Man City 6-3 Arsenal: Old habits return as Arsenal die hard

Manchester City 6 – 3 Arsenal
Match Report | Highlights | Arsene’s reaction | My BR piece

This was an entertaining but ridiculous game…
Both sides are renowned for their attractive attacking play, and that manifested in an end-to-end encounter. However, without wanting to go all miserablist and Mourinho-esque about it, to proclaim this game a “great advert for the Premier League” would require overlooking some truly diabolical defensive play.

When you look at clashes between the Premier League’s title-chasers, they are typically cagey, low-scoring games. The stakes are high, and the margins fine. This match, however, was played with all the reckless abandon of a preseason exhibition match.

City will take plenty of plaudits for their stylish swashbuckling, but it’s worth noting that their defending was nearly as bad as ours.

Nearly, but not quite.

Our defending was awful…
This was as bad as it’s been for quite some time. Bear in mind, it’s the first time Arsenal have conceded more than two goals in a game since our opening day defeat to Aston Villa.

The Villa game was something of a freak result, but against City we got the hiding we deserved. I think the last time we defended this badly was probably in the 5-7 farce against Reading last October. This time, however, there’s no Martinez or Djourou to hold up as a scapegoat: to a man, we were poor.

It’s not just the back four who were to blame…
One of the major strengths of the team this season has been the way they’ve defended as a unit.

However, in this match the back four were badly exposed. Arsenal’s midfield simply did not provide the level of protection we have seen since August.

It’s something of a fallacy that the best form of defence is attack, but it’s certainly true that a good form of defence is possession. However, Arsenal didn’t look after the ball sufficiently well today — witness Mesut Ozil’s loose pass that led to City’s crucial third goal.

The timing of the goals was particularly painful…
Conceding an early goal to a set-piece was a huge blow, but at that stage there was plenty of time to claw things back. However, every time Arsenal dragged themselves back in to the game, they turned around and subsequently fired a bullet right in to their own foot. There has been a lot of talk about physical fatigue, but repeatedly conceding just after scoring suggests we’re mentally tired too.

Jack Wilshere should have been one of the fresher players…
However, I thought he was shockingly bad on the day. It was actually quite arresting to see such a technically-gifted player repeatedly give the ball away.

When Flamini was withdrawn in the second half, Wilshere was asked to play the the defensive midfield role. It was something of a disaster.

There’s an understandable desire among Arsenal fans to protect Wilshere: he is a huge prospect and is still recovering from an equally huge lay-off. However, performances like today show just how far he is from getting back to his best.

I’m sorry, Mikel…
Prior to the game, I was one of those who advocated the dropping of Mikel Arteta. Arsene Wenger clearly felt similarly, as he left the Spaniard on the substitutes bench. It was a bold, ruthless selection from Arsene, which I admired — but sometimes gambles fail: Arteta’s positional discipline and intelligent use of the ball were badly missed. I fully expect Arteta to be restored to the side for the Chelsea game.

Olivier Giroud tried manfully…
Considering how little he must have left in the tank, I was impressed by how well Giroud put himself about for most of the game. However, he is now without a goal in five games, and allowed several alluring opportunities to score pass him by. Arsene Wenger was not amused:

One suspects that Sergio Aguero would have snapped up one of the chances Giroud passed up. As good as Giroud can be, Arsenal still have room for improvement alongside or ahead of him.

Of course we were tired…
Before the game, Arsene Wenger insisted he would not blame our heavy fixture schedule. His post-match press conference suggests he’s changed his tune. Several key players looked utterly drained by the 70th minute.

There’s no doubt that City have superior strength in depth. Arsenal have many excellent squad players, but City have no squad players. Almost every footballer in their possession would be good enough to start for them regularly. When they rotate, there is no discernible drop in quality. When we rotate, we play Bendtner.

The one positive was Theo Walcott…
Walcott took both his chances well and showed that he could provide some much-needed support for Olivier Giroud. If he can stay fit he will certainly add a different dimension to our attacking play.

The incident between Ozil and Per wasn’t pretty…
When Ozil neglected to go over and clap the travelling fans, the usually placed Per lost it a bit.

It’s a consequence of frustration on both sides. Ozil was probably embarrassed by the scoreline and his own mistake, and wanted out of there ASAP. Per, as a committed defender, would have been furious to have shipped six goals. I wonder too if he didn’t hold Ozil a little responsible for that misplaced pass when the game was finely balanced at 2-1.

