It was the predictable fare one feared it would be. The pulses stayed calm. Before Sunday, Manchester City had won only once in their previous nine meetings with Arsenal. Yet, the Gunners stayed true to form when faced with a much superior side. They floundered.
On a day when Arsenal’s minority owner Alisher Usmanov was found to be in a potential conflict of interest following the Paradise Papers revelations, the crisis was more obvious on the pitch. It was not a surprise that the defeat arrived. Failures like the one on Sunday have become a way of life at Arsenal. This is the new normal for the North London club.
In tepid circumstances, Manchester City shone only in spurts. With the sun making a rare appearance over the city’s skyline in November, one may have expected a match that would reflect the weather’s cheery disposition. Instead, it offered little enthusiasm. The hosts held a tight grip over proceedings but little more. However, even when City’s threat did not amount to much, never did Pep Guardiola’s side look shaky.
Mindful of the Citizens’ attacking prowess, Arsene Wenger had lined up his team in a pyramid with no place for Alexandre Lacazette. The striker, who cost Arsenal in the excess of £50 million this summer, was dropped to the bench for the second time in the Premier League. While the previous occasion brought a 0-4 thrashing to Liverpool, this Sunday was a more controlled dismantling of the Gunners.
Wenger missed the point by criticising the referee after the match. Manchester City’s third goal was offside and it did come at a time when Arsenal were challenging the hosts but the decision to award the penalty in the first half was barely controversial. What hurt the Gunners was their inability to exert pressure on the opposition.
City played a tough away game in the Champions League during the week while Arsenal’s first-choice XI had a week to prepare for the marquee clash. Yet, it was the visitors' energy levels that were alarmingly low. Arsenal appeared cowed, in wait for their seemingly inevitable fate.
Lacazette’s introduction in the second half, though, energised the team. His goal only went on to show that the presence of a clinical striker can turn games around. Wenger’s tactical system was built to contain City. In that case, a striker in the mould of Lacazette becomes even more crucial as chances are likely to be rare and the team needs someone who will make them count. On Sunday, the Frenchman showed what he can do. But it was too late.
Before the match against City, only Aaron Ramsey had been involved in more goals (six) for Arsenal than Lacazette (five) in the league. But it seemed that few lessons had been learnt by Wenger from the Liverpool defeat this August. It was rather odd that this summer’s marquee signing, despite his excellent start, does not have the faith of the manager.
Instead, Arsenal had to rely on Alexis Sanchez in attack with Alex Iwobi and Mesut Ozil for support. While that tactic brought rewards last season, it is baffling to see Wenger stick to the same plan. It has been amply clear for months that Sanchez and Ozil are not entirely dedicated to the club’s cause. The choice of want-away players over the biggest signing betrays Arsenal’s interests.
Sanchez, as he has looked in recent weeks, was uninspiring. The imagination, the inventiveness that one associates with his play is absent at the moment. Ozil has also seemingly lost the cutting edge which defines his play; now there is a lot of running but the German’s decisive contributions are few and far in between.
In some senses, the two Arsenal stars accurately reflect the mood at the club. It is a gloomy vibe. As long as Wenger and the money are there, a certain respectability will be maintained. But there is little to suggest that Arsenal will return to the Champions League next season. As long as Wenger stays, hopes of a turnaround will shine dimly.
It does not help that the manager continues to pick players in position that they are not accustomed to. At the Etihad on Sunday, holding midfielder Francis Coquelin played in the back three while full-back Nacho Monreal was later forced to play as a central defender in four-man backline. While the moves were a consequence of Per Mertesacker and Rob Holding’s unavailability, Wenger did have the option of playing a back four with Kolasinac in his usual position as centre-back and Monreal on the left.
But the limitations of his team convinced the manager to choose a three-man defence. Perhaps, Wenger also sought a repeat of last season’s FA Cup semi-final win over Manchester City when Arsenal had the same defensive setup. However, it is not formations which win matches. The players’ interpretation of the system is crucial to any plan. On Sunday, the missive from Wenger seemed to be — do not concede.
It was a plan bound for failure. Such is City’s effervescence in attack that even a lower-key display was enough to break Arsenal’s sore backline. It only helped that the visitors did not offer a frequent offensive threat. The Gunners’ most effective player sat on the bench while the star names laboured. They were moody, lethargic, ponderous.
By the end of it, the weak resistance had been broken. The club might be getting used to such losses. Grim days.
Updated Date: Nov 06, 2017 12:15:12 IST