Advertisements

No Silva lining as valiant Arsenal are edged out by City

Manchester City 1 Arsenal 0

Silva 53

In arguably the most entertaining game of the season so far, David Silva scored the only goal to maintain Manchester City‘s position at the top of the Premier League and bring Arsenal‘s eight-game unbeaten run to an end. However, the disappointed visitors will have taken encouragement from a dogged performance which underlined that the gap between the two teams is minimal, and certainly considerably less than the yawning chasm it was in the early weeks of the season.

Arsène Wenger named a side unchanged from the XI which started last week’s 1-0 win over Everton, with centre backs Thomas Vermaelen and Johan Djourou continuing on the flanks with four senior full backs out injured.

Szczęsny

Djourou – Mertesacker – Koscielny – Vermaelen

Song – Arteta

Ramsey

Walcott – van Persie – Gervinho

The Londoners travelled to the Etihad Stadium looking to avenge last month’s 1-0 defeat which had seen them exit the Carling Cup. They had won this fixture last season after Dedryck Boyata‘s was sent off in the fourth minute and goals by Samir Nasri – now a City player, of course – Alex Song and Nicklas Bendtner gave them a 3-0 win.

Plenty of jabs, but no knockout punch

The first half was played at a furious tempo, and in the early stages Arsenal struggled to keep their heads above water. First Gareth Barry sliced their defence open, releasing Pablo Zabaleta down the left. The Argentinian full back’s square pass teed up Sergio Agüero, only for his compatriot to blaze over from 13 yards with the goal at his mercy. Then David Silva spurned another good opening, shooting weakly straight at Wojciech Szczęsny.

Ramsey came close to breaking the deadlock (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

However Arsenal gradually established a foothold in the game despite an early booking for Alex Song, his fifth of the season, which means he will miss the next game. The Cameroon midfielder played in Gervinho, whose low drive forced an awkward save from Joe Hart with a combination of his hands and legs. From the resultant corner Aaron Ramsey met the ball sweetly on the edge of the area, sending the England goalkeeper scrambling across his goal to turn the ball behind.

After the early flurry of chances, the visitors dealt well with City’s threat from both open play and set-pieces. Last-ditch interventions were required at times, but the new-found solidity which has developed at the back over the past couple of months was plain for all to see. Mario Balotelli had the only other clear chance for the home side before half-time, bringing a hanging ball down beautifully with his back to goal, spinning between two defenders and firing in a close-range effort which required Szczęsny to be both brave and quick off his line to block.

At the other end Robin van Persie set up Ramsey, but the Welsh captain was denied by a well-timed lunging tackle by former teammate Kolo Touré. An all-action half ended scoreless but with Arsenal having clawed their way back into the game, leaving the outcome finely balanced.

Silva’s worth his weight in gold

The second half was barely a minute old when Arsenal were forced to reshuffle their already makeshift back line, with Johan Djourou forced off with a groin problem. Teenager Ignasi Miquel replaced him, with Thomas Vermaelen reverting to the middle and Laurent Koscielny shuffling across to right back.

Barely five minutes later City scored. Perhaps still adjusting to his new position, Koscielny was caught too far inside and up the field as an Arsenal attack broke down and Nasri quickly released Balotelli down the left. Song covered, but the City striker was too easily able to cut inside on his right foot and unleash a shot which Szczęsny could only parry. Vermaelen intervened to prevent Agüero from having an easy header, but the ball squirmed loose to Silva, who slammed the ball home from close range.

Arsenal responded quickly. Almost immediately the hitherto anonymous Theo Walcott struck a dipping shot from 20 yards which forced a good save from Hart. And a couple of minutes later van Persie delicately lofted the ball over the advancing Hart to be denied – correctly, if only by a matter of inches – by the assistant referee’s flag.

The momentum switched backwards and forwards during a dazzling spell in the middle of the half, with City having as many chances to make it 2-0 as Arsenal did to equalise. Agüero fizzed an angled shot inches wide, while Nasri’s cross was a couple of feet too far in front of Balotelli. Van Persie’s first-time effort was straight at Hart. Zabaleta intercepted an errant Koscielny pass, advanced and struck a post.

Vermaelen went close twice in the dying minutes (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

Micah Richards caught the eye at both ends. First a Koscielny cross struck his arm after Vermaelen flicked it on with his head. Accidental? Almost certainly, but it could easily have been given as a penalty. He then embarked on an eye-catching run forward to lead an attack which resulted in him poking an effort wide.

Seeking an equaliser, Wenger sent on Andrey Arshavin and then Marouane Chamakh, but both provided indifferent contributions. Indeed, Arsenal’s best chances late on came courtesy of the left boot of Vermaelen. Twice in the final minute he came close with efforts from outside the box. First Mikel Arteta rolled a free kick right across the edge of the area to the unmarked Belgian, who met it with a fierce drive that Hart struggled to beat away. Then, in the fourth and final minute of added-on time, he curled another shot just wide.

It was not to be. City shaded the game overall, but a draw would not have flattered a battling Arsenal. On such fine margins is the difference between contenders and pretenders established, however.

City returned to the top of the table while Arsenal remained fifth, now 12 points adrift. However, they next travel to a struggling Aston Villa on Wednesday night before a pair of home fixtures over the holiday period against Wolves and QPR, which will provide ample opportunity to re-establish the upward trajectory of the last three months.