Emotions run high — that’s normal. Hopefully that charged atmosphere can be channeled in a more positive way ahead of our next game.

It’s all about the response…
If Arsenal overcome Chelsea in the next game, much will be forgiven. However, that’s no easy task: Arsene Wenger has never beaten a Jose Mourinho team.

Having been roundly trounced by City, it’s tempting to wonder just how costly that Gerard Deulofeu goal last week might prove to be. Arsenal’s cushion has disappeared and our seat at the top of the table suddenly feels a lot less comfortable.

The stark truth is that Arsenal have lost to each of Manchester United, City and Chelsea this season. Beating the likes of Spurs and Liverpool is one thing, but that titanic trio provide the real acid test. Arsenal will need to win their home games against their closest rivals if they are to stand a chance of lasting the pace.

Arsenal 1 – 1 Everton: You can’t win them all, annoyingly

Match report | Arsene’s reaction | Highlights

In the end, this was a fair result…
It was a pretty extraordinary game, too. Both sides absolutely went for it: Arsenal because we had the carrot of a seven-point lead before us; Everton because their confidence was buoyed by a win at Old Trafford and they had almost nothing to lose. I was hugely impressed by Roberto Martinez’s side. Granted, we have a couple of big tests coming up in the next fortnight, but Everton are certainly the best team we’ve faced in the Premier League to date.

Everton bossed the first half…

They went for the jugular right from kick-off, and it seemed to catch our team by surprise. Indeed, it took us the best part of 40 minutes to get over our shock and actually start to take the game to the Toffees.

We had two outstanding centre-back performances to thank for being at 0-0 at half-time…

Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny were both every bit as good as we’ve come to expect. Romelu Lukaku presented an awkward challenge, and one feared a repeat of the roastings we were regularly given by Didier Drogba – a similarly athletic forward in a blue shirt.
However, both centre-halves were at the top of their game. Koscielny in particular seemed to grow in stature as the game wore on, regularly nipping in to win the ball cleanly before bursting upfield to join the attack. The Frenchman was Arsenal’s best player on the day.

Despite Everton’s first-half dominance, we still had the better chances…
Tim Howard was in good form to deny both Aaron Ramsey and Olivier Giroud. Had our finishing been a touch better, we could have had an unlikely half-time lead.

In the second half, Arsenal looked sharper…

Our punch-drunk opening was banished to memory as we set about imposing ourselves on the game. The balance of possession was significant redressed, and we won plenty more second balls – especially after the introduction of the busy Tomas Rosicky and Mathieu Flamini.

Aaron Ramsey had his poorest game for a while…

The Welshman was not at his best, and it’s tempting to put it down to tired legs: this was, after all, his 22nd start of the season.
There were signs of a performance like this coming his way in midweek against Hull. Aside from his delicious assist for Mesut Ozil, Ramsey was unusually wasteful in possession. In the past week, some of his bad habits have crept back in: overly-ambitious passes and unnecessary flicks. He needs to remember that simplicity has been the key to the revival in his game. I’d be tempted to rest him in midweek.

Mesut Ozil, the man for the big occasion, delivered…
If anyone looked likely to make the breakthrough for Arsenal it was Ozil. His last three performances have all been right out of the top drawer of football’s tallest cabinet. When he smartly lifted the ball over Tim Howard and in to the roof of the net, it really felt like we might be watching a defining goal in the Premier League season.

The equaliser was gutting…

A buoyant stadium was silenced by a smashing strike from Gerard Deulofeu. Some have criticised Szczesny for failing to stop the shot, but it really was an excellent hit. It flashed past the Pole and evaporated our hopes of that seven-point lead. Gutting, but probably fair.

The next three games are all massive…

Travelling to the Etihad just days days after a crucial Champions League tie against Napoli does look like a daunting task, but if we are to be champions then these are the kinds of challenges we have to overcome. Beyond that, there’s the home tie with Chelsea, and a chance for Arsene Wenger to finally get one over on Jose Mourinho.
All Arsenal can do is take it one game at a time. Next stop: Naples.

Cardiff 0 – 3 Arsenal: We’ve Got Our Arsene Back

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Cardiff City 0 – 3 Arsenal
Match Report | Highlights

We’ve got our Arsene back…
In stoppage time, with Arsenal winning this match by three goals to nil, the cameras caught Arsene Wenger bellowing at an Arsenal player.

