Club Focus – Manchester City – Arsenal’s finesse defeats City’s brawn

For the spell between the moment Joe Hart stretched full-length to claw away Cesc Fabregas’ penalty until Alex Song’s curler from 18 yards, Manchester City versus Arsenal had the makings of being one of the most compelling Premier League games this season. Through muscularity and force of will, City recovered from the early shock of losing Dedryck Boyata to a red card and Samir Nasri’s intelligently worked opener to carve out a string of chances which could have had them level.

Lukasz Fabianski has spent his three seasons at Arsenal wishing the ground would open up and swallow him every time he has had to face a remotely awkward situation. Only Arsene Wenger, it seemed, had any words of faith for him. Yesterday his performance broke Manchester City. As slick as Nasri was, as imperious as Fabregas could be in central midfield, Fabianski was crucial in retaining Arsenal’s advantage.

First David Silva’s back-heel – a moment of audacious genius – was stopped on the line. More important were the strong fingertips which diverted Silva’s curling left-footer from reaching the bottom corner. Lesser goalkeepers would have been beaten. Even Adebayor, on as a second-half substitute, was denied a cathartic goal against his former club as his header was pushed over. In that spell we saw two Premier League giants playing a brand of football tactically and technically advanced without losing the intensity and passion customary of English football.

Then came Song’s clincher. Suddenly Arsenal’s one man advantage became hideously apparent. In one moment of quality the game had raced out of City’s reach. Roberto Mancini, mastermind of City victories over their rivals (for let’s face it, such is the strength of City’s squad that they would surely beat three quarters of the teams in the Premier League irrespective of their manager), seemed bewildered. His substitutions were token gestures thereafter. Mario Balotelli made a welcome return from injury but looked rusty and lost on the right flank – worrying considering he played so much of his football for Inter in that position. Wayne Bridge’s introduction was even more disastrous. His weak challenge led to the ball breaking loose for Song to thrash home and in an instant kill off City’s valid hopes of rescuing the game.

Thereafter City’s limitations were exposed. True, playing for so long one man short is a massive hindrance, but there still seems a disparity between the defensive and attacking units of the team. The two are not yet cohesive. City’s midfielders – Gareth Barry, Yaya Toure and Nigel de Jong – are principally destructive players, the latter two in particular getting severe nose bleeds should they find themselves in unchartered territory close to the opposition’s goal. This exacerbated difficulties in keeping possession and playing penetrating passes in the final third. With little looking like changing, the Citizens attacks were token gestures.

How City, for all their millions, must today be yearning for Samir Nasri. Constantly the link between midfield and attack for Arsenal, his gracefulness epitomised Arsenal’s victory. The physicality in City’s midfield which ground down Chelsea was made to look cumbersome as he notched the opener before carving open the defence for Nicklas Bendtner’s third. Whilst the defeat is not a disaster, Arsenal’s free-flowing style exposed weaknesses inherent in City’s line-up which are particularly vulnerable when they go behind. Another creator would suffice.

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