively, forcing an early save from Vito Mannone after a positive run in from the left, and seeing a penalty appeal and two good late openings come to nothing, missing in the closing minutes after Vincent Kompany's overhead kick had been kept out by Arsenal's goalkeeper.
But for Mancini, problems lay elsewhere. He admitted that his side were overrun in midfield during the first half, with Yaya Toure and Javi Garcia unable to stop the pinpoint passes and clever runs of Santi Cazorla and Aaron Ramsey that threatened to pull his defence to pieces - "In the first half, Arsenal had one more player in the middle, and it was easy for them to play," Mancini said.
Arsenal certainly had their chances in that first half. Had Kieran Gibbs not over-hit a volleyed pass across goal from Mikel Arteta's astute chip, Lukas Podolski would surely have scored for the fourth successive game. And had Gervinho not made a complete mess of his first touch when sprinting in behind Gael Clichy to collect Cazorla's through pass, Joe Hart would not have found it so easy to whip the ball from his feet. It was not a good day for Arsenal's Ivorian striker, whose finishing grew more wretched as the afternoon went on. A first-half shot into the side netting was followed by a slice into the stand after the break and a wild, wasteful finish in the closing stages.
City, though, had their moments, and caught out Arsenal to take a 40th-minute lead as Mannone flapped at Silva's corner and Lescott headed in as Koscielny and Podolski watched. Mancini took off Scott Sinclair and half-time and brought on Jack Rodwell, allowing Yaya Toure to move further forward. For around half-an-hour, it worked, as City created the better chances and Aguero came close to marking his return with a goal. However, Rodwell and Javi Garcia were gradually sucked into defending more deeply, and only a wonderful Hart save kept out Cazorla's long-range drive with eight minutes to go.
It was a brief reprieve. Koscielny scored from the resulting corner, and Wenger had a point. There is a sense, though, that his side still lack a killer instinct when it really matters. "I believe we had the ability to do more in this game," Wenger acknowledged afterwards. "We had early chances and late chances, but we reassured ourselves about our potential in this league."