Monday, 19 December 2011

Szczesny, Arteta and Gervinho didn't deserve to lose as Walcott goes missing

Morning Gooners.

It was a game which was going to show us how far we'd come in the four months since we were last in Manchester. Since that humiliating 8-2 defeat to last season's champions back on August 28 - hitting the depths of 17th position - Arsene Wenger's side have spent the 16 weeks in between the two away ties against the league's first and second place clubs rebuilding its confidence and grinding out results which have seen them move 12 places up the table.

In a period when the Gunners have won nine games, drawn one and lost two, assembling 28 points from a possible 36, it's easy to see that we've come along way since those dark early days of the season. Yesterday was a game where we were going to be up against a team who'd not lost at home all season and if we were going to challenge for the title according to Arsene Wenger, break the down barriers of Eastlands and leave with three points.

It was not to be though. The home team were able to field a strong line up, bank rolled by the billion pounds invested in the club by Sheikh Mansour, whilst Wenger  was forced to play four central defenders in his defence because of an injury crisis caused because all four of his specialist full backs on either flanks were out injured.

The team were unchanged from the victory over Everton. Johan Djourou continued at right back with Thomas Vermaelen providing emergency cover on the left of defence. Even given our problems in deefence, it appeared to me that Roberto Mancini feared us in a way he doesn't with other teams.

I thought we settled quickly passing the ball around nicely before City became dominant. Laurent Koscielny had an excellent first half at the back alongside Per Mertesacker, whilst Djourou appeared to struggle on the right. He's not the same player we saw last season when he enjoyed such a stable run in the team in the heart of the defence alongside Djourou.

Mikel Arteta was arguably our best player. Breaking up play in the centre of midfield alongside the solid Alex Song, but also offering us movement going forward. The Spaniard certainly the most accurate passer in a red shirt in the opening 45 minutes.

Gervinho was our main threat going forward. A player who's feet doing the talking as he created several chances including one for himself which squeezed under Joe Hart and for us, round the wrong side of the post. Aaron Ramsey had a shot which Hart pushed round the post. Vermaelen had a header saved from a corner. And van Persie's only two efforts of the half were, off target or blocked. Probably our best effort of the half fell to the Welshman, created by our captain. He was teed up in the area and if it hadn't been for a late Kolo Toure lunge would have put us ahead.

Theo Walcott so bright in so many games this season was anonymous. He offered nothing going forward. You had expected pre match that because he was up against Pablo Zabaleta he would find a way of exploiting the fact he was up against neither of City's first or second choice left backs. But he was no where.

I've been one of Walcott's fiercest critics. But in recent weeks his more consistent performances have left me feeling he's stepped up a gear and started to become the player we all want him to be. But he didn't run at the City defenders like he has been in recent games. He wasn't using his one and only weapon... his pace. I hope it's just a blip, but it was a costly one for us as he went missing in a big game.

It was at the back where we had to whether the storm for the opening 45 minutes. Szczesny was in excellent form to react to shots from Silva, Aguero and Balotelli and to prevent us falling behind.

The opening minutes to the second period weren't kind to us. With all of our aforementioned problems at full back, if we were to suffer an injury which would cause us problems it would be in that position and inside of two minutes Djourou had hobbled off to be replaced by Ignasi Miquel. Wenger would confirm post match the Swiss international suffered a groin injury and would be out for three weeks.

The substitution forced Wenger into a defensive shake up. Koscielny moved to right back with Vermaelen coming into the centre of defence alongside Mertesacker. The young Spaniard would occupy the left hand side of the defence.

It's perhaps too easy to blame the switch around for the goal we conceded seven minutes into the second period but we were readjusting to the loss of Djourou.

Balotelli raced into space on the left, Song went to meet him but only started to challenge for the ball on the edge of our box. He was pushed inside and the Italian fired in a fierce low shot which Szczesny parried into the air. Meresacker tussled with Aguero and the ball fell to Silva to prod home despite a late lunge from Vermaelen.

One goal down but we weren't going to sit back and take a beating. Walcott's only contribution of note was a fierce shot driven straight at Hart in the minutes after we'd conceded.

And we had the ball in the back of the net through man of the moment van Persie, yet he was adjudged to have been offside. Watching the game live on Sky, Gary Neville said the linesman had got the decision right but later Lee Dixon on Match of the Day two said that Kompany was playing the Dutchman on as the forward pass was made. I thought that if there was any doubt the attacking team would get the benefit of the decision... A tough one to call but the Dutchman's chip over Hart deserved to be given.

Villain of the day Samir Nasri, roundly booed all afternoon by the traveling Gooners, had the chance to square a pass which Balotelli would have had trouble not to convert. But the former Arsenal man couldn't weight the ball for the Italian and the chance went begging.

Gervinho created a chance for van Persie but again the Dutchman was adjudged to have been offside after Hart had saved the effort. At the other end Zabaleta struck the post after Szczesny had been too quick to feed Koscielny. The Frenchman's ball into Walcott was stolen by the Argentine and his shot speed past the Poland international but struck the post.

Wenger threw caution to the wind with the introduction of Arsahvin for Walcott and then in the final ten minutes Chamakh for Mertesacker as he went all out to get something from the game.

The Russian had two efforts but you would hope for better from a player of his quality. Neither were of any trouble to Hart. It's so sad to see Arshavin the way he is at the moment. He doesn't look like he's got any confidence and you can't see any way for him to turn his Arsenal career around.

The same could probably be said for the Moroccan. If Arsene Wenger is to buy in January, it surely needs to be in attack where we really don't have any obvious options to change things from the bench.

With time running out it was Thomas Vermaelen who became our biggest threat at scoring a goal. A clever free kick from Arteta saw the ball played into the defender's path and his curling effort was too close to Hart who pushed it over the bar.

If that wasn't impressive enough, the Belgium international had a second chance inside injury time. This time his curling left foot missile was wide of it's target.

At full time it ended 1-0 to the billionaire's play thing.

Postmatch Arsene Wenger said:
"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. 
"Overall I did feel at half-time that we would win the game if we stayed stable at the back. 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." 
Whilst we lost we did prove a point. Against the league's most potent attack we only conceded once... a result which was a lot better than the last time we were in Manchester. There were some big performances as well from our new signings in Arteta and Gervinho.

A special mention must be given to Phil Dowd. In a game which there were hardly any bad tackles, the official was in the mood to spoil the match for everyone, ensuring he was centre of attention. He booked Song early on - a caution which sees the midfielder's total reach five yellow cards for the season and means he'll miss the midweek trip to Aston Villa - and would have happily sent him off. He missed or failed to give a clear hand ball in the penalty area on Micah Richards. Plus there were plenty more spiteful and petty decisions given against us. It's fair to say Dowd doesn't like Arsenal and we certainly don't like him.

There isn't too much point getting down about the result. Against an owner who has spent a billion pounds on his team verses our owner who's not spent a pound of his own money on squad investment, we certainly gave them a good test.

There is now little time to reflect on the game as we travel to Aston Villa on Wednesday night. Let's hope Wenger can lift the players to get a result so we can get back to winning ways straight away. We may not be in the title race any more, but we certainly have a top four place to fight for.

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