The Arsenal Monday verdict: Better than 8-2, but a defeat is a defeat
Plenty of positives for Wenger, but plenty of problems too as unbeaten run is ended
It may have been a vast improvement on Arsenal’s last trip to Manchester, and Arsene Wenger’s side might have gone down fighting, but there is no hiding from the bleak reality after a fifth league defeat of the season: Arsenal are no longer title contenders.
Wenger himself admitted as much after the game, and it was not a case of double bluffing. The Gunners boss knows that his side, although on a steady curve of recovery, cannot realistically claw back a 12-point deficit on this impressive, imperious City side.
There is no disgrace in that. City’s attacking trio of David Silva, Sergio Aguero and the undeniably outstanding Samir Nasri are a match for any side in Europe, including Barcelona. Behind them the defensive bank of Gareth Barry and Yaya Toure proved impenetrable.
In front of them the maverick, malevolent presence of Mario Balotelli is enough to unsettle the best of defences, and to keep the �24m Edin Dzeko on the bench. No wonder City can afford to shunt the likes of Emmanuel Adebayor out on loan and take the financial hit on Carlos Tevez.
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That is the kind of firepower Wenger can only dream of. Anyone’s bench would pale in comparison with City’s which also included big-money buys such as James Milner, Joleon Lescott and Adam Johnson.
But when Arsenal needed a goal, a go-to man to change the game in the final quarter and salvage a point, the only genuine striker Wenger could turn to was Marouane Chamakh, who barely deserves to be described as such on his current form
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The trio of Andrey Arshavin, Tomas Rosicky and the on-loan Yossi Benayoun all have their merits, but the fact that Wenger decided to take a gamble on Arshavin again to replace Theo Walcott spoke volumes about his confidence in the other two. Predictably, Arshavin was awful, and fluffed a presentable late chance to level.
However, while Arsenal and Wenger can claim relative poverty in comparison with City, as almost every club in Europe could, the Gunners are by no means paupers.
Wenger’s August spending spree did not even account for the money received for Nasri and Cesc Fabregas, and the directors have made it clear there is plenty more in the kitty if the manager desires to spend it.
Wenger will be frustrated that such a determined and positive display results in this kind of conclusion – but unless he has refocused his ambitions entirely on being a top-four club rather than title challengers, then added strength is required.
The lack of depth will be exposed again at Villa Park on Wednesday, a game for which Alex Song will be suspended after picking up his fifth yellow card of the season. Emmanuel Frimpong, 19 and with less than 10 first-class games under his belt, is Wenger’s only like-for-like replacement.
But this is, of course, the Frenchman’s choice. He may have said in the lead-up to Sunday’s game that City’s financial muscle has made him rethink his Arsenal masterplan, but none of the other five clubs gunning for the top four slots would gamble on young players like Wenger is still doing.
In the long term, it is still a policy that will reap dividends as one look at the performances of Aaron Ramsey and Wojciech Szczesny on Sunday will testify.
But Wenger, as he hinted last month, can no longer think long term. Arsenal looked well equipped to battle for the top four judging by Sunday’s game, but injuries are starting to take their toll, as they always do around this time of year.
Having already resorted to playing four central defenders across the defence, a fifth, another teenager in Ignasi Miquel, had to be summoned from the bench.
This is nothing more than bad luck as all four full-backs are injured, and in truth the rearguard had looked impressively solid until Djourou’s departure. He now has a groin problem which will necessitate a start for either Miquel or Sebastian Squillaci at Villa Park.
But, in adversity, Arsenal thrived. Song, Ramsey and, in particular, Mikel Arteta formed a superb central three who held their own against the combative thrusts of Yaya Toure and Barry.
On the left flank Gervinho had one of his most impressive games so far in his brief Arsenal career, displaying an almost manic workrate and no little skill. The finishing touch is now all that eludes him.
Robin van Persie, for once, could not be relied upon to provide that, but was a constant threat to City. It is now no secret that Mancini covets the Dutchman and this was yet more evidence as to why.
If there was one glaring disappointment it came in the form of Theo Walcott. A game full of world-class players and played at breathtaking pace just seemed to pass him by. He was worryingly anonymous.
Ultimately, however, the end result of a defeat is the same whether you lose a game 8-2 or 1-0. Arsenal showed character, spirit and dignity in defeat, but defeat is the bottom line.
A forgiving Christmas schedule will not see questions asked like the last time they lost in Manchester, but Wenger must have seen enough on Sunday to realise that the January transfer window is an opportunity to strengthen that he cannot turn down.