Goals: Milner (21) Dzeko (32)
Arsenal Line-Up (4-3-3). Szczesny (GK), Sagna (RB), Vermaalen (CB), Koscielny (CB), Gibbs (LB), Wilshere (CM) Diaby (CM), Cazorla (CM), Podolski (LF), Oxlade-Chamberlain (RF), Walcott (CF).
Arsenal suffered their third home defeat of the season against Manchester City after going down to 10 men in the 9th minute when Koscielny was shown a red card for denying Dzeko a clear goal-scoring opportunity. This was the visiting team’s first league victory away at Arsenal in 37 years.
Selection of Diaby
A surprising name in the starting XI for Arsenal was Diaby replacing Mikel Arteta who has a calf injury. Diaby has been unavailable (as he is most of the time) since the Chelsea home game in September, and he clearly lacked match fitness on the day.
Arsene Wenger’s decision of rushing Diaby back from injury ahead of fully fit central midfielders like Coquelin and Ramsey is telling. It reveals that the manager does not really trust Coquelin, Arsenal’s only player that resembles a defensive midfielder. It also reveals that Wenger prefers to start with Ramsey only if the Welshman is stationed on the left or right flank out of his ideal position where he struggles. Ramsey is clearly not a pure defensive midfielder, but nor is Diaby, and Manchester City are hardly the ideal opponents to start his rehabilitation back to match fitness. Diaby indeed looked very rusty against City, attempted zero tackles, did not commit or suffer any fouls, gave too many balls away, though he made 9 interceptions (see below).
To be sure, Ramsey can be very frustrating with his indecisiveness and slowness on the ball, but recently he showed good signs of correcting those weaknesses. It was strange, to say the least, that he was not preferred in his ideal central midfield position to a Diaby who lacked match fitness. During his half an hour in the game as a 62nd minute substitute, Ramsey created Arsenal’s best chance from open play, when his perfect through ball found Walcott in the box: Lescott cleared Walcott’s shot on the line when Harte was beaten.
Koscielny’s Rugby Tackle in The Box
In the first 9 minutes preceding the red card, Manchester City looked to have a more effective shape and were more assured on the ball. The visitors tried to press higher up the pitch with their efforts especially effective on their right with Zabaleta and Milner working hard. They also attacked with more dynamism from that right flank. In the 9th minute, Zabaleta played a square ball to Tevez and made an off-the-ball run inside emptying the space for Milner to run. The midfielder overlapped effectively from deep, yet his cross was blocked by Gibbs and deflected to the front of the Arsenal box. Barry won the loose ball in the air over Oxlade Chamberlain directing it towards Dzeko in the box. Koscielny was on the wrong side of Dzeko, grabbed the Bosnian with both arms and pulled him down to the ground.
It was a moment that would determine the faith of the rest of the game. When Arsenal’s favorite referee Mike Dean (the Gunners won only once in the 19 games he refereed) pointed the penalty spot and issued Koscielny his marching orders, it was the correct decision. Yet again, the generally reliable Koscielny’s lack of concentration and bad decision making was too costly for Arsenal (just like in the Chelsea home game). Dzeko’s penalty, though, was saved by Szczesny with the ball hitting the Pole’s leg, then the post and traveling on the goal line back to his hands.
City Take The Lead
In response to the red card, Arsene Wenger sacrificed Oxlade Chamberlain on the right wing and sent in Mertesacker to make up the numbers in defence. Cazorla was shifted right and Arsenal switched to a 4-4-1 shape. It did not take Manchester City too long to reap the benefit of their numerical superiority. In the 21st minute, when Podolski fouled Garcia in the middle of Arsenal’s half, Arsenal delayed getting into a good defensive shape before City restarted the game. Tevez threaded a disguised ball inside the right channel to James Milner with 5 Arsenal players static and ball watching (Vermaalen should have got tighter), and the Englishman fired an unstoppable shot to the far corner from a difficult angle.
Ten minutes later, Zabaleta’s persistence in tackle won the ball on Arsenal’s left when Gibbs and Podolski were trying to start a counterattack. The underrated Argentine quickly found Milner unmarked in the space Gibbs had vacated. Milner’s low cross to the near post was directed goalwards by Tevez with Szczesny only being able to parry it to Dzeko who did not miss from half a yard. The game was almost over after 30 minutes with Arsenal 2 goals and a man down.
10 Men Against City with Walcott as the Central Striker
Not much needs to be added under this headline after my “Walcott is no Central Striker” rant in the Southampton game. The diagram below, though, is telling. It shows Walcott’s attacking display in the first 60 minutes until Giroud came in (and the duo operated in a 4-3-2 shape). The two red arrows in the diagram need proper explanation. Walcott’s missed attempt on target came when Joe Harte punched a corner right to the front edge of the box where Walcott was waiting. The scoreline was 0-0 with Arsenal already down to 10 men. It is clearly unfair to expect Walcott to score every time he hits a free shot from that position, yet this attempt was spectacular in its lack of any technique, just slashed patheticaly wide and high. The second red arrow is Walcott’s delivery from a dangerous set piece opportunity: his ball was so high and imprecise that it went over everybody for a goal kick. The good thing was that Wilshere took over the set piece duties after that attempt.
All cynicism aside, what is apparent from this diagram is Walcott’s lack of effort to drop deeper and help Arsenal to break City’s press in the midfield, hold the ball high up the pitch to allow his teammates to push forward. The man asking for 100K pounds a week clearly did not realize that he needs to work his socks off when playing up front in a team down to 10 men (he should watch some videos of Ivica Olic to see how true effort can make a difference). Walcott as a center forward reminds me of a princess on a date who can only dine at a Michelin starred restaurant with the most expensive Grand Cru Red Burgundy.
Arsenal’s Second Half Fight and Wilshere
In a game where Arteta was missing due to injury, Cazorla almost non existent, and with unfit Diaby struggling in a 10-man team, Wilshere did work his socks off in an almost heroic display. Arsenal’s much better second half performance where they were able to push City back was mostly due to the young English midfielder’s desire and bravery. Wilshere, as stated earlier in this blog, currently lacks maturity especially in the defensive side of his game. Yet, he is a real fighter who never hides, a type of player currently missing from this Arsenal side. Against City, he was fouled a staggering 7 times (the most fouls on a player in one game in the league so far), but he never let his head down, kept asking for the ball to push forward. He also had Vincent Kompany see a direct red card in the 75th minute with the Belgian attempting a two-footed rash challenge. Wilshere completed 85% of his passes and drove the team forward with his countless bursts from midfield. If Giroud had been able to hit the target from a header following a Cazorla set piece delivery, Arsenal could have got something from the game.
It is somewhat futile to analyze a performance with 10 against 11 from the 10th minute to the 75th. As everyone and their mothers insist every day, Arsenal lack quality and depth in the squad. The midfield is very unbalanced, the creative options on the wings are almost non-existent, the defenders make too many individual errors (Arsenal conceded 12 goals this season from direct individual errors, a division high). It is also still not clear who Wenger’s preferred central striker is. It all looks like a big mess. Hopefully, Wenger can sort it out soon, but I am less optimistic compared to the last season.