x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Manchester City expose Arsenal's defensive frailties

A red card inside 10 minutes for Laurent Koscielny tipped the match decisively in City’s favour, Jonathan Wilson reports from Emirates Stadium.

Manchester City's English midfielder James Milner celebrates scoring the opening goal at the Emirates Stadium.
Manchester City's English midfielder James Milner celebrates scoring the opening goal at the Emirates Stadium.

LONDON // As the referee Mike Dean left the pitch at the final whistle, he was subjected to a raucous booing.

Arsenal fans clearly blamed him for the red card to Laurent Koscielny that tipped the game decisively in Manchester City’s favour after nine minutes but it is hard not to wonder whether he did not simply become the focus for the more general frustration around Emirates Stadium.

Perhaps the dismissal was harsh but it was entirely explicable and the fact is that City had already taken control of midfield; the red card was a result of their pressure.

City were left feeling just as aggrieved, having lost Vincent Kompany, their captain, to a similarly debatable but understandable red card with 15 minutes remaining.

“We have to live with the decision, we started too timidly with not enough authority,” Arsene Wenger, the Arsenal manager, said. “We didn’t start with enough confidence or personality.”

Asked whether the nervousness is related to the restlessness that hangs over the Emirates these days he noted pointedly that “it doesn’t help”.

There continues to be an odd fragility about Arsenal. To describe it as mental weakness is too simple for in some ways Arsenal are extremely resilient and yet their defending totters perpetually on a precipice, always ready to tumble into anxiety.

“On both goals we could have done better,” Wenger said. “It’s frustrating because the team after shows great heart and desire but we are a bit too nervous to play in a serene way at home.”

As the ball looped into the box after eight minutes, it may have bounced through to Wojciech Szczesny. At the very least it would have taken a fine touch from Edin Dzeko to get the ball under control.

But Koscielny panicked, hauled Dzeko down and gave away a penalty.

Dean decided it was clear goal-scoring opportunity even though Dzeko had still to control it – but it was clearly a foul and a clumsy one at that.

No City player has scored at the Emirates since DaMarcus Beasley in 2007 and Dzeko spurned the opportunity to break that drought, his spot kick striking Szczesny’s legs, bouncing on to a post and rolling along the line into the arms of the goalkeeper.

The respite lasted only 10 minutes. Arsenal, aggrieved that Jack Wilshere was penalised for kicking the back off Javi Garcia’s knee, dozed as the free kick was taken quickly, David Silva laying it wide to Carlos Tevez.

He threaded a pass through to James Milner, whose ferocious shot from an angle flashed past Szczesny.

City’s second also came down the right as Lukas Podolski’s failure to track back left Kieran Gibbs horribly exposed.

Milner crossed, Tevez stretched and, although Szczesny saved his effort, the ball ran to Dzeko who tapped in.

That as good as ended the game as a contest, although it remained oddly tetchy, the sulphurous atmosphere culminating in Kompany’s red card as he lunged in on Wilshere.

Dean deemed it two-footed, but it seemed a borderline case as the ball ran away from the Arsenal midfielder.

The City captain was sent off for a similar offence in an FA Cup match against Manchester United last season and City manager Roberto Mancini was adamant the Belgian defender was harshly dealt with.

“It was not a foul, not a red card,” Mancini said. “Absolutely we are going to appeal.

“It’s impossible we can lose a player for that. He was a minimum 50cm from the opponent. He is disappointed because it was nothing. If it was a red card I would say red card. This is not a red card.”

Even Wenger seemed to consider the decision harsh.

The worry for Mancini is less the red card than the three-game suspension it will bring, compounding the loss of Sergio Aguero to a hamstring injury and the Toure brothers, Kolo and Yaya, to the African Cup of Nations.

“We have a problem because we are missing a lot of players,” Mancini said.

The game may not have been such a one-sided event had Koscielny stayed on the pitch, but anger over debatable decisions should not disguise the fact this was Arsenal succumbing to familiar failings: the bewildering capacity to self-destruct defensively and the lack of cover for the full-backs.

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