Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Arsenal succumb to City sucker-punch

It's been a while since Arsenal fans have had to reflect on a loss, still less a home defeat – not since the 0-2 reverse against Liverpool back in August in fact – when, it is fair to say, Arsenal were a very different team. That in itself is a reflection of just how far the Gunners have come in a very short space of time.

Wenger's team selection was almost as predicted in light of the news that both Rosicky (thigh strain) and Diaby (hamstring) were unavailable for the game. His formation caused a few comments, however, as he elected to use Chamakh and Park as a front two – both given a chance to show that Arsenal do have striking options beyond Robin van Persie. Behind them the impressive duo Coquelin and Frimpong fought the good fight in midfield, while Oxlade-Chamberlain and Yossi Benayoun provided width and creativity. An unfamiliar back four lined up together for the first time this season – Iggy Miquel at left-back, Koscielny and Squillaci in the middle, and Djourou at right-back. Fabianski came in for his one-time understudy for both club and country Szczesny (now superseded in both respects thanks to Wojciech's impressive form).

The opposition line-up was far from the '11 young players, maybe 14 or 15 years old' that Mancini had suggested he might put out as a statement of defiance at the congested fixture list. In the event, Kolo Toure, Pablo Zabaleta, Nigel De Jong, Adam Johnson, Edin Dzeko and Samir Nasri all started, while Kun Aguero was on the bench, highlighting the apparent disparity between the bloated Manchester City squad and our own rather leaner current crop of players.

Arsenal did the fans proud, however. The Gunners were by far the better team for most of the game, and nine of the players in red-and-white performed superbly. Only the front two were disappointing, as Park was largely shackled by Toure throughout, while Chamakh, although he held the ball up well with his back to goal, showed precious little in the way of predatory instinct. Adam Johnson did cause Miquel a few problems down the left-hand side (the young Spaniard was effectively playing out of position, after all), while the introduction of Aguero for the injured Kolarov midway through the first half caused a few warning bells to sound, despite minimal impact initially. The Argentine's pace meant the Gunners would be susceptible to the counter, which is ultimately what cost us the match. The late goal, which sprung from an Arsenal corner, was both unjust and disappointing – since at that stage we were on top, and a goal the other way felt more likely – but, as Wenger commented after the match, it can be put down to naiveté and a bit of inexperience.

The positives to take from the game were the determination and spirit that was shown throughout, in conjunction with some fine individual performances. Frimpong was outstanding, as was Coquelin, and their fight and tenacity outshone De Jong and Hargreaves, both of whom were largely anonymous. Koscielny again showed his importance to the team, and given the quality of his recent performances, there is an argument that he should – at least at the moment – be the first choice centre-back partner for Vermaelen over Per Mertesacker. Chamberlain again showed his considerable talent, turning Zabaleta inside out on numerous occasions. There was genuine anticipation every time he picked up the ball, and he undoubtedly deserves more playing time in the Premier League.

The Emirates faithful were again in fine voice, contrary to the reputation that Carling Cup fixtures seem to have. Nasri copped a stinging torrent of abuse throughout the match (Kolo, on the other hand, got a round of applause when City changed ends to defend the North Bank at half-time). The insults which were hurled at Nasri for the duration of the ninety minutes were hardly unexpected, but their intensity was a little surprising – I haven't seen the North Bank this angry since Cashley left. They ranged from a new twist on the old 'na na na na na' song (let's just say the word c**t was involved) and 'you're just a f*****g reserve!' to the inevitable 'went for the money, you only went for the money'.

Indeed, the City fans took some punishment too, to which they responded with, well, nothing. The last time I saw City they played in League One, but even when their team was crap they at least had a few songs. Now, stoic silence, until the 86th minute, anyway, when a few scarves were waved. Deeply unimpressive behaviour from fans who should do better – although admittedly they could hardly compete in the face of a packed Emirates (a very impressive crowd of 60,028) singing 'shit club, no history', 'where were you when you shit?', 'we forgot you were here', 'f**k off back down the Kippax' and a personal favourite, 'you're just the Spurs, the Spurs, you're just the Spurs of Man-ches-ter...'

The 86th minute winner was a bit of a sickener, but Arsenal had more than matched City up to that point, largely stifling an attack made up of players that have collectively cost nigh on £100 million (Dzeko £27m, Nasri £22m, Johnson £7m and Aguero £38m). The finish for the goal was clinical, as you would expect of Aguero, and the build-up was fast and effective, but not enough to redeem what was still a poor performance by all four of these players, in which they were held at bay by an Arsenal back-line without recognised full-backs on either flank.

Arsenal drew on an impressive fighting spirit – the sort of stuff on which all good teams are built – and the predominantly young side showed resilience and character, but relying on these rather insubstantial resources rather than a more experienced squad is neither reliable nor a guarantee of sustained success. The fact remain that in January Wenger could pick up a second striker with enough quality at even a fraction of the transfer fees quoted above to provide our own cutting edge. More than anything, that was what was missing in this game for the Gunners.

Still, the Carling Cup was hardly the priority for the season. Let City fight it out with Liverpool, Cardiff and (probably) United Crystal Palace (come on!) for the three-handled jug, while we strive to claw our way back into the top four and march on in Europe. At least City won't be in that competition – they seem almost certainly destined for the Europa League. It still seems incredible that they were considered among the favourites even when the CL group stages were drawn. The City fans' cocky self-assurance certainly suffered last week, their draw against Liverpool won't have done much to inspire confidence, and neither will a lucky 1-0 over a second string Arsenal side. I for one would enjoy it hugely if we beat them when we visit the Etihad in a couple of weeks' time. And as the Gooners sang last night; 'Champions League? You're having a laugh'...

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