Football is a game of fine margins, and never more so than at the highest level, a bracket within which reigning champions Manchester City definitely fall. And so it proved on Saturday lunch time as we played out a 2-2 draw, a fair result, but nevertheless a frustrating one.
In terms of the starting line-up there were a couple of surprises; Flamini instead of Arteta, Sanogo not even making the bench, the exclusion of both Cazorla and Oxlade-Chamberlain (made all the more surprising with the benefit of hindsight given Ozil’s very poor display). But equally, it was a team that I was happy with and I guess that’s a testament to the options we have in midfield and upfront.
We started brightly, dominated the opening 25 minutes, Welbeck was unlucky not to score a debut goal as his delightful chip came back off the post, and then bang, sucker punch and its 1-0 to City. Typical Arsenal you might say. And once again it was a goal that can be analysed (over analysed?) and leave you wondering if we could have done better. Had we over committed? Did Flamini need to go to ground? Could we have reacted to the unlucky ricochet more quickly? Should Flamini have tracked Aguero’s run better? Many questions, but one simply fact – we were a goal down.
Getting back into the game was made harder by City’s consistent cynical fouls; quite how Kompany and Milner finished the game without yellow cards is beyond me, and that Pellegrini removed Fernandinho before he was sent off tells you its own story. But come back we did.
Jack Wilshere, man of the match by a country mile with an outstanding display, scored our equaliser. Having received the ball from Ramsey he sucked the defender in, dragged it past him and with Joe Hart rushing out, and with the near post angle very narrow, he cheekily dinked the ball over his England colleague.
The game was suddenly there for the taking and nine minutes later Alexis Sanchez gave us the lead with a sumptuous side foot volley that flew past the flailing Hart. A world-class strike from a world-class player, who once again showed not only his quality on the ball, but his energy and work rate off of it.
At home, with 15 minutes to go, and you have to be holding out for victory. I know it was Man City, but these are the games that define and determine champions come the end of season. For all the criticism of the heavy defeats away from home last season it is often overlooked that we drew far too many of them at home.
But a lot can happen in 15 minutes of football and unfortunately none of it went our way. In a freak accident Debuchy suffered what looks a very bad ankle injury (one that further highlights our worrying lack of numbers at the back). Both a stretcher and oxygen were required for the Frenchman and we never regained our composure from that moment on.
I’m going to be overly critical now, but as I mentioned at the beginning such games are won and lost on fine margins, and for me Szczesny failed to help our cause during a crucial period. In the immediate aftermath of Debuchy’s injury we looked a little shell-shocked. So when your goalkeeper has the ball at his feet I’d like to see him slow the game down, make a “calm down” gesture, help our outfield players to refocus.
Instead he played a poor pass out from the back, which we just about got away with leading to a goal kick. Again, I’m looking to Szczesny for calm, to slow things down. But again he rushes, this time a poor goal kick straight to a City player in the middle of our half. From here City won a corner, and from the corner they scored their equaliser.
Another free header from another set-piece; we conceded three goals from set-pieces in pre-season and have now conceded three from set-pieces since the start of the season – a concerning trend. And the more I watch the replay the more I’m convinced that Flamini would have headed the ball off the line if Szczesny hadn’t got a hand to it – but of course it goes without saying that I don’t blame Wojciech for this, he had to attempt to make the save.
I did warn you that I was going to be overly critical, but it really is about fine margins, and Szczesny’s distribution on Saturday was akin to his early performances in an Arsenal shirt. At times it puts needless pressure on the defence, expecting them to play out from the back when they’re clearly being pressed (as Man City were). It gifts cheap possession that builds pressure.
Its pressure that was almost costly. City’s equaliser was a blow and from there we really were hanging on. Dzeko hit the post, Kolarov hit the post, and then Szczesny (to his credit) made amends with a top class save from Dzeko, with Nasri (thankfully!) flagged offside when tapping in the rebound.
A pulsating game of football, with so much action and incident. A draw was a fair result, but it could have been so much more. Fine margins and pivotal moments will determine many games this season and this weekend we didn’t react well enough to them; whether it be the defending for both of their goals or following the injury to Debuchy. These moments will continue to happen, so we need to improve our in-game management and fast. Failure to do so will result in further punishment. But if the fine margins tip in our balance then we stand a real chance, starting at Dortmund on Tuesday. Up The Arsenal.