Monday, 19 December 2011

Does City defeat show Arsenal's strength or weakness?

It could perhaps be argued that it was Johan Djourou's inner thighs that essentially cost us three points against City yesterday. The groin strain he picked up late in the first half that necessitated his replacement on 47 minutes caused a defensive reshuffle, which saw Miquel introduced as left-back, while Vermaelen moved to the central berth to partner Mertesacker and Koscielny moved to right-back. Five minutes later David Silva bundled home an uncharacteristically scruffy goal from a questionably onside position on the edge of the six-yard box. That proved to be the winner, and in large part it came from a momentary lapse of concentration and poor Arsenal positioning as the back-line still looked to be adjusting to the new positions.

On such fine margins are games won and lost, but overall it was an excellent performance from the Gunners for most of the rest of the ninety minutes, as they put up stiff resistance against the expensively-assembled talents of Silva, Nasri, Balotelli, Aguero and Dzeko and caused the City defence numerous problems themselves. Only a superb performance from Joe Hart kept Arsenal from getting on the score-sheet, although to be fair at the other end the safe hands of our very own Wojciech Szczesny kept us in the game on more than one occasion.

In one sense, the fact that this was such a close-fought exchange makes the defeat all the more frustrating. If we'd had any of our full-backs fit then it may well have been a different story; similarly if we'd been able to call on a pair of more consistent substitutes than Andrey Arshavin and Marouane Chamakh then we might have been able to nick a goal to restore parity and come away with a deserved point.

Does the fault lie with Arsene Wenger then? We're certainly entitled to question why it is that the Gunners are forced to play centre-backs in wide defensive positions – arguably there should be more options in the squad, even a dedicated utility man to fill the gaps. Perhaps our current crop of injuries can be attributed to sheer bad luck, but then such bad luck has hit us on regular occasions in the past and Arsenal rarely seem to be able to find satisfactory solutions when it matters. Similarly, when we need impact subs, why did Wenger turn to two chronically out-of-sorts players when Benayoun and Rosicky were both on the bench, and Oxlade-Chamberlain is fit and raring to play first-team football?

The looming January transfer window means that such questions will now be asked more often and more vociferously in the coming weeks. With an opportunity to strengthen the squad just around the corner, can Arsene justify his apparent reluctance to buy despite the shortcomings of the squad in terms of quality and particularly its lack of strength in depth? Surely bringing in players would make the job of ensuring a top four finish easier, even if Manchester City are now out of sight, as he has said today.

Today's injury update brings the grim news that Djourou now faces three weeks on the sidelines, which only exacerbates the unfortunate defensive situation, as Wenger has admitted. Miquel, an excellent prospect but without much in the way of Premier League experience, looked out of his depth yesterday, but it's basically either him or Squillaci for the Villa game, and I know who I'd rather have. Referee Phil Dowd also awarded Alex Song a booking against City – his fifth consecutive yellow card, which means he also misses out on Wednesday. The combined defensive work of Song and Arteta did much to break up the City attacks; Diaby if available is an adequate replacement but Abou's seemingly endless cycle of injuries means that it is doubtful whether he'll ever be able to stay fit enough for long enough to get a regular run in the team.

Moreover it is not only shortages at the back that are uppermost in the manager's mind, judging from an interview conducted earlier today:
We hope to have Wilshere and Diaby back so in midfield we have the numbers required. But at the moment we are short at the back and if Gervinho and Chamakh go to the Africa Cup of Nations we are short up front more than midfield.
The fact that Arsene clearly acknowledges the current problems and anticipates future problems but still seems reluctant to commit to January spending is genuinely concerning. His coy attitude may be merely a case of keeping his cards close to his chest prior to making any moves – Arsenal have been linked with everyone from Köln's Lucas Podolski to Anderlecht's Matías Suárez, but as always whether any of these rumours are anything more than speculation is debatable.

So, a commendable performance from a depleted Arsenal team shows on the one hand that at full-strength the Gunners should have more than enough to compete with the league leaders – and certainly with any of the other teams in the top four – which is pleasing in itself, but also shows just how far we have come in a very short space of time since the disastrous start to the domestic campaign. Part of that resurgence is undoubtedly down to the impact of new players like Gervinho and Arteta – both were excellent yesterday – as well as the restored sense of team spirit that Arsene continually praises. So if the new players have been instrumental in changing the course of the season so far, why does Wenger seem unwilling to buy again in January? It is frustrating that Arsenal seem to be struggling with limited resources due to player injuries, and are similarly aware that they will soon have to cope with the loss of African players to the Cup of Nations, but do not seem willing to help themselves by bringing in a couple of extra additions to the squad. Arsenal were a couple of quality players short of beating Manchester City yesterday, and they're a couple of players short of mounting a sustained title challenge. Let's buy them in January.

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