It  may have seemed unnecessary, but I interpreted it as a sign that his focus is greater than ever. Many of us have doubted Wenger’s powers in the last few seasons. What’s clear is that –  even if they had ever faded  – they have now returned with a vengeance.

Wenger has always been something of a perfectionist. This season, he has shown he is prepared to be a pragmatist too. His perfectionism is no longer confine to Arsenal’s aesthetic dimension, but seems to encompass a broader appreciation of the games. Whereas once he was cavalier, he is increasingly practical. He seems to take pride in the team’s defending once more. He’ll have been just as satisfied by the clean sheet as the three exquisite goals.

A couple of weeks back, Santi Cazorla told The Guardian:

The manager is more concienciado, more concentrated, more conscious.

He’s more demanding. It’s been a long time without winning anything and he’s determined.

Arsenal are reaping the benefits of Arsene’s renewed vigour.

Aaron Ramsey was a class act…
The way he took the goals was sublime, but his celebration (or lack thereof) underlined his class. For home fans to applaud a visiting conqueror requires a very special set of circumstances. Fortunately, Cardiff fans had the sophistication to recognise that Ramsey is more of a cause for pride than disparagement.

This was Mesut Ozil’s best game for some time…
I’ve been tentatively critical of his recent displays, but he was excellent in Wales. The two assists were laced with the kind of pinpoint precision one expects of the uber-technician, but his all-round game was excellent too.

It wasn’t Olivier Giroud’s best day…
In the first half, there was the rather embarrassing moment when he neglected to play to the whistle and pulled up when through on goal. Then, at the start of the second half, he saw a close-range effort cleared off the line.

Giroud can’t be expected to excel in every game – hence why Arsenal need to invest in another forward in January.

Theo Walcott reminded us of what he can do…
His cameo from the bench was brief but explosive. Unfortunately for Theo, he may merely have reminded Arsene of how effective he can be as a late substitute against a tiring defence. Being a superb substitute is something of a poisoned chalice.

Wojciech Szczesny deserves enormous credit…
At 1-0, Szczesny made a couple of crucial saves, including one outstanding stop to deny a powerful Frazier Campbell header.

The Pole has now kept five clean sheets in his last six games.

Arsenal must keep up the momentum…
We now face two home games against Hull and in-form Everton. It’s vital we win both games to give us a cushion heading in to the crucial double-header against City and Chelsea.

Fortunately, with the squad returning to something approaching full-strength, we finally have the option to rotate without reducing the potency of the XI.

Arsenal 2-0 Marseille: Wilshere wings it as Arsenal edge closer to qualification

This was a 2-0 thrashing…
Arsenal had eight attempts on target and should have scored at least two more goals. Mesut Ozil was denied from the penalty spot, while Aaron Ramsey will have been shocked not to have scored from close range. Marseille rested several key players and simply couldn’t keep pace with a dominant Arsenal midfield.

Arsenal showed off their strength-in-depth…
Arsene was able to make three changes to his starting XI without compromising its potency. Monreal, Flamini and Rosicky came in and were every bit as solid as you’d expect. There can’t be many better reserve full-backs in Europe than Monreal, while Rosicky must be the only 33-year old who actually increases the tempo of whatever team he’s picked for. When Theo Walcott and Santi Cazorla were introduced from the bench, the mounting options at Wenger’s disposal became starkly apparent.

I like Wilshere on the right…
I saw him make his debut there as a 16-year old. Back then, Wenger pushed him out wide to protect him from the hurly-burly of the middle of the park.
The unfortunate truth is that, given his injury problems, he still benefits from that protection. His future might be as a deep-lying midfielder but at presents he’s best when liberated from the congestion and conflict of the centre.
His goalscoring record at youth level was sensational and typically that returns to a player’s game once they hit their early twenties. Fabregas was exactly the same, and Ramsey is showing signs of emulating that progression. If Wilshere can do so too, Arsenal will have a midfield to reckon with for years to come.

