Sunday, January 13, 2013

Ah! Mid-Season Crisis, Come In. I've Been Expecting You

Arsenal 0-2 Manchester City

It has long been a habit of Arsenal's to start games very slowly at the Emirates. Often, it leads to games in which the Gunners struggle to break negative opposition down.

But sometimes the visitors are a little braver. Manchester City, even without Yaya Toure and Aguero, have the resources to be brave and they ripped into a sluggish Arsenal from the start here.

The match's first red card came early and was a big moment. But even before that, City had started with a purpose that Arsenal clearly lacked. The home midfield was Arteta-less and we know now that an Arsenal midfield without Arteta does not function well. He is not a spectacular or dynamic player these days, but one of those whose value is most evident in his absence. In the first half, in particular, he was sorely missed.

About Koscielny's dismissal, there can be no complaints. Dzeko had turned the centre back and the challenge was clumsy and stupid. He should have allowed his goalkeeper the opportunity to bail him out.

Which is what Szczesny did from the resultant penalty, which Dzeko struck down the middle. The ball hit the keeper's foot, then the post, then bounced along the line where he gratefully grabbed it.

These moments are usually greeted with a great sense of euphoria, but that was dulled somewhat by the knowledge that Arsenal had to play the remainder with ten men due to Koscielny's stupidity. Still, he can't take all the blame. It is possible to produce an effective performance after losing a player, but you need to be solid, and that as we know is not what Arsenal are. I always had the feeling that the reprieve would be only temporary but when the goals came they were unforgivably soft.

From a City perspective, the opener from Milner was a belter of a goal, a clinical finish at the end of a well-worked move. But Arsenal just made it so easy, captain Vermaelen culpable as he so often is in big games. To be caught out by a quick free kick in that situation was unacceptable.

Had Arsenal reacted well to the sending off? No. While there is more experience in this particular side than in previous versions, there still seems a terminal lack of character, leadership, and on-pitch organisation. Things only really picked up after half time, after the manager had been able to speak to them. But in the immediate aftermath of the incident, while the obvious change was made with Mertesacker sent on in place of the unlucky Chamberlain, there was no sense of a shifted emphasis in recognition of the desperate situation. Arsenal made it too easy for City.

The second goal had the phrase "damage limitation" flashing to mind, as City looked rampant. Sloppiness was evident again, Gibbs the guilty party this time, losing possession to Zabaleta. Szczesny parried the first effort from Tevez but for Dzeko, there was an open goal and that was game, set and match.

There was a big improvement from Arsenal in the second half, and they certainly didn't just give up. But one would feel entitled to ask why they hadn't started the game in the same manner. The best hope of a comeback went when Giroud miscued his header from a Cazorla free kick. Although Kompany was somewhat harshly sent off for a slightly reckless tackle on Wilshere, there was never any sense of alarm for City and they ran out comfortable winners.

All in all, a depressing day. Probably the most disappointing aspect of it is my own lack of surprise, and lack of expectation beforehand.

Slow starts, stupid mistakes, soft goals conceded; it's too familiar to be surprising at this point.

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