“It’s a horrible week,” Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger admitted after losing to a short-handed and off-form Manchester City team on Sunday—this just a few days after losing to an off-form Everton team in similarly depressing fashion. As expected, this season that looked like it might be The One is beginning to reveal itself to be just like all the others.
In a vacuum, losing away to Man City is no big shame. City came into the season as title favorites, and with their incredibly expensive squad and historically great new manager Pep Guardiola, failing to nip even a point from a match on City’s home turf is no tragedy.
However, the context here is what makes Arsenal’s loss so damning. This was an Arsenal team that desperately needed a high-profile win to cement their status as legitimate title threats, and everything was set up for them to come away with a victory. This is the Gunners’ best team in years. Alexis Sánchez has always been one of the best three or four players in the Premier League since he joined the league a few years ago, and he’s now playing even better than ever in his new center forward role. Mesut Özil, arguably mankind’s best creative passer (counting Messi as alien, of course), has added goal-scoring to his repertoire, thus becoming even more dangerous. Even Theo Walcott is having a career year.
Arsenal’s opponents too did their best to gift the Gunners a win. Though City have a truly astounding number of great attackers, the majority of their defenders and midfielders are mediocre-to-bad. In this game in particular, City were missing otherwise certain starters Sergio Agüero (out due to suspension), Fernandinho (ditto), and İlkay Gündoğan (shredded knee). You could make the case that maybe two of City’s starting lineup would’ve made it into the XI Arsenal put on the pitch. Everything pointed to an Arsenal win or at least draw, other than the fact that Arsenal are still Arsenal.
The game even started perfectly for the Gunners. Five minutes into the match, City’s collection of sorry defenders and even worse defensive structure allowed their opponents to waltz right through the center of the pitch, gifting Walcott a simple chance on goal which he easily converted. Before the game had begun in earnest, Arsenal were already leading. All through the first half, the much more impressive Arsenal team sliced open City in attack and disrupted the Sky Blues’ efforts going forward with ease. Arsenal went into the dressing room at halftime as the superior team that appeared to be well on their way to a huge and much-needed victory.
So of course Arsenal completely collapsed almost immediately after the start of the second half. In the 47th minute, City’s Leroy Sané snuck behind the Arsenal defense and caught up to a David Silva chipped pass to go one-on-one with Petr Čech, leveling the score with his goal. (Sané was marginally offside for the goal, but it was such a close call that the ref can hardly be blamed for missing it. More on that later.) From then on, Man City were rampant. Arsenal could do nothing to obstruct City’s elaborate possession play (for as terrible as City have looked at times defensively, their attacking play, especially when they really get the ball moving between each other, remains beautifully deadly), instead chasing after shadows as City’s players controlled the game in all facets. No one was surprised when Raheem Sterling capped a sensational Kevin De Bruyne cross-field pass with the winning goal in the 71st minute. Arsenal never came close to getting back into the game, taking only two shots in the entire second half.
This performance was a nearly perfect mirror of Arsenal’s loss in their previous league match against Everton last Tuesday. There they started brightly, jumped out to an early lead, then played oddly passive for the rest of the match while their opponents clawed their way back and won. You’d think that two consecutive losses of this magnitude, throwing away points from winning positions, and doing so in the concerning manner they did would have Wenger looking inward for a solution to the structural problems that prevent Arsenal from closing out games. Instead, Wenger blamed the refs:
“We conceded two offside goals, which is very difficult to accept in a game of that stature, but — as it is well known — the referees are protected very well like the lions in the zoo, so we have to live with those decisions.”
Asked to clarify his remarks concerning referee Martin Atkinson, Wenger said: “I want them to be very well protected, I want them to be safe, but if they could make the right decisions that would be even better.
“Safe and good decisions, even better. I do not want to make the referees the subject of the press conference. I just feel it’s right that they are safe and protected but if on top of that they make the good decisions, even better.”
Wenger might have a point in this particular instance if City’s goals really were egregiously offside. However, as we’ve already mentioned, the Sané one was very close and thus understandably missed, while the Sterling one was completely fine. (The case for that goal being offside centers on David Silva’s alleged obstruction of Čech’s line of sight on the shot, though Silva was so far away from the ball and Čech that the real injustice would’ve been in ruling it out.) But even if we granted Wenger’s complaint, it wasn’t the refs who made Arsenal completely switch off after the first half, nor did the refs make the Gunners play so sluggishly in a similar way against Everton. Our favorite Arsenal fan Troopz, as could’ve been expected, blood, was less sparing in his interpretation, fam:
Arsenal now sit in fourth place in the table, nine points behind league leaders Chelsea. They’ll not only have to outplay Chelsea by nine points in the second half of the season, they’ll also need City and Liverpool to slip, while staving off the charges from behind of Tottenham and Manchester United. Adding to Gunners’ less-than-rosy outlook for the rest of the season is the fact that, after finally winning the Champions League group and hoping to get a good draw in the knockout rounds to maybe do some damage there, Arsenal found out last Monday that they’ll have to play Bayern Munich.
This season was so very close to looking like something new, something different, a year when the stars aligned and the Gunners lifted another major trophy by the end of it. Instead, from the good start to the shaky midseason stutters and even to the looming Champions League exit at the hands of Bayern, now it all feels like yet another case of deja vu.