In many ways this game was a microcosm of many recent Arsenal seasons. There was much to admire. There were a lot of exciting moments, the club matched the leading club toe-to-toe for large parts and it would be hard to pick one side over the other. The defenders worked hard, certainly considering the free-scoring nature of the opposition. But ultimately, there were key mistakes at the back – in part resulting from unfortunate injuries – and when you look back, the Gunners had nought to show for all the effort and quality. To me that summarizes most of the ups and downs Gooners have been experiencing over the years.
Tactically, this was a predictably tight game. Both sides were probing away at every opportunity but there were few clear cut chances in the first half. City were causing trouble with their movement but they either lacked the final ball or Arsenal put enough pressure on the shot. Szczesny only had one really big save that was forced by a wonderful piece of skill by Balotelli.
At the other end, I thought Arsenal really struggled with their pre-assist pass. Walcott was getting into excellent spaces but the ball in-behind wasn’t played at the right time or never came at all. Gervinho did see a lot of the ball and space as Silva was on his flank but he couldn’t really create.
Arsenal’s best chance of the first half fell inadvertently to Ramsey after a Van Persie strike fell in his path. This move was created by a superb run out from the back by Koscielny that caught City unawares. Persie had an easy ball to put Gervinho behind in a wide position with Ramsey and Koscielny charging into the box. But De Kapitein went for a shot that was partially blocked by a defender. Ramsey was probably taken by surprise and his touch wasn’t very good. Toure was able to get a tackle in before Hart pounced on the loose ball.
The first half was a story of both sides having one big opportunity and a number of other highlights worthy moments. But on the whole the two defences were quite firm – although Arsenal’s style has an air of desperation about it at times – and the game was a tactical and technical battle in the congested midfield.
Early in the second half Arsenal had another defensive injury. Djourou was taken off and Miquel came on at left back. This forced Koscielny to the right and Vermaelen into the centre of defence.
The goal came eight minutes into the half after a counter-attack that resulted from one of the few poor passes from Gervinho. Arsenal’s defensive shape was poor and it allowed Nasri to pass it wide for Balotelli without any pressure on the pass or the run. The Gunners have been chasing hard in defence and got seven bodies back into the box. The Italian striker was able to get his shot away after shrugging off the attentions of Song. Szczesny could only palm it back into the centre of the six yard box. Arsenal had four defensive players around two relatively short attackers – Aguero and Silva. But it was ultimately a City player who got the vital touch with Silva tapping in, almost unchallenged.
If anyone wanted to play the blame game it would be easy to take one’s pick from a number of culprits. Gervinho’s pass was easily read and intercepted. Koscielny was nowhere near Balotelli who’d moved wide. Song could have put a better challenge to block the shot or forced Balotelli to his weaker foot. Szczesny – well I just imagine how fans would have reacted if that had been Almunia. Miquel was in a very poor position. Vermaelen just got caught between Aguero and Silva. Nit-picking is easy but I am not a big fan of criticising individuals harshly. There are basic problems at the back for Arsenal and the defence-by-crowd tactic will occasionally lead to such moments against a quality attack.
It became a completely different game after the goal. Arsenal really went for it with Walcott rasping the gloves of the Keeper within a minute of going behind. Then Van Persie put the ball in the net but was just off-side. At the other end City got a lot more space to run into but couldn’t add to their lead because of poor final ball (Nasri in particular), unlucky strikes (hit the post or just wide), and last gasp defending.
Arsenal had a number of good chances. Gervinho for once did produce a burst of speed to get past Richards and delivered a quality pass. Van Persie was able to direct it towards goal but couldn’t generate any power. He was probably rushed by the lunging defender.
Vermaelen went close with two efforts from distance late in the game. There was also a penalty shout against Richards for handball. I have seen those given but, in fairness, would have been very disappointed if it was given at the other end. I haven’t seen any replays but it looked to have come off the head of a player just a couple of yards away and probably took the full-back by surprise.
At this level the margins are very small but once again Arsenal were on the short end.
