All the talk before this game was of the exorbitant prices fans were asked to pay to watch the match. It felt particularly expensive for Arsenal fans when Laurent Koscielny’s red card effectively ended the contest after 10 minutes.
In fairness, it might not have been much of a game regardless. In his post-match press conference, Arsene Wenger admitted:
“Overall we started too timidly, with not enough authority in a game like that, and we allowed them to dictate from the start. We paid very early from it.”
It’s a relief to see him be honest and avoid laying all the blame at the door of referee Mike Dean, who I believe got most of the major decisions right. From kick-off City were more purposeful, more organised, and more commanding. They looked like the home team. What happened in the tenth minute simply compounded problems that were already alarmingly evident.
I think Laurent Koscielny is probably Arsenal’s best all-round defender, and yet I wouldn’t have him in the first-team. It’s a paradoxical statement about a bewildering player. For all his excellence, his time in English football has been littered with some major errors, and his decision to bear-hug Edin Dzeko to the ground inside the penalty box was inexplicable and yet entirely in character.
Was it a foul? Certainly. Did it deny a goalscoring opportunity? Yes. Although Tevez ultimately reached the ball, it was only Koscielny’s intervention that prevented Dzeko getting there. If pulling someone’s shirt as the last man forty yards from goal warrants a red card, then rugby tackling someone to the ground six yards out should definitely do the same.
Some fans have suggested that Dean’s decision “ruined the game”. I didn’t hear them making the same point when Emmanuel Adebayor was dismissed in the 17th minute of the North London Derby. We know Dean enjoys the limelight and will gleefully make a big call given the opportunity, but it took Koscielny to be stupid enough to give him that chance. For what it’s worth, I thought Dean did a decent job with a difficult match, and made the correct call with Vincent Kompany’s late dismissal too.
Back to the penalty. I didn’t fancy Dzeko to score the spot-kick at all, and indeed Wojciech Szczesny made the first of several important saves to deny the Bosnian. Without another impressive performance from the Pole, the score could have become humiliating.
The fact we survived the penalty with our clean sheet intact made the way we gave away the two goals all the more infuriating. First the team failed to switch on as City took a quick free-kick and released James Milner to thump brilliantly past Szczesny; then Kieran Gibbs was caught in possession and duly punished as Zabaleta crossed for Dzeko to tap in via another Szczesny save.
City were in complete control of the game, and though the second half introduction of Olivier Giroud gave them the occasional scare, they never looked less than comfortable. The fact they managed nine shots on target as compared with Arsenal’s four tells you that they looked more like adding to their tally than conceding.
I was relieved that the scoreline wasn’t more embarrassing. Arsenal have difficult fixtures to come in this month, and a home humiliation would have been hugely unhelpful.
Afterwards, Arsene Wenger was unusually unguarded about the failings in his team:
“We need to be a bit more confident in this kind of game. We want to do so well that we are a bit up tight. I’m not angry, it’s frustration that you do not see from the start what this team is capable of.”
We are not, he makes clear, seeing the best of the players we have. Questions must therefore be asked of the man being tasked with coaching, organising and motivating them: Arsene himself.
I’d also query today’s team selection. The manager seems to harbour a desire to reunite Koscielny and Vermaelen for the big games. He tried it against Chelsea back in September, and we combusted. Today produced a similar result.
Theo Walcott got the nod in the central striker’s role, and although it was something of a thankless task today, was entirely unconvincing. Amid rumours of an imminent new deal, a cynic might suggest his performance was that of a man who has now got the golden handshake he’s been after.
I was more immediately concerned by his failure to provide any kind of outlet for our embattled midfield. He never came and showed for the ball in to feet, and was dominated by Kompany and Nastasic throughout. Whenever we created space wide, we neglected to cross as Walcott doesn’t have the capacity to provide any kind of aerial threat.
It’s worth noting that of Walcott’s 14 goals this season, only five have come while playing through the middle. While I’m not convinced that Olivier Giroud is good enough for a side with top four ‘ambitions’, he remains the best centre-forward we have, and should be starting games.
The injury to Mikel Arteta is obviously a blow, but throwing the very rusty Abou Diaby back in after three months out was a strange decision. Leaving him on at the expense of Oxlade-Chamberlain after the sending off was arguably stranger. A red card to a centre-back robs you of one substitution; leaving a barely fit Diaby on effectively robs you of another.
Perhaps Arsene wasn’t fussed, as he knew that Olivier Giroud was the only attacker available on the bench. The unexplained omission of Arshavin and Rosicky meant that of the six outfield substitutes available, three were defenders and one a defensive midfielder. The absence of player capable of coming on and changing the game was palpable, which makes Arsene Wenger’s reluctance to enter the transfer market all the more infuriating.
Asked if Arteta’s injury would prompt him to move to reinforce the squad, he replied:
“To find players of a calibre of Arteta, available in January, I wish you good luck.”
Cry me a river, Arsene. You had the summer, but you ‘kept your powder dry’. Since then you’ve had four months to identify players to improve the squad. You’ve now had a full two weeks in which you could have actually bought someone; a period in which we’ve failed to qualify in the cup and dropped five league points. Stop moaning and do your job.
The real positive for Arsenal was the performance of Jack Wilshere. Faced with adversity, he was fearless, bold, and brave. City did their best to kick him out of the game, and he responded time after time with driving runs that represented our only real hope of getting back in to the game.
In a match in which the talented but timid Cazorla was anonymous, Wilshere emerged as our true playmaker. Our true leader. The class and courage he displayed was reminiscent of one Cesc Fabregas – a player who ultimately left Arsenal because the club failed to build a side befitting of such a unique talent.
If Arsenal and Arsene continue to neglect their responsibility to improve the squad, Jack will go the way of Cesc. And Van Persie, Nasri, Clichy and Song. Jack’s enthusiasm and love for the club was entirely evident against City, but no player is immune from disillusionment. Years of stagnation and decline will wear that affinity thin. We’ve seen it before. Let’s not let history repeat itself.