By Chris Harris
"The team is not only made of strikers, the team is made of a balance between strikers, midfielders and defenders and that’s what you want to get right until the end of the season." - Arsene Wenger
For some it was revenge. For others it was reassurance. Whatever your take on Sunday's win over Stoke City, it made for a pleasant week supporting Arsenal.
So often the scourge of Arsene Wenger in the Potteries - not least when they caught Arsenal cold last month - Stoke were made to look meek and mild at Emirates Stadium. It finished 3-0 but it could have been six.
Alexis Sanchez hogged the headlines but this was no one-man show. The passing purred, the movement was often mesmerising, and it all added up to perhaps Arsenal's most polished performance of the season.
"What pleased me was our collective attitude, our team play, the fact that we controlled the game well, and that we scored goals and didn’t concede," a satisfied Wenger told Arsenal Player.
"We always looked dangerous going forward and we always looked in charge of the game to control it from the first to last minute.
"It looked to me [that our fluency is back]. We always looked dangerous with pure incisive passing. Our movement off the ball is better and the movement of the ball is quicker - that is a very important part of our success.
"We have now got five months in front of us that are vital and very important for us. The way we improve game by game is of course very important."
Arsenal were a sight to behold last Sunday but an even better performance will be required to get something at Manchester City. At least Wenger’s in-form players can travel north with quiet confidence.
Wenger has had his share of attacking options down the years but the Frenchman has never had the quantity - nor the variety - that his current squad boasts.
So much so that the manager has allowed Lukas Podolski and Yaya Sanogo to leave on loan while Benik Afobe - who had the Midas touch in League One - has moved to Wolves on a permanent deal.
"We have never had so many [forwards] of that quality together," said Wenger. "We have plenty of options and plenty of pace in the squad as well. It is about how we use that in order to get the right level of confidence in the side.
"We have never had so many [forwards] of that quality together"
"To have that right is to get the right balance between going forward, being creative, creating goal chances and also stopping the opponent from scoring.
"The team is not only made of strikers, the team is made of a balance between strikers, midfielders and defenders and that’s what you want to get right until the end of the season."
That balance has been elusive this season and the search for a consistent solution wasn't helped by last Sunday’s one sour note - a dislocated shoulder for Mathieu Debuchy. The Frenchman underwent surgery this week while club captain Mikel Arteta had an operation on his left ankle. Both are likely to miss three months.
On the flip side, Calum Chambers is back after his recent illness and Kieran Gibbs was due to return to full training on Friday. With Aaron Ramsey, Francis Coquelin and Mathieu Flamini available, Wenger should have enough ballast to complement his balletic front line.
Man City won their first Premier League title in 2012 but finished well off the pace a year later. They won a second title last year but another drop-off seemed on the cards as Chelsea set a searing pace this season.
Not so. After a sluggish start, City have got their act together, winning nine and losing none of their last 12 top-flight games to move to within two points of Chelsea. The goals are flowing for City now - and Sergio Aguero could start on Sunday.
"I think maybe the turning point for them was the game at Roma. That gave them complete confidence back"
Wenger attributes City's improvement to an Aguero intervention. The Argentine's hat-trick against Bayern Munich in November secured a 3-2 win and rekindled a Champions League dream that gained momentum with a decisive group win at Roma.
"They started slow and became stronger," said Wenger. "I think maybe the turning point for them was the game at Roma. That gave them complete confidence back, and since then, they have moved on.
"For a while they struggled with confidence, and maybe those vital moments against Bayern Munich at home - where the last three or four minutes were crucial to them - left them a chance and that helped their squad a lot."
That squad was bolstered during the week by the signing of Swansea striker Wilfried Bony, but Arsenal have picked as good a time as any to head to the Etihad - Bony, and most significantly Yaya Toure, are at the Africa Cup of Nations.
Arsenal have played Man City twice this season - and played well. A one-sided Community Shield win at Wembley did wonders for self-belief and there was plenty of evidence in a 2-2 draw at Emirates in September that the Gunners can match the champions.
They did so for long periods on their last trip to the Etihad, pegging City back to 3-2 with 25 minutes left only for a flurry of late goals to skew the scoreline.
"It [6-3] was not at all [a reflection of the game]," recalled Wenger, "if you look at the chances on both sides. They scored some of the goals in the last 20 minutes, when we were down to 10 men and had to go forward. We missed chances over there.
"Every game is different though. If you play 10 times against the same team, 10 times it will be different. So let’s just focus on the performance of the day."
Arsenal rarely struggle to create openings at City, but it’s equally true that they leave gaps at the back. Wenger’s team failed to shut up shop with victory in sight in September and the manager is wary of repeating those mistakes.
"How do we get it right? By defending well as a team, by getting the balance right in the structure of the team from the start, and by putting the effort in when you lose the ball to help each other," he said.
"We played well [against Man City this season] and of course we want to play well again. It is vital for us get a win against a big rival and we have a chance to show that we are ready to do that. I’m confident that we can do it."
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