This was going to be an open game but Mancini’s team selection also made it a very interesting one. The Italian went with only one defensive minded midfielder, if you can call Garcia that, while picking Silva on one flank and Sinclair (what is he doing at City!?) on the other. It was difficult to understand the exact reasoning behind these choices. It could be that the City manager wanted pace on one side and creativity on the other but freshness is more likely to be the reason as he made five changes to the side that lost against Madrid.
His counterpart also made a couple of changes. Vermaelen was left out, reportedly, due to health issues, with Koscielny coming in and Ramsey came in for Giroud with Gervinho moving from the wing to a more central role. Clearly, Wenger wanted greater technical quality on the pitch to deal with opponents who can hold on to the ball.
It worked for Arsene and the game might have left Mancini with a headache over his squad depth. There aren’t many teams who come and dominate possession at the Etihad stadium but the Gunners did just that. In fairness though, Hart wasn’t the busier Keeper.
It was relatively tight in the first half. Arsenal were cautious and didn’t commit too many bodies forward. City weren’t able to hold on to the ball and build attacks as they normally do so their moves seemed rushed or reliant on Aguero conjuring something up from the left. Neither side created too many clear chances although both had a few moments that could have been productive but for poor choices and/or execution in the final third.
The Gunners combined well to create some openings on the counter-attack as they found space against an attack-minded City line-up. But none of these forced a big save from Hart. Gervinho’s horrible first touch in the 15th minute was a prime example but there were many others. Gibbs (as has been noted here after at least a couple of previous matches) didn’t get his final pass right after getting into promising positions in attacking areas. Diaby and Podolski were also guilty of either holding on to the ball for too long or picking the wrong pass. Arsenal just had two shots on target in the first half but both were from outside the box and rather innocuous.
The hosts didn’t create much either. Mannone made a couple of saves but you expect the Keeper to make those. He did make a mistake on a corner in the 39th minute and City scored but it would be unfair to single the Keeper out.
It was a simple corner and a backpost header from a running jump. Arsenal have been using zonal marking on set-pieces but it didn’t work this time. It’s difficult to say whether the system was at fault or the individuals. Koscielny and Podolski couldn’t get any elevation from a standing jump, Mannone came but missed the ball by an embarrassing margin, and even if he’d stayed back odds of saving a bullet header to the top corner were pretty low.
So is it the system’s fault or that of the players? The answer lies in the abilities of the individuals. If they cannot get enough elevation from a standing jump – Vermaelen does – then using such a system is very risky. If they can, then they are at fault for not executing their roles in a desired manner. Time will tell whether the system works for this team or needs to be changed. Meanwhile, some routines in training will probably help the coaches assess the player-system fit.
The second period was somewhat different. Mancini introduced Rodwell for Sinclair. After an initial push at the beginning, the hosts played deeper in their half and allowed Arsenal to control the middle third. But the Gunners still struggled on the chance creation front with Hart having a peaceful time. City looked dangerous on the break but it was their turn to waste promising positions. For instance, Toure went on a powerful run down the middle in the 80th minute but took an age to make up his mind allowing Arsenal to get bodies behind and salvage what was a 3-v-2 in favour of the hosts.
The equalizer came from a corner that resulted from another Cazorla blast from distance. This time Hart saw it late and barely kept the ball out. Arsenal benefitted from a couple of mistakes by City’s defenders. Lescott didn’t get any power on his clearance even though he wasn’t under pressure. The ball fell kindly to Koscielny who was left free by Toure. The defender’s shot was unstoppable.
Both sides had one glorious chance to win it late. City’s came from another set-piece. Kompany controlled a partial clearance and tested Mannone with a bicycle kick. The Keeper made a good save but the ball fell in a dangerous central area inside the six yard box. Koscielny rushed his clearance and ended up passing it to Aguero at the near post. The striker tried beating Mannone at the far post but missed by a whisker.
At the other end, Gervinho found himself in space in a central area just inside City’s box but his shot was as woefully high.
