So, our first league defeat since that trip to White Hart Lane at the start of October, and like that day I don’t think it was a game we really deserved to lose. Our encounters with Mancini’s City have been normally staid affairs due to their defensive approach but their more expansive style this season meant it was an exciting, open game of football which suited both teams.
They had the best of the opening period, Sergio Aguero lashed a shot over from about 12 yards when he should have hit the target, at least, but we caused them problems up the other end too. Gervinho, set up by Song, forced a near post save from Joe Hart and the keeper was called into action again from the resulting corner. Ramsey’s effort wasn’t exactly clean but it bobbled through and almost caught Hart out. Wojciech Szczesny made a great save from Balotelli after the Italian found himself with the ball 8 yards out. He swiveled and shot but the big Pole was equal to it.
The second half began and immediately Arsenal had to make a substitution. Djourou tweaked his groin at the end of the first half and Ignasi Miquel was brought on to replace him. That meant moving Vermaelen from left back into the centre and pushing Koscielny to right back. And the re-organisation was a factor in the goal. Koscielny tried to nick the ball in field which meant Balotelli was free down the right when the ball came to him. He cut into the box, Szczesny parried his shot but Aguero got a touch to Silva who tapped it in at the back post.
We responded well though. Theo Walcott came to life for the first time in the game and lashed a shot which Hart tipped over, and then we had the ball in the net. A really nice move and finish from van Persie didn’t count because of a very marginal offside. City threatened too. An Aguero shot fizzed just wide, Zabaleta hit the post and it really should have been 2-0 when Na$ri got free in the box and just had to roll it across goal for a tap in for Balotelli. His pass was overhit though and the chance went begging.
We needed a change to try and get back into it and Arshavin for Walcott is, on paper at least, a decent option but when the Russian’s first contribution was to Na$ri a ball across the box after a good Arsenal move you kind of knew it was going to be one of those days for him. We might have had a penalty when the ball clearly hit Micah Richards on the arm but it was one of those for which there’s little consistency in terms of refereeing decisions. It was ball to hand, mostly, but you seem them given week in, week out and I thought there just enough movement of the arm by Richards for it to be a penalty.
Thomas Vermaelen then tested Joe Hart from the edge of the box (set up by an Arteta corner) and in the dying moments he curled a shot just wide. It was close, one which the England keeper admitted afterwards he was happy to see go outside the post, but not quite close enough. It certainly wasn’t a result borne out of lack of effort or anything like it but the home side took the points. Afterwards Arsene said:
Overall I did feel at half-time that we would win the game if we stayed stable at the back. We lacked a bit of accuracy with our final ball in the final third as well because we had a few opportunities where we didn’t pass the ball well. But overall we had a very positive performance, great spirit, quality, but we lacked a little bit of what is vital in the big games.
And I think the final point is crucial. When we had to go chasing the game we brought on Arshavin and Chamakh. Just two league goals between them this season and surely now it must convince the manager that recruitment – or at least reassessing his pecking order – is necessary. Whatever lack of confidence the little Russian is suffering from it’s now detrimental to the team as well as himself.
Forget the poor pass when he first came on, ignore the decent chance he skewed wide, it was when he let a good Gervinho pass in the box squirt under his foot that summed up where he is right now. Even the basics are beyond him. I can understand why Arsene put him on, we know that he’s got more quality than he’s shown in recent times and maybe one moment might boost his confidence, but he looks like a busted flush, sadly. He’s gone from being a player who could make something out of nothing to a guy who makes nothing out of something.
As for Chamakh, well the African Cup of Nations will seem like blessed relief as his miserable time at the club continues. I genuinely don’t remember him doing a thing when he came on, and I do realise he only had a short time to make an impact. All the same, you get the feeling he could be still out there now, on his own, and he wouldn’t find the net.
With Gervinho set to go away on ACN duty too maybe it’s time for Arsene to give Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain a chance. There’s no pressure on a youngster coming on with 15-20 minutes to go and his directness and willingness to shoot could certainly be an option. Yossi Benayoun too ought to figure more and I was surprised he didn’t get on at some stage yesterday.
In the end City’s strength in depth told but I’m not even sure more attacking options would have been the difference yesterday. For me the issue we have is our lack of full backs, a problem compounded by Djourou’s injury which will see him miss three weeks. I think we miss the balance having specialist full backs gives us. Yes, we can get through with centre-halves there but I really believe it would have been a different game with Sagna and Santos in our starting line-up. Their presence would have made us a better unit overall and increased our attacking potency.
Quite how the manager is going to muddle through the next few games until we get some of them back remains to be seen. I know I played down a potential signing last week but any more defensive injuries and he may have no choice.
Anyway, I don’t want to play down what was, for the most part, a very encouraging Arsenal performance. We played the best team in the league and although they had their chances so did we. We stood toe to toe with them and went the distance. Clearly taking something from the game would have been preferable but there was no shame in defeat yesterday and once we regroup and get back on track against Villa then we can’t be too upset.
Finally, a quick word regarding an unfortunate Man City tactic yesterday. When Song (first half) and Arteta (second half) were booked, almost immediately afterwards two Man City players went down under challenges from the same players pretending to be injured. For me it was obvious that they were trying to have their opponents sent off and while I’m no fan of Phil Dowd (whose decision making yesterday was questionable at times, to say the least) at least he didn’t buy these attempts to con him.
I can’t say whether these guys were acting under orders or not. Perhaps it showed that they knew they were playing a good side and wanted to take advantage in any way they could, but what was curious to me was that both these players were English. Micah Richards (Song) and Gareth Barry (Arteta) engaged in the kind of behaviour that commentators would refer to as ‘continental’ had it been a foreign player that did it. So let’s remember that next time anyone tries to talk about diving and simulation and how it’s crept into the game because of imported players. It was outright cheating and gamesmanship yet not a word was said about it.
And as for Na$ri, the Man of the Match award given to him at the stadium might have been tongue in cheek, an example of Mancunian ‘humour’, but all it did was highlight the fact that he was, like so often in his Arsenal career, busy but as much use as an ashtray on a motorbike.