The Gunners allowed Manchester City to dictate the terms of the match on Saturday and lost 6-3 to the overwhelming favorite for the Premier League title. Despite five changes to the team that lost 2-0 to Napoli, Arsenal failed to press high up the pitch and showed poor defensive discipline in tracking back. Feasting on counterattacks, the Citizens capitalized on Arsenal’s stretched lines to play the kind of expansive football they crave for. Their mix of pace and muscle in midfield made the difference Saturday as Toure and Fernandinho looked very much like the duo formed by Vieira and Gilberto Silva a decade ago.
The manager knew what was coming as he fielded five players (Ramsey, Wilshere, Walcott, Monreal and Sagna) who had not started the Champions League match in Italy. The idea was obviously to inject some freshness in the team. Wenger’s team selection was quite interesting. He clearly aimed at victory by opting for the most balanced midfield with a ballwinner (Flamini), an all-rounder (Ramsey) and a playmaker (Ozil). I expected him to use his most conservative midfield with two ballwinners (Flamini and Arteta) and an all-rounder (Ramsey). Somehow, Arteta’s absence was understandable. The Spaniard is too slow to match the pace of Fernandinho, Toure, Nasri and Silva.
Ramsey was arguably our best midfielder. He won the ball for Arsenal’s first goal and played Walcott in for the second. The Welshman couldn’t roam forward as much as usual because he had to help out Flamini. But he performed much better than Ozil, who was the biggest disappointment on Saturday. The Germany playmaker shied away from challenges and contributed very little defensively. Ozil needs to toughen up and win more duels. Since Saturday’s match was not tailored for Ozil, one option for the manager would have been to bench him. But then Wenger would have been second-guessed for not starting his £42.5 million signing.
A lack of defensive discipline was the main reason for Arsenal’s loss. The Gunners conceded three goals from turnovers and three from lost duels. Chasing an equalizer for most of the match made things difficult as the team often lost its shape and gave no decent protection to the back four.
The opening goal in the 14th minute was similar to Van Persie’s winner at Old Trafford. Demichelis made a run from the edge of the box to connect with a corner from Nasri. Ramsey failed to see the threat and the Argentine defender redirected the ball toward Aguero who volleyed home at the far post. Defending set pieces has been a recurrent issue for Arsenal over the past seasons. Despite the adoption of zonal marking, the Gunners still struggle to win the ball. Koscielny is usually good at anticipating but he lost his duel with Aguero at the far post. The Citizens nearly scored from another corner on the stroke of halftime. Demichelis beat Mertesacker and Giroud to the ball but headed over the bar.
Two lost duels led to Manchester’s second goal in the 39th. Giroud and Flamini failed to pressure Toure, who released Zabaleta down our left flank. The Argentine fullback cut the ball back for Negredo who scored from close range. Wilshere was ten yards away from Zabaleta when Toure released the ball, and Negredo got ahead of Koscielny for the tap-in. The Citizens scored their fourth goal in the 66th with a similar play. Navas took advantage of Monreal’s slow footwork to make a low cross for Silva, who beat Mertesacker to the ball to find the net. Vermaelen had a poor read on the play. He missed an interception because he positioned himself for a block instead of attempting to cut the passing channel.
Maybe the most shocking part in Arsenal’s defeat was the high number of turnovers. Kompany stole the ball from Giroud in the 21st to skip past Ramsey and feed Negredo, who fired wide. The Spaniard missed another good chance in the 34th following a turnover from Monreal. Silva slipped a through ball to Negredo, who ghosted past Flamini but sent his curling shot wide. Fernandinho was more clinical in the 50th. The Brazilian midfielder intercepted a risky pass from Ozil for Flamini before curling a shot into the bottom corner for a 3-1 lead. The safer option for Ozil would have been to make a backpass to Sagna for a clearance. The Germany playmaker lost again possession in the 84th but Szczesny parried Fernandinho’s strike from 25 yards.
In the closing minutes, Manchester capitalized on turnovers to round off the scoring. Wilshere’s poor first touch allowed Nasri to win the ball and swap passes with Fernandinho, who dribbled past Mertesacker to chip Szczesny for a 5-2 lead. An errant pass from Gnabry then led to Szczesny’s foul on Milner and Toure converted the subsequent penalty.
The only positive from Saturday’s match is that Walcott is rediscovering his form more quickly than Cazorla. The England winger was very sharp in his first start since his return from an abdominal injury. He overlapped with Sagna in the 11th to make a cross for Wilshere, whose miscued volley sailed wide. Walcott then tested Pantilimon with a free kick in the 30th. The Manchester goalkeeper punched the ball into the path of Ozil, who missed an opportunity to shoot from 15 yards because of a poor first touch.
Walcott gave Arsenal some hope by equalizing in the 31st. Ramsey released Ozil down the left flank, and the Germany playmaker squared the ball back to Walcott, who beat Pantilimon with a first-time effort into the bottom corner. The Gunners could have made it 2-2 in the 44th but Walcott was betrayed by his decision-making. Ramsey led a counterattack and fed Walcott, who preferred to take on a defender instead of crossing to the far post where Giroud, Ozil and Ramsey were waiting.
Arsenal had a penalty call turned down in the 59th when Wilshere’s through ball for Walcott bounced off Zabaleta’s arm. The England winger was a constant threat with his ability to get in behind the defense. Walcott beat the offside trap in the 63rd to take a pass from Ramsey and sent a curling shot into the top corner to cut the lead to 3-2. In the closing minutes, Walcott had a low free kick turned around the post by Pantilimon and was also denied after Bendtner played him in. The trouble with Walcott is his low defensive contribution. You know you’ll always have scoring chances with Walcott but that will be at the expense of your defensive tightness.
Giroud has a better work ethic than Walcott but he’s not as efficient. The Frenchman beat the offside trap in the 12th but lacked pace to control a ball over the top. He missed two good chances in the second half, volleying over the bar a cross from Wilshere in the 52nd and heading wide an offering from Sagna in the 56th. The lack of a clinical striker could hurt Arsenal’s chances in the title race. It would make sense for the manager to have a plan B for a more direct approach that would suit Bendtner’s style of play. The Dane replaced Giroud in the last quarter and headed in a cross from Monreal in the 89th but his goal was disallowed for offside.
Trailing 4-2, Wenger still believed his team could get a draw and made a gamble by sending on Gnabry for Flamini in the 72nd. The back four had obviously less protection. Milner set up Nasri in the 87th but the Frenchman missed the target from 15 yards. In stoppage time, Mertesacker netted Arsenal’s third goal by heading home Sagna’s cross.
It was a brutal loss but the Gunners still lead the Premier League by two points. To put things in context, The Red Devils lost 6-1 to Manchester City in the 2011-12 season but that did not prevent them from finishing level on points. The Gunners have faced three contenders so far this season. They defeated Liverpool at the Emirates Stadium and lost on the road to the Citizens and Manchester United. That looks normal to me. A victory at the Etihad Stadium would have turned Arsenal into a favorite for the title. A loss simply defines Arsenal as a contender by default because the favorites lack consistency, which is fine with me.
The key for the Gunners will be to quickly bounce back from that rout. The defeat on opening day was followed by a surge to the top of the Premier League. They won 2-0 at Crystal Palace after losing to Borussia Dortmund in the Champions League. They beat Liverpool and Dortmund after their League Cup exit against Chelsea. And they won four straight matches after the 1-0 loss at Old Trafford. The match against Chelsea next week will be massive because Arsenal has suffered back-to-back losses for the first time this season. A third straight loss would hurt the Gunners’ confidence.
Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com