Arsenal vs. Manchester City: Attack finally clicking, but same old defensive issues

The Gunners produced their best performance of the season in a 2-2 draw with Manchester City on Saturday, showing more fluidity than in previous Premier League matches. I have mixed feelings about the result. On the one hand, Arsenal was lucky to earn a point as the Citizens finished strong and could have scored the winner in stoppage time. On the other, it’s a shame to throw away the lead with about 10 minutes to go.

Arsenal vs. Manchester City

Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com

There were two surprises at kickoff with Toure and Rosicky left out of their respective squads. Despite missing Giroud and Walcott through injury, the Gunners still had a decent bench with Ospina, Chambers, Gibbs, Arteta, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Cazorla and Podolski. The last time Arsenal faced Manchester City, they had Fabianski, Jenkinson, Bellerin, Kallstrom, Chambo, Gnabry and Sanogo as potential substitutes.

Wenger was obviously wary of the Citizens’ attack. The manager focused on the midfield battle by starting Flamini, Wilshere and Ramsey, three players known for their commitment. Arsenal won duels in the opening minutes to have a good spell of domination. Welbeck got his first start as a Gunner and nearly opened the scoring in the 12th minute. The England striker intercepted a backpass from Silva but his chip bounced off the post.

Welbeck’s work rate

Welbeck definitely provides more pace and verticality than Giroud, but is less powerful and still needs to improve his link-up play. He had enough flair to see some miscommunication between Demichelis and Hart in the 70th. Demichelis shielded the ball for Hart, who hesitated to come off his line. Welbeck rounded Demichelis to steal the ball but was denied by the goalkeeper. Welbeck’s work rate was tremendous. Despite a cramp, he still managed to curl a long-range shot that sailed wide in the 87th before Chambo replaced him.

Arsenal won the tactical battle as Fernandinho, Lampard and Silva were overwhelmed in midfield. Manchester City grew frustrated and Fernandinho even tried to rough up Ramsey with a late bump by the third minute. Pellegrini was aware of Arsenal’s threat on the fast break and it was no surprise to see the Citizens stop counterattacks with cynical fouls. Lampard was booked for a tackle from behind on Ramsey in the 22nd and Zabaleta also received a yellow card for a late challenge on Sanchez in the 24th.

Pellegrini made a tactical change at halftime by replacing Lampard with Nasri, moving Milner from the left wing to the midfield. Although Manchester City looked more balanced, the Gunners still had a slight edge in midfield. Fernandinho was booked in the 50th for stopping a counterattack with a cynical foul on Wilshere. Kompany should have also earned a yellow card in the 73rd for pulling Sanchez’s jersey but the referee was a bit lenient. And it’s hard to understand how Milner finished the match without any card despite disrupting Arsenal’s rhythm with numerous fouls.

Wilshere’s maturation

A dogfight in midfield led to Arsenal’s equalizer in the 63rd. Wilshere slipped the ball to Sanchez, who found Ramsey on the edge of the box. The Wales midfielder spun to release Wilshere down the right side of the area. Wilshere dribbled past Clichy to lift the ball past Hart.

We’ve already seen glimpses of Wilshere’s maturation last season when he scored a wonder goal against Norwich and when he netted twice against Marseille in the Champions League. Last year, Ramsey enjoyed a breakthrough in his career by simplifying his game and showing more composure in front of the net. Wilshere is just a year younger than Ramsey and he might be experiencing the same process now.

Wilshere and Sanchez were the two best Gunners on Saturday and it’s no coincidence they ended up on the scoresheet. When the Citizens cleared a cross from Ramsey in the 74th, Wilshere headed the loose ball toward Sanchez, who volleyed high past Hart for a 2-1 lead. Wilshere could have collected a second assist in the 77th but Ramsey made poor contact with his clipped pass.

The real deal

Sanchez may have cost more than 30 million pounds this summer, but he has proved a great investment so far with his movement, his dribbling skills, his finishing and his work ethic. The Chile forward showed his desire in the seventh minute with a low diagonal drive that Hart saved. I guess Sanchez will need to work on his free-kick delivery. He wasted a set piece in the 40th after Navas had fouled him on the edge of the box. Some poor decision-making also led to a wasted opportunity in the 58th. Sanchez intercepted a sloppy pass from Demichelis and had two passing options with Welbeck to his left and Ramsey to his right. Ramsey was in a better position but Sanchez chose Welbeck and the pass was intercepted.

