Arsene went with a 4-4-2 in a system that was designed to give games to players rather than a clear tactical move. Mancini retained his 4-3-3 but was surprisingly defensive in his approach with Kolarov playing as a left winger, at least for half an hour!
The first half was largely uneventful with neither side really creating many chances. City’s experience was being countered by Arsenal’s youthful energy and desire in the middle. Hargreaves and De Jong didn’t command the midfield as City fans would have expected whereas Nasri was anonymous for most of the game. Both sides were looking at their right-sided winger to create but the defences were mostly well organized.
Arsenal created two noteworthy chances in the first half. After a long range strike by Johnson that just went over the bar, the Gunners created what was probably their best chance of the game in the 12th minute. Oxlade-Chamberlain brought the ball forward before finding Chamakh on the edge of the box. The striker did really well to hold the ball and suck in three opponents before sliding it wide for Coquelin. The youngster played a superb early cross to the back post where Park arrived on time but couldn’t sort his feet out to generate enough power. Nevertheless, it drew a big save from the keeper.
Then in the 29th minute AOC unleashed a rasping drive from 25 yards after a neat one-two with Chamakh. It looked spectacular but the Keeper always had it covered.
At the other end there were a few dangerous balls across the box and one occasion where Fabianski had to be sharp to smother a through-ball from Nasri.
City were patient and waiting for their chance while ensuring their goal wasn’t always exposed. Around the 40 minute mark City had 60 percent possession but very little to show for it as most of it was at the back of middle.
When Arsenal did get a chance to go forward the players ran out of ideas in the attacking areas. There were a number of moments when the Gunners had three or more players on the edge of the box and a similar number 15 yards away from the box but in such situations the play got very static and lacked impetus/incision. It was a clear case of individuals lacking understanding due to lack of games and a need for a bit of functional, pre-determined play that Wenger seems to have abandoned completely.
Both teams upped their game in the second half. Dzeko curled one close to the goal a couple of minutes after the restart. Oxlade-Chamberlain forced a couple of punches from Pantilimon at the other end.
A clear warning sign came in the 54th minute when Johnson put Aguero clean through. Only a poor touch from the Argentine allowed Coquelin the chance to nick the ball away. But that moment, along with the number of times City were able to burst forward from Arsenal’s corners/crosses, highlighted the big weakness the visitors could exploit. Most of their efforts were foiled by a combination of errors from the visitors and/or excellent tracking/tackling by the Gunners but they just needed one move to fall in place.
Wenger made two good substitutions. Gervinho came on for Park in the 68th minute and Vermaelen for Miquel on 80. It looked like Arsenal had the momentum and were pushing forward in earnest.
The goal, when it came in the 83rd minute, was an all too familiar story. As Wenger has often lamented, “We were a bit naive. Corner for us, goal for them.” It started with a poor delivery at the near post, one of many from Oxlade-Chamberlain. Dzeko was able to attack the loose ball on the edge of the City box with Koscielny and Benayoun competing. Both Arsenal players went to ground and the field opened up for the Bosnian. On the centre line, Frimpong was marking Johnson while Djourou was on Aguero. The youngster attempted and ill-advised off-side trap allowing Johnson the chance to get past him. But the bigger mistake came from the experienced Swiss defender who let Aguero run past him unchallenged. He should have tracked the run better or could just have brought the player down before he got anywhere near the goal to pick up a booking. City didn’t have anyone else forward.
There were six or seven ways Arsenal could have prevented this goal. It was City’s first shot on target but you couldn’t say it wasn’t coming.
After the goal the visitors were confident in sitting back. Arsenal got into dangerous crossing positions but the players just didn’t know how to attack the ball in the box. It was surprising to see Squillaci staying up in the box when Vermaelen would have been a much bigger threat.
Arsenal’s criminal negligence of set-pieces was typified deep into injury time when even Fabianksi ventured forward. There were seven or more Arsenal players in the opposition box but the delivery went straight to the Keeper who, thankfully, wasn’t aware of the open goal at the other end or, perhaps, didn’t have the confidence to shoot. Interestingly, none of the Gunners showed the awareness to block the Keeper when he did kick it forward with the Arsenal goal gaping.
By and large I thought the defenders and the youngsters did very well against a quality opponent. But there are some basic problems/gaps in the way Arsenal play. Due to that the result wasn’t surprising and cannot be called undeserved.
Fabianksi: Had one moment when he came for the ball and flapped but it was a good game otherwise. His positioning was good and did really well to smother the through-ball from Nasri.
Djourou: Was very effective in defence and dominant in the air but made a major mistake for the goal. But why wasn’t he up for the Corner in the first place!? Tried to go forward occasionally but clearly not comfortable at that. Looked at ease in possession and helped soak up pressure.
Squillaci: Not bad, not bad at all. took up decent positions, got his foot in when needed, can’t recall any mistakes. Why was he playing as a striker late in the game?
Koscielny: Phenomenal defensive effort. Made a number of crucial tackles/interceptions. Was very confident on the ball and dominated his part of the pitch. A close second for MotM in my opinion.
Miquel: Struggled initially against Johnson but also made a couple of good tackles late on. Pushed forward surprisingly consistently, often ending up on edge of the opposition box. Crossing was disappointing.
Usually, I don’t blame the defenders but in this case Djourou blotted a good performance with a game-losing rookie mistake.
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain: Produced a number of driving runs and was involved with most of the half-chances Arsenal created. Touch and control was impressive as were some skills to get out of tight spaces. Was strong in physical battles. Needs better decision making and delivery. Corners were very disappointing.
Frimpong: Physically dominant and energetic, yet effectively disciplined performance. Good to see he didn’t get carried away. Won a number of individual battles all over the pitch against experienced opponents. Attempted a number of driving runs but didn’t really know what to do with the ball once he got forward. Could have done better for the goal.
Coquelin: MotM in my opinion. Very good awareness of space, wonderful touches and technique, solid defensive effort, could have unlocked the defence if there had been better runs up front. Should have taken the corners ahead of AOC, at least some of them.
Benayoun: Hard working game on the flank as he drifted inside in attack and dropped back to defend regularly. Expected a bit more guile and nuance from a player with such experience and skill set.
The midfield four didn’t get overrun despite being outnumbered. The work rate was exceptional, as was the desire to perform. The only criticism can be about the lack of creativity but it would be harsh on the youngsters.
Park: Ran a lot but wasn’t on the same page with his teammates quite often. Got on the end of the side’s best chance and should have done better.
Chamakh: Very effective with his back to the goal and played a key part in both the notable chances of the first half. Also won a number of headers outside the box. Shame that deliveries into the box rarely went anywhere near him.
The attack was Arsenal’s weakest area and unfortunately that’s what counts most. Chamakh was playing more as a link striker while Park just wasn’t making the runs his teammates could read and find. At the end it was disappointing to see so few crosses going towards the Moroccan.
Subs: Gervinho was lively but finishing and final ball were poor. Vermaelen should have stayed higher up the pitch. Arshavin didn’t get much time on the ball but his corners were rather aimless.
Wenger: Put out a fighting team and extracted a respectable effort. But the predictably poor goal and typically ineffective set-pieces leave a lot to be desired. Should be proud of the quality of the young players and must now take them to the next level.