Szczesny: Came out well when he had to, made a big save and a number of routine ones. For the goal, just ask yourself how Almunia or Fabianski would have been treated for palming the ball back into such a dangerous area.
Djourou: He was doing a decent job on the right in a nondescript sort of a way. It wasn’t about great tackles or scintillating attacking runs but his positioning was good and wasn’t letting much happen on the right.
Mertesacker: His pace was a handicap for the side and allowed the hosts to get in behind on occasion as the German dropped back to make up for his lack of speed. Did get into very good positions and again got some crucial touches in and around the box.
Koscielny: Had a good game in the centre and adapted well when shifted to the right. His run down the middle to set up Arsenal’s best chance was excellent. Won a number of duels but his positioning can be questioned for the goal as it was neither here nor there.
Vermaelen: Wasn’t getting forward as often as regular full-backs do but had a strong game at left-back and in the centre. Had good success in individual duels and tackles while also making the joint highest interceptions – 6. Shots at the end were very good but not effective. A close second for MotM in my reckoning.
Miquel: Looked a bit nervy early on. Made a very good tackle on Silva inside the box. Positioning for the goal was suspect at best. Tough game for the youngster but Arsene might need more from him if the injury situation doesn’t improve considerably.
Given the basic issues in defence, I was happy with the effort of the defenders. They didn’t allow too many clear strikes on goal, and did much better than other defences in England have against this attack, but in such games one is often enough.
Song: Had an erratic game. Was cautioned early on and some would consider him lucky to be on the pitch at the end. I thought the ref handled his indiscretions/mistimed tackles well. Showed a lot of strength on occasions and did a great deal of chasing to help the defence. But duelling rate was poor and lost many individual battles.
Arteta: MotM in my opinion. Handled the pressure intelligently and kept the game ticking, easily making the most passes. Won back possession more often than the others and also had the joint highest interceptions.
Ramsey: I don’t want to be harsh but his performance was the most disappointing. Couldn’t beat opponents in physical battles or for pace. Squandered the best chance although, in fairness, it happened too fast. Was slow on the ball and missed a number of pre-assist opportunities.
I thought Arsenal’s advantage in midfield was negated by Ramsey’s performance or lack of it. Song and Arteta worked had in defence and in attack but weren’t able to make an impact in the final third. Read somewhere that the dynamic duo will now be suspended for the Villa game but not sure about the details.
Walcott: Was largely anonymous but that was partly due to a lack of service. He was also isolated to an extent as most of Arsenal’s play was building down the left. Theo often got a ball only when he was in a crowd. Had a relatively better second half. Saw more of the ball and produced a thunderous strike.
RvP: Wasn’t as good when judged by his exceptional standards but it was another hard working effort from De Kapitein. Decision making on the ball was slow/poor when he dropped deep. Probably didn’t see some of the runs that Walcott was making.
Gervinho: Had the best pass accuracy but at least two of his three misplaced passes led to counter-attacks including the goal. Was often indecisive when in space. Apart from Ramsey, he was the second most disappointing player on the pitch for Arsenal. Did create one excellent chance but much more was needed as he saw so much of the ball.
The attacking players got a fair bit of space but Arsenal seemed to lack the level of understanding needed to create and finish chances at this extraordinary tempo. A degree of functionality might have helped as too often the Gunners ran out of ideas when they got to the penalty box. This forced them to pause for a thought and it was enough for the hosts to get their defensive shape and bodies back.
Subs: A number of Arshavin’s touches were just awful and I say that as fan who tries to find positives. The ball was rarely played in the vicinity of Chamakh. To an extent Arsenal lacked quality on the bench as I don’t believe Benayoun or Park would have offered much more.
Arsenal could have been within six points of the top but as things stand they are closer to Stoke in 8th than Tottenham in 3rd. The top two are virtually out of sight. The thing with such a poor start is that even when the leaders drop a few points it will be hard to catch up because the Gunners are going to have some tough games like this one. It was a respectable effort but a result that puts Arsenal in a spot of bother with only fourth appearing as a possible target.