Sanchez has a better understanding with his teammates after a full month of competition and I think he will improve his decision-making within a few weeks. While Welbeck and Sanchez worked hard for the team, the contrast with Ozil’s contribution was terrible. Ozil barely made an effort to track back and was not even involved in the goals Arsenal scored.

Ozil fed Welbeck in the 11th and Debuchy in the 67th, but both fired wide from a tight angle. Besides those two plays, Ozil made a lot of sidepasses. Not really the kind of stuff you would expect from a world-class playmaker. When the Citizens cleared a free kick into his path in the 41st, Ozil had no pressure but he still missed the target from 25 yards.

The ghost of Arshavin

Any player can have an off day. But it’s a different story when a player is lazy on the pitch. Where was Ozil when Zabaleta made a deep run in the 32nd? Zabaleta found Silva inside the area and the Spain midfielder skipped past Mertesacker to force a leg save from Szczesny with a low strike.

It’s time for Wenger to have some pep talk with Ozil. The Premiership is a physical league where winning duels is more important than in some other European leagues. When Khedira’s name was mentioned at Arsenal this summer, I didn’t pay attention for the simple reason that his statistics for duels are too weak. Ozil doesn’t have the right mindset now to play in the Premier League. If he doesn’t change his attitude, fans could pick on him the way they did with Arshavin.

Some fans claim Ozil would score more goals and create more assists in a central position. The trouble is that I don’t think he could physically cope. Ozil lost a duel in the 10th and theatrically fell to the ground in the hope of getting a free kick. The referee ignored Ozil’s plea and waved play on. Arsenal’s midfield would be weaker with Ozil in the hole because he doesn’t have the same commitment as Ramsey or Wilshere. However, I’d be glad if Ozil proves me wrong by toughening up.

Vulnerable on the fast break

Arsenal won the tactical battle but Manchester City was the more dangerous side in the final third. Welbeck hit the post with his first scoring opportunity. Aguero was more clinical and converted his only chance of the match from a fast break in the 28th. After Flamini challenged Aguero in midfield, the ball bounced toward the touchline. Navas was quick enough to get hold of it and made a low cross for Aguero who shot past Szczesny for the opener.

Conceding goals from counterattacks has been a recurrent issue over the past seasons. To be fair, the team did not look out of position on that play with four Gunners facing three Citizens in the final third. So where did it go wrong? Monreal was stranded up front, so Koscielny had to cover the Spaniard and prevent Navas from penetrating inside the area. Navas could kill the momentum by attempting to dribble past Koscielny, so he opted for a low cross. Our positional play inside the area was good with Flamini in front of Aguero and Mertesacker ahead of Silva. Unfortunately, Flamini failed to cut out the pass and Aguero ghosted past him to score. Basically, our retreat was decent but the execution was poor.

Youth vs. experience

At 26, Aguero is at the top of his game while Welbeck is still learning the ropes at 23. That’s what made the difference in the first half. Koscielny did a good job to keep Aguero quiet throughout the match. Silva suffered from Arsenal’s domination in midfield. But the Gunners started tiring in the last 15 minutes, giving Silva more freedom to pull the strings. Flamini let Silva send a ball over the top in stoppage time. Koscielny’s clearance bounced off Dzeko before hitting the post. A minute later, Silva played Dzeko in. The Bosnia striker, who replaced Aguero in the 67th, was denied by Szczesny. Nasri followed up to tap home but his goal was disallowed for an offside position.

Arsenal lost the control of the game when Debuchy sprained his ankle and was replaced by Chambers in 82nd. Substitutions are sometimes tricky. It can be tough to catch the pulse of a match despite warming up for five minutes. That’s what happened with Chambers, who never seemed to reach the level of focus and intensity of his teammates after coming off the bench.

Chambers’ lapse of concentration allowed Demichelis to head in a corner from Kolarov in the 83rd. Koscielny was marking Milner, Mertesacker was busy at the near post with Kompany. Ozil should have slowed Demichelis’ run while Chambers should have been aware of the Argentina defender’s threat. In the closing minutes, Kolarov escaped Chambers’ marking to meet a deflected cross but struck the post from a tight angle.

Average start

The Gunners have six points from their first four games. That’s a very average start to the season which gives them no room for error against Aston Villa on Saturday. Their luck is that the Reds, the Citizens, the Spurs, the Toffees and the Red Devils have also dropped points, otherwise Arsenal would be under serious pressure.

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