Post-match reaction and analysis

After the match Arsène Wenger reflected on a tight game:

I think it was a game that could have gone both ways. It was very intense with both teams going for it and I feel as well that we were a bit unlucky. Their keeper had a good game and we were a bit unlucky with the fact that we had to reshuffle completely at the back in a position where we are already short – we paid too much for that.

We lacked a bit of accuracy with our final ball in the final third as well because we had a few opportunities where we didn’t pass the ball well. But overall we had a very positive performance, great spirit, quality, but we lacked a little bit of what is vital in the big games.

However he effectively conceded the title is now beyond his side:

Unfortunately for us it was a game that we couldn’t afford to lose because it puts us too much [behind Man City]. If we had won the game we would have come back to six points and with players coming back like our full backs and Wilshere and Diaby – we will have a better squad in the second half of the season. At the moment we are too far behind.

It will be difficult to close the gap but we will try. The team has made a lot of progress since August and they can be proud of it. The team has a fantastic spirit, we have shown that again today, and let’s hope we can continue our progress and get closer to City.

Arteta shouldered the burden in midfield (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

Although the result was disappointing, Arsenal’s performance was pleasing for the most part. They matched City blow-for-blow for much of the game, and on another day could easily have achieved a positive result against the league leaders. The back four all had good games against the most potent front line they will face in the league this season. In midfield, Arteta shouldered additional defensive responsibility after Song’s 10th-minute booking, dropping deeper to protect the defence – along with Vermaelen, he made a team-leading six interceptions – and yet still completing 20 more passes (67 of 73) than any other player on the pitch. He also found a teammate with 12 of 13 passes in the attacking third.

Where Arsenal ultimately paid the price was in their lack of width and the absence of a credible threat off the bench. Without a recognised full back, the combination of Vermaelen, Koscielny, Miquel and the injured Djourou all performed admirably in defending the flanks, but none could provide the same threat coming forward that any of Kieran Gibbs, André Santos, Bacary Sagna and Carl Jenkinson could have offered. Further upfield, Walcott was a peripheral figure and Gervinho struggled to find an end product, leaving van Persie feeding off scraps.

The biggest difference between the two sides, however, was in the quality of their substitutes. Whereas City were able to summon Edin Džeko, Nigel De Jong and James Milner from their bench, Arsenal could only counter with Miquel (no Premier League starts) and the out-of-form Arshavin and Chamakh. The Moroccan only had a dozen minutes at the end, but the fact remains he is bereft of confidence right now. And in 25 minutes on the field Arshavin had no take-ons, made no crosses, created no chances, had no shots on target and made just two forward passes. Sad to say, it looks increasingly unlikely that the mercurial Russian will have any significant impact on Arsenal’s season. And yet with both Gervinho and Chamakh off to the Africa Cup of Nations next month, he will be required to fill the gap.

It is this lack of quality behind the first XI – more than the three points lost here or the absence of full backs – which will vex Wenger most. With Jack Wilshere due back in mid-February, his first team can compete with anyone in the Premier League. But there is no doubt that question marks remain over the strength of Arsenal’s bench, particularly when it comes to bolstering the front six. With good value notoriously hard to find in the January window, Wenger will either have to spend big or pull a rabbit out of a hat with a left-field signing (possibly a loan deal) if he is to strengthen his attacking options.

Nonetheless, it is important to keep things in perspective. Arsenal had won 22 out of a possible 24 points before this game, and a good set of results from their trio of winnable games over the next two weeks will see them right in the mix for third and fourth spot, even if the title now looks beyond them. Compared to where they were after their previous trip to Manchester – the 8-2 drubbing by United which left them in the bottom three – that in itself is no small achievement.

Arsenal man of the match: Mikel Arteta. Took up a greater share of the defensive workload after Alex Song’s early booking, and tackled, passed and ran all game. His versatility and value to the team continues to be underestimated by many but is increasing with every passing week.

Advertisements

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

5 Responses to No Silva lining as valiant Arsenal are edged out by City

  1. Luc@ says:

    Hi Tim,
    I think we played well (but i had expected that walcott would had more impact on the match), maybe we suffered too much in midfield (they are physically stronger than us and Toure was more incisive than Song ) but after all, we have been trying to fight till the end.
    Now i think that we have focus on the fight for the top four.
    It’s within our reach.

    • Tim says:

      We did play well, and with a bit more impact from the wings and full backs we could easily have won. Song was hampered by his early booking, but I thought that Arteta quietly picked up the slack by dropping deeper to help out. Of course, that compromised us a bit going forward.

      I think the team is showing some signs of fatigue. Particularly in the front six, we have pretty much used the same players every game. There has to be a real concern that players will go into the red in the congested holiday schedule, and Wenger’s ability to rotate the squad is compromised by injuries and lack of form from several of the obvious replacements. But I certainly expect to see both Coquelin and Frimpong used more over the next 10 days.

  2. Pingback: Benayoun’s late winner brings Arsenal Christmas cheer « The armchair sports fan

  3. Pingback: Benayoun’s late winner brings Arsenal Christmas cheer « The armchair sports fan

  4. Pingback: Arteta’s bullet shoots down City’s title hopes « The armchair sports fan

%d bloggers like this: