With a depleted squad, poor form, lack of confidence and edginess from the majority of the club’s fanbase, all the signs pointed towards yet another demoralising defeat for Arsenal against Manchester City as they watch their Premier League campaign crumble before their very eyes. But they proved the majority wrong, fighting admirably from one goal behind and producing the kind of football fans at the Emirates are used to in order to claw the game back. For some it may be seen as a turning point, for others it merely papers the cracks. I fall into the latter category.
The game began in the fashion most expected it would. City came out of the blocks fastest, and as Arsenal are prone to doing, they conceded possession far too easily. City dominated the ball and found themselves rightly ahead as Lukas Podolski gave away the ball, with the result of a City counterattack eventually ricocheting over the line from David Silva. But for that, City remained in the ascendency without creating many clear-cut chances.
The second half saw a marked improvement in the Gunners’ play. They looked more composed in possession and seemed more determined in 50-50 challenges. Mathieu Flamini’s equaliser came just moments after a deflection took the ball off Per Mertesacker’s knee, just past his own post. If it wasn’t for a stroke of luck, the game could have been beyond doubt. As it happened, City took their foot off the gas and Arsenal took charge, going close through Podolski just minutes after the equaliser. The second half performance showed what Arsenal can do when needs be.
But unfortunately, the first half demonstrated the same recurring problems when playing the better sides. Keen on pressuring Man City whilst still in possession, Arsenal overloaded the attacking third. When Arsenal were dispossessed in the middle-third of the field they found themselves quickly having to recover their positions. The full-backs, in particular, are guilty of this. For City’s goal both Kieran Gibbs and Bacary Sagna found themselves too high up the field. Once the ball reached Arsenal’s penalty area, they were nowhere to be seen. Had City capitalised in the way Chelsea or Liverpool did in these situations they could have taken the game beyond Arsenal inside the first 45 minutes.
Surely Arsenal were aware of the early intensity City were going to play with. The attacking potential they have at their disposal with the likes of Silva, Samir Nasri, Yaya Toure and Jesus Navas should have provided enough of the focus of Wenger’s pre-match planning and his team-talk. With players like Navas in wide areas, it should have been the focus of Arsenal’s full-backs to prevent them from having an early influence. Instead, they approached the game in a similar fashion and, in all honesty, rode their luck greatly. City may not have been as clinical as Arsenal’s previous opponents, but Arsenal were no better than they were on those days. They were mightily lucky to hold out.
Once more, the City game further highlighted the squad depth issues that Arsene Wenger is having to contend with at the moment. Having to use the same nucleus of players week after week is beginning to take its toll. They have very few game-changers to bring off the subs bench and had to rely on much of the game for players like Flamini to add a bit of attacking intensity. This isn’t to put a downer on the performances of Santi Cazorla and Tomas Rosicky, who both performed excellently in the second half. But the lack of options threatens to undo much of the work done earlier in the season. Players are beginning to look fatigued, and with key games upcoming against Everton and Wigan in the FA Cup, there isn’t a worse time for the Gunners to be short on numbers.
Fortunately for Arsenal, games against the ‘big’ sides are done and dusted until next season. But their experiences this season should pose as a reminder for the distance they still have to overcome before being able to challenge at the very top. The squad depth, highlighted in recent weeks, should be of real concern to Wenger in the next few games too. Some people may be able to paint the City result in a positive light, but they shouldn’t ignore the negatives that came from it too. And if Arsenal do, it could be even more damaging.