You know what’s coming, don’t you? Heading into a International break after a painful loss to a top 6 rival, Arsenal are sure to face a barrage of questions and criticisms on everything from their tactics and team selection to ownership and ticket prices. The Gunners made many predictions come good on Sunday as they fell 3-1 to league leaders Manchester City. Under Pep Guardiola, the Sky Blues have been a juggernaut this season, and already the title looks like theirs to lose, while Arsenal will now be left licking their wounds for two weeks before getting another crack at victory against Tottenham.
Already suffering from a bad case of pessimism, Arsenal supporters were dealt their first blow of the match an hour before kickoff when the team sheets were released and Alexandre Lacazette was nowhere to be found. The club record summer signing was dropped in favour of Alex Iwobi, a lad with a bright future to be sure, but perhaps not the best man for the job against the Premier League’s current best team. These fans were partially vindicated when Lacazette was finally subbed on in the second half and quickly netted for the Gunners, grabbing momentum for the first time all match. It was obvious what Wenger was trying to do: count on Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez to create magic while maintaining rock solid defence behind them, but it was a gamble without a payoff. It should also be mentioned that some fans wanted to see Jack Wilshere start, and were critical of Wenger when he did not, but those same fans would have been incensed with the Frenchman had he given Wilshere 90 minutes and the midfielder got hurt.
If Wenger’s selection troubles were self inflicted in attack, his options in defence were limited for reasons beyond his control. Shkodran Mustafi is will recovering from his injury picked up on international duty, Per Mertesacker fell ill this week (or was perhaps spared the nightmare of dealing with City’s pace), Calum Chambers battling a hip problem, Matthieu Debuchy only just completed his second 90 minutes in almost 2 years on Thursday , and Rob Holding also just played against Red Star Belgrade (and struggles with his confidence against big clubs). With few alternatives, Wenger slid Francis Coquelin in between Nacho Monreal and Laurent Koscielny at the back, with mixed results. It has been ages since the preferred back three of Koscielny, Mustafi and Monreal have played together, and they could have used the stability on Sunday.
Better, But Not Good Enough
The lack of confidence many Arsenal fans felt leading up to the match was justified by the way it played out on Sunday at the Etihad Stadium. Despite the loss by two goals, the Gunners gave a much better representation of themselves than they had in their early season embarrassment at Liverpool. The effort was solid from many players, and the team didn’t give up, even when it seemed everything from the score line to the referee decisions were going against them. There is no shame in losing to a classy team, and it seems apparent that Manchester City are the cream of the Premier League crop this season. With Sheikh Mansour’s limitless funds finally paying off in full, Manchester City look poised to keep adding to a squad that is as talented as any in the world. As big a club as Arsenal are these days, a match like Sunday’s truly demonstrates the sort of unimaginable wealth backing other clubs in the league that was totally inconceivable back when the Emirates Stadium was still in its genesis.
The Citizens’ 12th Man
There are so many things that go into winning a football match in the Premier League, that sometimes people make great contributions to success that just don’t get the credit they deserve. At home in the Etihad Stadium, Pep Guardiola’s men were given the boost they needed to press on to glory with an atmosphere that was so—forgettable actually— because I am of course talking about Michael Oliver, a referee who seems to enjoy playing with the hearts of Arsenal fans like a cat with a gimpy mouse. Oliver even gave hope that impartiality might be in the cards as he let play go on after a few aggressive Arsenal challenges. Alas, it was not to be, as his whistle would become a constant irritant for the visiting Gunners.
In the second half, Oliver really got into his stride, first calling a penalty on Nacho Monreal when he made contact with Raheem Sterling in the box as he was going to poke the ball away. While he did indeed touch the player, Sterling made the most of the contact, crumpling in a heap with his arms flailing (although in fairness, they just kinda do that anyways). The Gunners were incensed, but it was nothing compared to City’s second goal following Lacazette’s strike to claw back within a goal and steal the momentum. As the ball came in from the wing, both David Silva and Gabriel Jesus were offsides, which the Gunners correctly identified as soon as the ball sailed into the back of the net. For Michael Oliver though, the goal was perfectly fair, and Granit Xhaka even got a yellow for his troubles. Far from showing remorse with his calls, Oliver proceeded to try and book every Gunner before the final whistle. There is nothing to say here that hasn’t already been said about the referees in England, but immediate and sweeping changes are needed to the way referees are chosen, graded and held accountable. Utterly disgraceful.
Fight Or Flight?
In a strange way, one of the most heartening sights at the end of yesterday’s match was a livid Mesut Ozil actually throwing his weight around a bit and showing that hatred of losing that most of the time is simmering well under the surface. As Arsenal have now lost four matches this season, all of them on the road, they can once again expect the questions of their mental toughness and character to follow them around. This is the time when players must separate themselves by their heart, showing Arsene Wenger and the fans that pride in an Arsenal shirt is worth playing for even if the title is out of reach.
A twelve point gap seems insurmountable right now, but Gooners know what the cold and damp winter months can do to beautiful football. Despite the overwhelming class that City possess on the ball, there are definitely holes to exploit at the back, and perhaps once their hot start has cooled off a bit, that backline will be thoroughly tested. Arsenal need to take their focus off the top of the table for the time being and focus on winning their next match after the international break, the season’s first North London Derby. Once they start stringing multiple wins together they can turn their attention back to the war of attrition at the top. The season is far from over, but must-win time is upon us even earlier than usual this year.
Shake It Up
With the title looking a dim possibility, perhaps it is now time for Arsene Wenger to experiment a bit with his squad in an effort to find solutions that might be less than obvious. Is the back three really helping anymore? Is Aaron Ramsey still a better option than Jack Wilshere? Would it actually be best to move on from Alexis Sanchez in January and start reloading then? For many of Arsene Wenger’s most vocal critics, all of these and more should be on the table. Despite showing better effort than in their Anfield disaster, a loss is a loss, and the Gunners need to find viable solutions quickly before their season spirals out of control.
I will likely never say this again, but thank goodness for the international break.