Everything had been going so well for Arsenal. Ahead of their trip to the Etihad Stadium in December 2013, Arsene Wenger’s side found themselves five points clear at the top of the Premier League table. There was still an awfully long way to go – 23 matches to be precise – but the hope in the red-and-white half of north London was that the glory days were close to returning after a decade-long title drought.
It always felt a little unfair to criticise Wenger for failing to compete for the top prize with the likes of Chelsea, Manchester United and Manchester City during the late-2000s and early-2010s. The club’s relocation from Highbury to the Emirates Stadium necessitated a scaling back of on-field investment; between the summer of 2004 and the summer of 2012 Arsenal had a net transfer spend of £-31.8m, which means they generated more money from player sales than they paid out on new signings. Keeping up with the billionaire-backed Chelsea and Manchester City – not to mention the money-generating juggernaut that is Manchester United – while reducing their own outlay was always going to be extremely difficult. In truth, Wenger did a good job by simply guiding the Gunners into the Champions League year after year.
The signing of Mesut Ozil for £42.4m on transfer deadline day in 2013 seemed to represent a watershed moment. Acquired from Real Madrid at the tail end of the window, the Germany international arrived at the Emirates to substantial fanfare as Arsenal fans rejoiced in their side’s re-discovered pulling power after years of being forced to target players from the second drawer or below.
An Ozil-less Arsenal had fallen to a shock 3-1 defeat by Aston Villa on the opening day, but subsequent victories over Fulham (3-1) and local rivals Tottenham Hotspur (1-0) got the Gunners back on track prior to the arrival of their superstar signing. A 3-1 success at Sunderland then lifted Arsenal to the top of the Premier League pile, which is where they stayed after winning eight of the next 10 – the only dud notes coming in the form of a draw at West Brom and loss to Manchester United.
A week before their clash with Manchester City, Wenger’s charges were held to a 1-1 draw by Champions League-chasing Everton in a thrilling game at the Emirates. It was only the third time Arsenal had dropped points since the Villa reverse in August and they were still fancied by many to turn over City on the road, with Manuel Pellegrini’s men having been dogged by inconsistency despite being capable of some stunning performances: they had thrashed Newcastle United 4-0, Norwich City 7-0 and Tottenham 6-0, while also losing to Cardiff City, Aston Villa and Sunderland. In spite of their erratic form, the Citizens were just six points behind their table-topping opponents ahead of the sides’ showdown in mid-December.
The first chance of the afternoon fell to Jack Wilshere, the Arsenal midfielder scuffing his connection at the back post after being picked out by Theo Walcott. It was not an easy opportunity, but the visitors were made to pay soon after when Sergio Aguero volleyed home Martin Demichelis’ flick-on following a Samir Nasri corner.
Arsenal were back on level terms shortly after the 30-minute mark, Walcott converting after Aaron Ramsey had robbed Yaya Toure of possession just inside City’s half. Alvaro Negredo edged the hosts back ahead, though, before Fernandinho doubled their advantage five minutes after the restart. Walcott then grabbed his and Arsenal’s second to give Wenger and the travelling support hope, but that was virtually extinguished when David Silva put City 4-2 in front with a prodded finish from Jesus Navas’ driven cross.
Arsenal pushed to close the deficit once more, with Olivier Giroud having a goal chalked off by the lineman’s flag, but City were firmly in control and extended their lead further when Fernandinho clipped the ball past goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny with two minutes of regulation time left to play. Per Mertesacker nodded home a consolation in stoppage time, but Yaya Toure restored the home side’s three-goal cushion with a penalty in the sixth additional minute.
It was a disappointing day for Arsenal and Wenger, who bemoaned the performance of referee Martin Atkinson while also acknowledging a lack of “freshness” in his players’ legs. “I do not want to look for excuses after a defeat like that,” the Frenchman told reporters after the game. “We made too many mistakes running after the score and should not have conceded six goals… the situation was not ideal, but what hurts me most is that we missed the chance to go nine points ahead of City. They were not unbeatable. They are one of the teams with a chance, of course, but I would not say they are the best team we have played this season. Everton were as good and so were Southampton.”
If that was faint praise for Pellegrini’s charges, they were not damned by it; by the end of the campaign, City were celebrating their second Premier League title in three seasons after edging out closest challengers Liverpool by two points, with third-placed Chelsea a further two behind.
And what of Arsenal? They finished seven points adrift of top spot and, when goal difference is included in the equation, were closer to finishing fifth than first. They actually responded pretty well to the City loss, drawing 0-0 with Chelsea in their next outing and then recording five straight victories to keep hold of top spot, but their thrashing in Manchester showcased the big-game vulnerabilities that came back to haunt Arsenal in the spring. Indeed, demolitions at Liverpool (5-1), Chelsea (6-0) and Everton (3-0) effectively knocked the capital club out of the title picture, and all had their roots in December’s miserable meeting with City.
Already nine points behind their upcoming opponents at the summit of the Premier League standings, Wenger and his players will be hoping history does not repeat itself at the Etihad this weekend.
By Greg Lea
Greg Lea is a freelance football writer for FourFourTwo, The Blizzard and various others. Follow his Twitter account @GregLeaFootball for anything and everything related to soccer and more.