Arsenal’s second half performance in the defeat for Manchester City was a cause for great concern.
This wasn’t just because of the context of recent results or ramifications for the title race, but because they got so many of the basics wrong and looked distinctly second best in every facet of the game.
Following the defeat at Everton, Sunday’s game against City took on additional importance. The hosts were yet to truly find their feet this season and were without their talisman, Sergio Aguero, and their two most influential and intelligent deep midfielders, Fernandinho and Ilkay Gundogan. This would have been greater cause for optimism for the visitors, had they not contrived to lose to a team containing the 2016 versions of Aaron Lennon, James McCarthy, and Ross Barkley days earlier.
Following the defeat at Everton, Wenger rightly abandoned the basketball-like tactic of what was essentially a 4-4-2 that quickly transitioned into a 4-2-4 in attack. This worked against lesser sides but came distinctly unstuck against a halfway decent team with a modicum of a plan at Goodison. Alex Iwobi came in for Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain to offer greater control in possession and to supplement the midfield.
Following the summer’s tactical shift, which has seen Mesut Özil move ostensibly into the forward line with Alexis Sanchez, the use of Iwobi against sides with any sort of quality or any sort of plan has been imperative to supplement Arsenal’s engine room. At Everton, Granit Xhaka and Francis Coquelin were easily crowded out by the hosts. The inclusion of the Nigerian for the trip to the Etihad was an easy decision to make.
As for the hosts, Kelechi Iheanacho’s performance against Leicester had caused Guardiola opted to play without a traditional centre forward against Watford and again against Arsenal. His plan was to use De Bruyne, Silva, and Toure to service the out-to-in runs of Sané and Sterling. This threat of pace in behind would theoretically prevent Arsenal from pushing up too much. The trade-off to this was that a lack of orthodox central presence would mean that the Gunners could sit deep, and providing the wide players were adequately tracked and their midfield could apply enough pressure on the midfield ball players, they could control the space and prevent City creating clear cut chances.
Arsenal got the perfect start and led at the break after an error-strewn first half for both sides. The visitors took the lead after a simple direct progression of play led to Bellerin calmly delivering the ball to Alexis Sanchez, whose reverse ball played in Theo Walcott to score yet another big goal in a big game. City’s defence were completely undone by a simple progression of play, with one clever ball and precise finish at the end of it.
After going 0-1 up away from home, Arsenal understandably fell back into a shell, looked to control the space rather than possession, and play on the counter. However, just like Tuesday, Arsenal’s execution of a fundamentally sound plan was poor and got them into trouble almost instantly, with Raheem Sterling nearly punishing a dangerous cross which should have been cut out before it could be delivered.
Just like in the trip to Everton and the home games against PSG and Spurs, Arsenal sat off far too deep and invited too much pressure. Not only did this allow City closer to their goal, but it meant that Arsenal themselves would have greater distance to progress the ball and more waves of players to play through when looking to counter.
This was compounded by Arsenal failing to get tight enough, quick enough, on the City player in possession. This lack of pressure allowed them time to pick which ever pass they wanted. Fortunately for Arsenal, City were unable to punish this slack play before the break and they got in to the dressing room with a 0-1 lead.
After the break, the hosts made a subtle tactical shift and upped their intensity. This was enough to force Arsenal into making even more errors and the hosts were level within two minutes and from then on always looked the more likely to score the game’s next goal. City’s first goal, much like Arsenal’s, came about from a simple progression of play, one clever pass, and a precise finish.
For the next 20 minutes, City applied enough pressure to force additional Arsenal errors when the Gunners were looking to play out of their own half. With Arsenal unable to gain a foothold in the game, heads dropped and only one outcome looked likely.
Arsenal were unable to match City’s increased intensity, were second favourite to every ball, and were thoroughly unable to cope. They looked well and truly defeated after Sterling’s goal, despite there being 18 minutes plus stoppage time to get back into the game.
While Özil bore the brunt of the criticism here for a lack of effort, this was symptomatic of the whole team. Even Alexis, the evergreen energizer bunny, had given up pressing by the end, with none of his teammates receptive to his usually infectious desire to win the ball back. As much as you can single out any individual player, the harsh truth of it is that no Arsenal player was individually good enough, and as a collective they were miles off the required level.
There was a total lack of co-ordination to Arsenal’s work without the ball throughout the game. This can’t be excused on account of a lack of familiarity. These players have played together for almost half a season now. They should be accustomed to one another’s on-pitch behaviours, spacing, trigger movements, weaknesses, and the like.
While Arsenal need to do a lot more work on how to play without the ball if they are to truly progress and challenge for silverware, the next few matches provide an opportunity to put a band aid over the bullet holes inflicted in this season’s title challenge by Everton and City. A competent Arsenal pick up 6 wins from their next 6 league games. However, the manner of recent performance makes you question which Arsenal are going to turn up, and whether this title challenge will get back on track or go down in flames.