On the balance of play a draw seemed a fair result but City might be aggrieved Aguero didn’t get a penalty after a foul by Koscielny. If strikers don’t get the call when they stay on their feet, you can’t blame them for going down at the slightest of touches. Then again, Mike Dean was unnaturally lenient in this game and he’d probably have made the same decision if the event happened in the other box.
Mannone: Made some important saves but the kind you expect a Keeper to make. The goal wasn’t really his fault but his weakness against balls in the air, especially poor judgment of flight, has been visible in previous games as well.
Jenkinson: Had a steady game on the right with a couple of useful attacking runs. Benefitted from the fact that Sinclair offered very little threat and City were more conservative in the second half. Saw a lot of the ball again and his passing was more composed and reliable in this game.
Mertesacker: Close shout for MotM in my book. Broke City’s counter-attacking opportunities with intelligent positioning and interceptions on a number of occasions. His tactical intelligence and reading of the game was top class. Passing was composed but not at his typically high level.
Koscielny: Mixed bag for the Frenchman. Scored the vital goal, made a number of timely clearances, was active and effective in defence (5/6 tackles, 6/6 ground duels, 4/6 aerial duels). But he wasn’t able to challenge Lescott for the goal, could have conceded a penalty, and almost gifted a goal to Aguero late in the game. The errors, while few, could have been devastating.
Gibbs: Another impressive game from the youngster but he continues to struggle in the final third. Passing was good for the most part but just didn’t find his teammates when well placed in or around the City box. Wasn’t as effective in tackles or duels but did make some useful interceptions. Most importantly, found a good balance between attacking runs and defensive duties.
The defenders did a commendable job at a difficult ground against top quality opponents. They benefitted from the control that the midfield exerted and the shape of the side as a whole.
Arteta: MotM IMO. ‘Mr Dependable’ completed 100 passes out of his 106 attempts. Got into positions his teammates could find and kept the ball moving, often playing a useful early part in the build-up of attacks. Remains ‘The Wall’ in front of the defence. Recovered possession more than any other player on the pitch and made some timely interceptions. A classic selfless display that made others looks better.
Cazorla: Saw a lot of the ball and was busy in the attacking areas. Created most of the potential opportunities that the Gunners managed to squander. Took the most shots and won the corner that led to the goal.
Diaby: Another one who had a mixed bag. Had a few moments when his presence and power on the pitch was helpful to the team but he was also dispossessed 6 times. Began to tire in the second half and had to come off.
The midfield was conservative in the first half, showed respect to the opponents but kept them in check. They were able to push forward in the second half but couldn’t do enough to break City down from open play.
Ramsey: Another player who came close to the MotM. Attempted and completed the most passes in the final third, and was second highest on those stats in general. Created a fantastic chance for Gervinho. Ramsey was all over the pitch and carried the form from his impressive cameos into this game. Looked stronger on the ball and fractionally sharper when running.
Gervinho: For much of last season I wrote match reports that described him as “exciting and frustrating at the same time”. The same continues although in this game the frustration element must have set a new record. Wasted a number of good chances through poor technique as his touch or shot let him down. Lost possession a total of 19 times including 4 unsuccessful touches and 4 dispossessed while making a total of 56 touches. When moved wide he reverted to the tendency to run into crowds that he showed against Sunderland in the first game. Attempted 12 dribbles with only 4 successful. Easily the most disappointing player on the pitch.
Podolski: Did a decent defensive job on the left and drifted in to help the possession game. City’s organization and defensive qualities meant he didn’t find any space to run into in central areas. Didn’t offer much in the form of width. We can only wish one of the chances that fell to Gervinho had fallen to Poldi but that’s the price to pay for the balance he brings to the left flank.
The front three, it’s difficult to call them attackers or strikers in this game, added to Arsenal’s quality in the middle and supported the defence but they could not make the difference in the decisive areas up front.
Subs: None of the substitutes had a substantial impact on the game.
Wenger: Brave and commendable choice to pick Ramsey for such a big game. His team showed fight after going down and largely retained their defensive shape. Still has to find the solution to the centre-forward conundrum and needs to find a way to break down strong, well-organized, and often deep-lying defences from open play.Follow @goonerdesi