Laurent Koscielny's early sending-off might have spoiled the game as a spectacle but it played perfectly into the hands of Manchester City and, in particular, David Silva. Few midfielders in Europe exploit space as effectively as the Spaniard – the fewer the players involved, the more space on the pitch, the more he was likely to thrive.
The characteristics of Arsenal's players contributed to Silva's dominance, allowing him freedom when drifting inside from the left. The right-back Bacary Sagna is enduring his poorest run of form since joining Arsenal in 2007, makeshift right-sided midfielder Santi Cazorla offered him little protection, while the absence of Mikel Arteta robbed Arsenal of their most positionally disciplined central midfielder.
Jack Wilshere and Abou Diaby are naturally more aggressive players, and as they moved forward to close down Javi García and Gareth Barry, they increased the space in front of the back four. The Arsenal centre-backs were drawn to Carlos Tevez, but Silva is an equally dangerous attacker because he turns up unexpectedly in clever positions – full-backs can't track him all the way into the middle, central midfielders don't spot him until it's too late.
Silva's ability to glide effortlessly across the pitch, varying his position constantly, means he plays a dual role for City. He's not a pure creator, not someone who permanently stations himself in the final third, waiting for service and limiting himself to playing the defence-splitting pass. His influence is more constant, as his passing helps control the tempo of the game and places his side firmly in charge.
No Premier League side averages more than City's 59.4% possession this season, and Silva is unquestionably their most natural exponent of patient, intricate tiki-taka. For all their talented attackers, City do not have a deep-lying playmaker in the form of Xavi Hernández, Xabi Alonso or Andrea Pirlo. Yaya Touré tends to charge forward in possession, while García and Barry remain cautious with their use of the ball, so Silva is forced to dictate as well as create – he played 91 passes here, over 20 more than any other player, underlining his constant impact.
Silva boasts an impressive understanding with James Milner, despite the fact the England midfielder is not a regular at City. More frequently the suspended Samir Nasri starts on the opposite flank, but as he generally mirrors Silva's movement inside, so City's play can become congested, and their passes are too predictable. Silva and Milner offer a greater range of threats – the former makes runs towards central positions, while the latter is more direct, energetic and purposeful with his movement.
Silva needs runners who move intelligently to create angles for his trademark through-balls, and there was a great example in the second half, when Silva's pass bisected two Arsenal defenders, allowing Milner to get in behind to cross. Just as Roberto Mancini's best centre-forward partnership remains a combination of Carlos Tevez and Sergio Agüero because they stretch the defence in opposite ways – one drags them up the pitch, the other tempts them to defend deep – Silva and Milner offer variety and unpredictability, a classic combination of brains and brawn. In his post-match interview, when describing his opener, Milner wrongly believed the goal was assisted by Silva – actually, it was Tevez. You can understand his mistake – Silva might not have played that ball, but he's responsible for a staggeringly high proportion of City's best moments.
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