The missed penalty might be the kick up the back-side Ozil needs…
As he stepped up to take the penalty, every fan around me watched on in grim anticipation of what was to come. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a German look less likely to score from the spot.
By his own excellent standards, Ozil came in to the game in the midst of something of a slump. Hopefully that penalty miss was his nadir, and this can be a turning point.
After the spot-kick was saved he immediately looked more energised, buzzing around the penalty area with the bristling resolution of a player determined to make amends.
His assist for Wilshere’s second goal was the sort of telling pass we became accustomed to seeing during Ozil’s first few games for the club. I expect the embarrassment of the penalty miss will spark an upturn in form for the mercurial playmaker.

Arsenal look set to survive the supposed “Group of Death”…
Anything other than a heavy defeat in Naples will see us progress. Given the strength of the group, it’s a remarkable achievement – I’d argue it’s every bit as impressive as our domestic form.

Further Reading:

ESPN: Arsenal’s victory over Marseille shows off growing strength in depth
BR: Jack Wilshere is on the right path on the right wing 

Man United 1 – 0 Arsenal: Anticlimactic end to a good week

Match Report | Highlights | Arsene’s reaction

This felt like an anti-climax…
Arsenal had an opportunity to do something special, and didn’t take it.

Given our momentum going in to the game, I fancied us to turn United over. Having witnessed their workmanlike but uninspiring display, I’m convinced an in-form Arsenal could have done just that.

Sadly, we were far from our best. In the first half, Arsenal looked sloppy and sometimes sleepy. We improved in the second half, but still lacked imagination and energy. One wonders if, after draining ties with Liverpool and Dortmund, this was a big game too far.

I’m not too keen to dissect the goal…
Yes, Aaron Ramsey could have done better at the near post. Kieran Gibbs did drift from his position on the line, but without being a foot taller I’m not sure how much he could have done regardless of where he stood.

Every goal can be broken down in terms of errors. If defences were perfect, every game would end 0-0.

Sometimes you just have to take your hat off to a great delivery and a great leap.

RVP is welcome to celebrate…
Do you want his respect? His pity? I know I don’t.

There is no love lost between Robin and Arsenal. Why disguise it? Pretending otherwise is just silly.

United are an interesting case study for the theory that “strikers win games”…
It’s my firm belief that Arsenal had the stronger XI going in to this match. Our midfield compares particularly favourably with United’s.

However, the old adage goes that strikers win games, and so it proved. One moment of combination between Rooney and Van Persie was enough for United to secure the three points.

United’s midfield was also weak last season, but Van Persie was able to bail them out time after time, and they ended up as champions. A world class goal-getter can mask many deficiencies.

As good as Olivier Giroud has been this season, I think we’d be getting ahead of ourselves to suggest he’s in the same bracket as United’s front two. However, that’s not a fixed situation. As Wenger often says, you should never put limits on any player’s potential. If Giroud continues to improve at his current rate, that hierarchy might soon change.

What’s preposterous is that we have so little support for Giroud. Introducing Bendtner at Old Trafford, on the day he has made public his displeasure with Arsenal and Arsene, felt absurd.

Strikers win games. And we don’t have enough.

I think we’re right to expect more from Ozil…
Let’s be honest: he hasn’t played particularly well since the Norwich match on October 19th. In the six games since then he has struggled to impose himself on the game, often being forced to drift out to the right just to find space.

That’s partly due to tight marking. Teams are wise to his threat and are shutting him down.

Granted, he is still adapting. Ozil is encountering new problems, but he has the intelligence and the talent to overcome them. Arsenal need Ozil to start finding solutions.

We really really need players back now…
To go to Old Trafford with young Isaac Hayden on the bench tells you just how thin our squad is in some areas. An injection of width and pace from Theo Walcott will be very welcome indeed, whilst the efficient finishing of Lukas Podolski can not be far behind.

Arsene said afterwards that a draw would have been fair…
He’s right, really. However, the same would also be true of our midweek win over Dortmund. The truth is that top-level games are always decided by the finest of margins. In mid-week Arsenal were hailed as heroes; tomorrow they’d be ridiculous as flops. The truth, as usual, is somewhere in-between. While our failure to beat our major domestic rivals is frustrating, the numbers don’t lie: we have been the best team in England this calendar year.

There’s no need for despondency…
The wider results this weekend were generally very kind to us. We’re still top of league; still exceeding expectations. We’re on course to qualify from the group stage of the Champions League, and have plenty of players on the way back.

If there’s one thing that’s certain this year, it’s that the eventual Premier League winners will lose several games along the way.

It could still be us. Nothing I saw at Old Trafford made me think otherwise.

Further Reading: