16 Conclusions: Arsenal 0-3 Manchester City

Date published: Sunday 25th February 2018 7:27

* The most disappointing aspect of Arsenal’s Wembley capitulation is that Manchester City were not even at their best, and did not need to be. Guardiola’s team can be sensational, but they did not blow Arsenal away. City were clumsy and clunky in the first half, despite leading at the break. Passes failed to find their target in the final third, and they regularly made mistakes when passing the ball out of defence.

Yet Arsenal are a club that can currently be blown over by a zephyr. In the second half, City did indeed move up the gears, punishing and ultimately embarrassing them. But there is nothing quite as depressing as watching your team unable to even trade punches against a supposed peer who are playing at 60%.

Arsenal created two chances in 90 minutes. They were held at arm’s length with the ease of an adult holding their hand on the head of a toddler in mid-tantrum, arms swinging and legs kicking but nothing ever landing until they quickly stop trying at all.

In truth, Arsenal are not City’s peers; they do not merit that compliment. Tottenham are. Chelsea are. Liverpool are. Manchester United are. But Arsenal are operating on a lower sphere, closer to barely-rans than also-rans. Arsene Wenger is a mere speck in Pep Guardiola’s rear-view mirror.

Manchester City are going places; Arsenal are going backwards.

 

* Manchester City will win more important trophies under Guardiola, at least one in the next three months, but they can only win their first trophy once. It does not matter that the League Cup was the manager’s lowest priority competition when the season began. They had to start somewhere.

“We’ve laid down the foundation, I feel,” said Vincent Kompany in May 2011 when Yaya Toure’s goal won City the FA Cup. “Not only with this but with the qualification for the Champions League. Those are foundations for us and we’re going to build a house on it now.”

City are way beyond building walls and tiling the roof, but Kompany’s sentiment still rings true now. The feeling of lifting trophies is addictive within sportspeople, and Guardiola’s first in England was well overdue.

After FA Cup collapse on Monday, City needed to immediately right that perceived wrong. They will win at least two trophies this season, and will harbour hopes of a treble. Just a shame that every team they face won’t have the non-existent resolve of Arsenal.

 

* There is a reason why Kompany is one of the most popular Premier League players amongst neutrals and his peers. Not only does he possess an excellent football brain but also humility, a true sense of his responsibility as club captain and role model.

The misfortune he has suffered in his City career – 41 separate injuries since he joined – is enough to break anyone. Yet Kompany has reacted to every setback by working on his recovery in a committed and professional manner. Others might have retired by now, but not him.

You do not have to enjoy this Manchester City dominance. There are relevant questions to ask about the sources of their wealth and the affiliated human rights issues, and some may well frown upon the vast sums spent on their squad.

Yet if you cannot appreciate the sheer joy in a 31-year-old leaping around in unbridled ecstasy as if he were in the stands cheering on his heroes, your heart is either made of stone or yearns for Arsenal or Manchester United.

 

* Of all the starters we did not expect, Calum Chambers was high on the list. Wenger returned to playing a flat back four after the shambles at Bournemouth in January, but changed it back to a defensive three for Wembley.

The idea was to frustrate City centrally, crowding the space where David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne operate and so pushing their opponents out wide. It was a tactic that Leicester were successful with during the first half at the Etihad, before Claude Puel inexplicably made half-time changes and Leicester surrendered.

It was also the shape Arsenal used when beating City in last year’s FA Cup semi-final at Wembley, albeit a victory earned with plenty of good fortune. After that game, Laurent Koscielny spoke of the new formation giving Arsenal added confidence in defence and a greater solidity. A lot’s changed since.

Despite the logic, Wenger was still taking a chance with Chambers. The defender started both ties against Ostersunds including Thursday’s shambles, and the first-leg win in Sweden was his only victory in his last six Arsenal starts. That includes defeats on Thursday and against Bournemouth and the draw against West Brom in December.

Chambers has started seven Premier League games for Arsenal since March 2015. This was a massive call from his manager. It is easy to say it backfired, but when the entire team plays with such limpness, the shape of the team is the least of anyone’s worries. I’ll get onto Shkodran Mustafi.

 

* On a similar point, what has Sead Kolasinac done to p*ss off Wenger? At the start of the season, Arsenal’s new signing established himself as a cult hero with his energy and bruising style. Supporters thought they had finally found their answer at left-back, and he could play in central defence too. And he was free!

Since then, Kolasinac has fallen badly out of favour, to the extent that Chambers got the nod over him at Wembley. The Bosnian has not started a league game in 2018.

“Kolasinac is highly suited for a wing-back role, for a more offensive role,” said Wenger in late December. “I think he will play again. He is working hard and I think he will play in a back four, as well.”

Or neither, until Wenger is down to the barest bones and the left-back gets injured after 20 minutes.

 

* Had you been asked to guess the identity of Manchester City’s first assist maker in the final, Claudio Bravo’s name probably wouldn’t have jumped to mind. It isn’t all pass-and-move, the City groove.

There is a method to what might look like madness. When the opposition is used to you passing out from the back from goal kicks, they inevitably push up in midfield, with the defence doing the same to close the gap. That leaves space in behind.

Sergio Aguero realised this. He stayed in a position that would usually have seen him ten yards offside, but you cannot be offside from a goal kick. Bravo sent the ball long, Aguero ran onto the end of it and David Ospina made his decision easy by coming out of his goal. That type of lifted strike, with laces or side foot, is not difficult for a striker of Aguero’s calibre.

 

* But a goal such as that cannot be scored if a team defends properly. Mustafi has played for Germany in both of their last two major tournaments, so we can assume that he is no dud or dunce. Yet there is something about Arsenal, a particular Arsenal-itis, that seeps into the souls of defenders and turns them into fools.

Despite what I will say in the next conclusion, Mustafi was shambolic for the goal. He should have been goal side of Aguero, aware of the danger and aware of the offside laws. Even when he had been challenged, Mustafi could still have jumped to try and head the ball. And then after he had missed the header, he should have sprinted towards his own goal to try and affect play rather than complaining to the referee. Three mistakes, all amateur.

On commentary, Gary Neville described it as “schoolboy” defending, but even that is kind. There are nursery nurses who would tut and shake their heads silently if they witnessed such weakness in a toddler’s defensive proficiency. Five minutes on the naughty step.

 

* And yet I still believe that it was a foul on Mustafi, or at least believe that Aguero could not have complained had a foul been given. It was the final replay shown on Sky Sports that was the most incriminating, revealing Aguero’s glance at Mustafi before the nudge in the back.

It was hardly enough to atone for Mustafi’s own diabolical defending, but it might have been enough to give Aguero the advantage. Given that the ball was not in playing distance, that advantage was surely gained unfairly.

I also understand that the ‘it’s a contact sport’ crew will be along soon, and again I might deserve their censure. But referees have given free-kicks for those in the past.

 

* The goal also re-wrote a piece of history for Aguero. He played in the Europa League final in 2010, FA Cup final in 2013, League Cup final in 2014 and 2016, the World Cup final in 2014 with Argentina, the Copa America final in 2015 and 2016 and the gold medal match at the Olympics in 2008, but failed to score a single goal in any of them.

That is not to say that Aguero is not a wonderful finisher or wonderful goalscorer, but there is clearly something special about making the difference on this stage. Aguero has finally ticked that off the list for City.

 

* Bravo might not have expected his impact to be felt in an attacking sense, but it was fitting for him to play a role in City’s final victory.

There were (again) moments of panic on Sunday, particularly when he came haring out of his area and missed the ball completely, but Bravo has probably been City’s best player in this competition this season. He made three crucial saves and then kept out two of Wolves’ penalties in round four, and then helped City through on penalties against Leicester in the quarter-finals.

Bravo’s form since joining City merits the ridicule, but he remains a popular player in the dressing room. This was finally a pleasant moment after 18 months of difficulties.

 

* Jack Wilshere is an excellent midfielder and was one of Arsenal’s better players against City (or at least one who looked like he cares), but he has an extremely bad habit of overreacting when he believes he has been fouled. Unfortunately, there’s no way of selling it other than cheating.

The incident with Fernandinho was the perfect example. We do not know whether Wilshere realised that the Brazilian was on a yellow card and therefore made a calculated decision, but the reaction was disgraceful. Wilshere waved his hands in the air before beating them on the turf, in the style that we so often associate with serious injury. Not only was that a piece of acting, but Fernandinho had not even caught him that badly.

Thankfully, the referee was not fooled. Wilshere should be ashamed.

 

* Can we finally all agree that Granit Xhaka needs to go? One tackle, this from a supposedly tenacious central midfielder who played the full 90 minutes when his team were being overrun. A passing accuracy of 79%, that dropped to 68% in the opposition half when he couldn’t play a simple five-yard pass and hand the buck to a teammate. Sixty-two touches of the ball, but none of them memorable. More fouls committed than any other player on the pitch, and yet nothing done to upset City’s rhythm.

Xhaka is a mirage of a central midfielder, handily just out of shot when emergency strikes. He merits no more faith, and yet will presumably be given plenty.

 

* If it was fitting that Kompany scored at Wembley, there’s nobody who City fans cherish quite like David Silva. Aguero is the record goalscorer, Kompany the captain and De Bruyne the best player, but Silva is the ruler of this kingdom.

The Spaniard’s goal was, naturally, the most aesthetically pleasing of the three. Danilo feigned to shoot from distance but instead clipped the ball into Silva. He allowed the ball to graze his boot, applying enough friction to slow it down but not stop it dead. Silva could then spin on the pot and take a shot at goal. The finish was as good as any striker’s.

 

* Now I don’t want to make Arsenal supporters feel any more glum than they already do, but the one negative comment regarding the deal to sign Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang was that he might be beginning to lose his pace. When that is gone, it takes away a large chunk of what makes him so effective.

In the first half, Kompany and Aubameyang both sprinted 40 yards to chase the ball. Now Kompany is no slouch, but he gained five yards on Aubameyang before winning the ball from the striker in a shoulder-to-shoulder challenge. Wenger might well have winced slightly at the sight.

 

* Gary Neville’s angry assessment of Arsenal’s second-half mentality was amusing, but also perfectly accurate. When City scored their second goal, Arsenal’s players had two options: Fight or flight. They chose the latter.

“Spineless” was the perfect description. Telling Arsenal “this is what you caused” while a child cried on television in an Arsenal woolly hat must form part of the montage when Wenger does eventually leave.

Nobody expected Arsenal to haul themselves back into the game, but this is a cup final. The least you can do is hound down your opposite number, chase every ball and try and gain a foothold in the match. It might feel like wasted effort, but it matters to those in the stands. It sends a message that you are not quitters. This should be a matter of pride.

Everything about Arsenal is dank. They are indeed spineless, a limp outline of a team without the will to fight or the quality to sparkle. Individual players perform in bursts from time to time, and there are a few more honourable exceptions, but it is a long time since this club truly pulled together as one.

That is why the Arsenal end of Wembley was almost empty as the final whistle sounded. Not because Arsenal weren’t as good as Manchester City, and not because their team lost. An entire support isn’t sulking, just sick of being played for fools by those within their club who are complicit in this decline.

 

* Which is also why this summer has to be the end for Wenger, even after the missed opportunity for progress last year. We cannot go through all this again.

“I sit down with the board every end of season and see where we go from there – so that’s not exactly the same,” he told BeIN Sports in November. “That’s what I said – I have a two-year contract, I will always try to go to the end of my contract. But always have the honesty to sit down with the board and see where we go from there.”

It should not – cannot – be Wenger’s choice. Having begun to make changes behind the scenes to chip away at the manager’s omnipotence, this has to stop. The club’s name has become a running joke, a byword for defensive shambles and stagnation. When you can’t even get a team up for a cup final, the battle has been lost.

For all the mocking of the apparent entitlement of Arsenal supporters, it is (mostly) nothing of the sort. They are not demanding trophies or league titles – although Arsenal’s hierarchy spoke of both last summer when the new contract was announced – just a team they can be proud of and a club that at least looks like it is trying to fulfil its potential.

Daniel Storey

 


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