The first of potentially 7 games in the next 3 weeks has ended in defeat. A home defeat is never something to be proud of and I’m not sure if it can be comforting even if it did come in the hands of the reigning league champions. Without key players in their side (Aguero and Y.Toure), it was a match for the taking but down to injuries of our own and an early red card, the match didn’t materialise long enough for us to see if that could have been an impact.
Playing with just 9 outfielders is a tough task, even more so when the opponent is probably better or on par with us. It’s no shame to lose to Manchester City (given their current status), even if we had the normal quota of players on the pitch. Yet, there’s still an aftertaste of dissatisfaction about this defeat. Much of that have to do with our performance. From tempered glass to just normal quartz one, our confidence is so brittle that one moment of clumsiness can cause the team to collapse.
Laurent Koscielny was sent off for dragging down Edin Dzeko inside the box when he was poised to take a shot at goal. Referee, Mike Dean was in the right place to call the decision and based on television replays, no arguments could be made on his decision. However, Wojciech Szczeesny saved his compatriot’s blushes by keeping out Dzeko’s subsequent penalty. It was an inspired act but it came in solitary. Except for one other player, you can see how being one man down clearly caused heads to drop. That’s the fragile-ness I’m talking about. Confidence absolutely drained from the team as they allowed City to find gaps in our side.
Instead of gaining renewed motivation from Szczesny’s penalty save, our confidence drained from us. Whatever concentration that was called for before the game, went to pieces after that. City’s quickly taken free kick caused us mayhem and James Milner strode in unmarked before slamming home the opening goal. It got 10 minutes after that as Gibbs/Podolski (can’t remember who now) dived in for a challenge but failed to win the ball. That made our defence in sixes and sevens, before Dzeko made up for his penalty miss earlier.
At this point, being 2 goals down and playing with a man less, it’s hard to see how we could come back into the game. Especially when City was having most of the possession and our midfield not functioning. Abou Diaby got his start but doesn’t look fully match fit. His inclusion more down to Mikel Arteta’s than tactical. Which is strange because Francis Coquelin was available and I thought we should be more careful on how we manage Diaby’s return.
That decision backfired with the red card as well as Diaby was always going to play just the hour. Game plan in terms of personnel change went to bits and you’ve got to pity Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who was sacrificed as Per Mertesacker entered the fray. I would suggest that since we were going to take off Diaby anyway, that the switch be made then. I might also take the chance to ensure that we don’t get overrun by pulling Theo Walcott back into wide midfield and make us compact. Him and AOC could utilise their pace on counter attacks and that might see us create a chance or two.
It wasn’t the only change that was baffling to me. That Walcott played the entire match centrally was also strange. If he was going to struggle against big centre backs when we could send support via midfield, it was going to much worse when we’ve less artillery to push forward with a man less. City were smart enough not to hold a high line and kept the game relatively simple. Walcott should have been directed to stay wide and try to drive us forward from there.
The numerical advantage was diminished around the 75th minute mark but by then, it was too late to make any significant change to the scoreline. We did create more chances after the departure of Vincent Kompany (another Dean decision that I thought was correct, at least from where he stood) but we were missing the clinical touch. That’s the major difference between us and City. They didn’t waste their chances to score and that’s the fine marginal line between winners and losers at the highest level.
Apart from Szczesny’s excellence (also beat Tevez in an one-on-one), one other player shone like a beacon. We know how truly talented Jack Wilshere is but in a match like this, it further highlights the disparity between him and the rest of his team mates. For someone with so much talent and skill, he’s not lacking in the desire/determination department. He’s a real leader and tried to drag the team on by putting in that additional 20% (just a random number, not attributed to any stat) effort. If we continue in the same vein/path in the next few seasons, it won’t be long before Wilshere himself rethinks about where he plies his trade.
It doesn’t get any easier after this, with the visit of Swansea for the FA Cup replay. On one hand, just a few days for the team to redeem themselves. On the other hand, just a few days to pick up the broken confidence. The squad’s not looking so complete now is it, Arsene?