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Sagna sees red as Arsenal fire blanks at negative City

Arsenal 0 Manchester City 0

Manchester City parked the bus at the Emirates as Arsenal rued squandering a slew of first-half chances on a frustrating night which ended with right back Bacary Sagna receiving a straight red card for a head-butt on Pablo Zabaleta, who was also dismissed.

Arsène Wenger retained the same XI which started the 3-0 win at Birmingham on New Year’s Day:

Fabiański

Sagna – Djourou – Koscielny – Clichy

Song – Wilshere

Fàbregas

Walcott – van Persie – Nasri

Last season, this fixture produced a dour 0-0 draw at the end of a run of three successive defeats which had seen Arsenal knocked out of the Champions League by Barcelona, and then lose at Tottenham and Wigan. More recently, the 3-0 win at Eastlands in October came in the middle of a sequence of five successive wins.

Van Persie had Arsenal's best chances, but was denied by a combination of Joe Hart and the post (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

In a frenetic, one-sided opening in which City were barely able to string two passes together, Arsenal carved out four decent openings in the first 10 minutes. Robin van Persie worked himself half a yard of space on the edge of the box before curling a low shot against the foot of Joe Hart‘s right-hand post. Soon after, the England keeper did well to smother Jack Wilshere‘s snap shot after a spot of penalty box pinball.

City were forced into a policy of containment to stem the flow, but Arsenal continued to create chances for the remainder of the half. Van Persie’s intelligent movement continually created space for his teammates. After one such overlapping run, Theo Walcott found space in the box but dragged his shot half a yard wide. Shortly after Cesc Fàbregas found the same post that van Persie had struck earlier with Hart beaten and Walcott, following up, clattered the other (although he was offside).

The downside of the visitors’ enforced defensive posture was that they sacrificed much of their own attacking threat. Carlos Tevez, supported by the occasional surging run from Yaya Touré, manufactured a couple of chances for himself, but was left to plough a lone furrow for the most part. Neither James Milner nor were able to provide much additional support in the absence of the injured David Silva’s pace and trickery.

Roberto Mancini would have been both relieved and delighted to have reached half-time at 0-0; Wenger far less so.

The second half started in similar vein to the first, with Arsenal in the ascendancy and City continuing to sit deep. Van Persie blazed a long-range effort high and wide. Walcott beat Zabaleta to a long ball only to see the ball spin away from him. Van Persie, more accurate this time, brought a flying save out of Hart with another shot from distance. It was to be Arsenal’s only genuine chance of the second half.

Sagna's late dismissal was both silly and deserved (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

But City, organised and obdurate, weathered the storm and continued to frustrate Arsenal, content to shut up shop. Wenger sent on the trickery of Andrey Arshavin in place of Walcott for the final quarter of the game, and then Nicklas Bendtner for Wilshere for the last ten minutes, as Arsenal continued to work the ball in and around the City area, but to no effect.

Aside from one final van Persie free kick, comfortably dealt with by Hart, the only notable action of the last 20 minutes saw both Sagna and Zabaleta receive straight red cards after the Arsenal full back head-butted his City counterpart. Sagna’s dismissal was deserved; Zabaleta’s seemed harsh.

It was the lone flashpoint in an otherwise limp second half in which City attacked even less than they had in the first period, and Arsenal proved unable to prise open their massed defence. The visitors had not mustered a single shot on target in the entire game.

After the match, Wenger told Sky Sports he was pleased with the overall performance, if not the result:

I think we had an outstanding individual and team performance, and in the end the positive is that we kept a clean sheet. Of course we are frustrated we didn’t score. We created enough chances. I feel we had more than you usually have in this kind of game. Sometimes we had a hesitation, sometimes we had bad luck, but overall we played the game we wanted to play.

When asked whether he thought City had set out not to get beaten, he agreed:

They looked to me like they were set up not to lose. For me, they were happy with a 0-0. I don’t criticise them for that. They defended well – they deserve credit for that.

On the red cards for Sagna and Zabaleta, he said:

It looked harsh to me, for both of them. I thought it was a foul on Sagna and then they just bumped into each other with the head. You can give or you can not give, you know. I thought the two would get away with a yellow card but unfortunately it was two reds.

City’s lack of ambition was disappointing, but Mancini will be content with a point and will feel the ends justified the means. Arsenal, for all their craft and positive intent, did not score the crucial opening goal early on which would have forced City to open up, and increasingly floundered against an outstanding defence, who had the impressive Nigel de Jong stationed in front of them to provide an additional screen.

Although van Persie’s general movement and link-up play were excellent, Arsenal lacked the penalty box presence of the unused Marouane Chamakh, who could have provided an invaluable direct option late on. Even when Bendtner was brought on, he was stationed out on the left rather than centrally. Too often Nasri and Walcott (and latterly Arshavin), both too peripheral in the game, lacked the option of sending an early ball into the area, allowing City to funnel the play into the congested central areas. Particularly in the second half, Arsenal rarely got in behind the visitors’ defence, allowing them to keep everything in front of them.

It is hard to criticise the central pairing of Wilshere and Alex Song, who were both effective in defence and provided good support to the front men when venturing forward. And what little the back four had to do, they generally did well, with Gaël Clichy – who regular readers will know I have been singularly unimpressed with this season – outstanding.

The draw leaves Arsenal in third spot, two points behind City (who have played a game more) and four behind Manchester United (who have played one fewer). While defeats for both Chelsea and Tottenham have played in everyone’s favour, it will be United who are most satisfied after this result.

All is not yet lost for Arsenal, however. United, though still unbeaten and with an advantage of (at least) four points, have the toughest part of their schedule in front of them, with five matches against top five sides still to play, including a trip to the Emirates in April. Arsenal, on the other hand, have just that match and the short journey to Tottenham to negotiate. While they have lost ground in this round of matches and can ill afford to drop further unnecessary points, they remain very much in the title race.

Arsenal do not play again in the Premier League until they go to West Ham a week on Saturday. Between now and then, the pursuit of silverware continues on other fronts. Leeds will be the visitors in the third round of the FA Cup on Saturday, while a trip to Portman Road to take on Roy Keane‘s Ipswich in the first leg of the Carling Cup semi-final lies ahead next Wednesday. Both games will provide a welcome respite from a night which promised much, but ultimately delivered only disappointment.

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About Tim
Father of three. Bit of a geek. That's all, folks.

3 Responses to Sagna sees red as Arsenal fire blanks at negative City

  1. How we didn’t score in the opening first 15 minutes, I have no idea. Arshavin’s introduction was useless, he gave the ball away a few times trying to do stupid backheels. I too think Chamakh should have came on instead of Bendtner, he would have held the ball upfront while we would have tried to push players in behind their back line. Frustrating to say the least.

    • Tim says:

      I know. It was just one of those games.

      Arshavin was a risk. You know he’ll always concede possession cheaply, but he does also have that little spark that can produce something out of nothing. It didn’t work on Wednesday, but it has many times in the past (most recently his contributions at Wigan).

      I think Wenger wants to give Chamakh a decent break to recharge – he has looked increasingly out of sorts over the past 4-6 weeks – but do still wish he’dgiven him 15 minutes at least.

      Oh well. On to the cups …

  2. Pingback: Agüero underlines the striking difference between Arsenal and City « The armchair sports fan

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