In Review

Another Arsenal title challenge dies but Wenger bumbles on

The Gunners are reduced to the status of Premier League also-runs yet again after 'pathetic' defeat by City

By Bill Mann

Manchester City 2 Arsenal 1

In any other of Europe's big leagues Arsene Wenger would have been long gone, but this is Arsenal, where mediocrity reigns, and the Frenchman still seems secure in his job despite the fact that the 2016-17 season is panning out just as the past 13 have.

Against Manchester City on Sunday, Wenger watched as his side subsided, producing a second half performance so lame it was hard to believe Arsenal are considered title challengers. Or at least "were" considered title challengers before losing two matches in five days.

They now lie two places below City in fourth and trail Chelsea by nine points, and the chances of the Gunners overhauling their London rivals are slimmer than the contents of their trophy cabinet. So now the second half of the season is all about remaining in the top four of the Champions League and securing qualification to the Champions League.

This is what Wenger has reduced a once great club to - an also-ran, an embarrassing also-ran at that.

Not that he should shoulder all of the blame for what unfolded at the Etihad. Many of his players looked disinterested, none more so than Mesul Ozil, the flat-track bully who wilts when the pressure is on. Apparently he wants a huge pay hike before he signs a new contract; on the basis of his effort on Sunday the German should just take a hike.

The statistics are damning: Arsenal had only one shot on target the whole game - Theo Walcott's goal after five minutes - and they've now lost three league games from leading positions this season, more than they managed in the whole of last season.

It's groundhog day for the Gunners, and will be so long as Wenger remains at the helm, and although the Arsenal manager blamed the defeat on refereeing his fans have long since stopped listening to his excuses.

"I'm disappointed and frustrated," he said. "We conceded two offside goals. It's difficult to accept... it's hard going into a game like that and you get decisions go against you."

Saying his side was "unfortunate," Wenger asked: "What can you do about the offside goals?"

Both goals were tight calls but television replays suggested that Leroy Sane was just played onside by Laurent Koscielny for the first City goal on 47 minutes, while Raheem Sterling's goal was also valid despite the positioning of David Silva.

For Wenger to try and blame the defeat on the officials is laughable. He'd be better off trying to explain why his side had one shot on target in 90 minutes, or why his record signing hardly made a contribution the whole afternoon.

All he could manage was "we were a bit jaded physically".

City didn't seem tired in the second half, yet they've also played three matches in eight days. It's pathetic but all too predictable.

As for Pep Guardiola his side are now second, seven points behind Chelsea but heading towards Christmas with renewed optimism after a battling second-half performance.

"I told them not to think about the score, I told them to keep going," explained Guardiola, when asked in the post-match press conference about his half-time talk. "It was similar to the game against Chelsea - then we played well and lost and today we won. The guys give everything in every game. I'm happy to be City coach. In terms of spirit it's always there."

Man City vs Arsenal: A must win for Guardiola and Wenger

16 December

Sunday's clash between Manchester City and Arsenal is a must-win match for both managers, both of whom are feeling the pressure.

On the one hand it's absurd to say that Arsene Wenger should be in the spotlight. Arsenal are second in the Premier League and Tuesday night's defeat to Everton, tame as it was, was the Gunners' first league reverse since losing to Liverpool on the opening day of the season. Add to that the fact Wenger's men finished top of their Champions League group - the first time they've achieved such a feat in five years - and Arsenal fans should be pretty pleased with the way the first half of the season have panned out.

But they're not.

There's an ominous sense of deja vu looming. Chelsea are six points out in front - the same Chelsea side that was thrashed 3-0 by the Gunners in late September - and there's a feeling among many Arsenal fans that Wenger has simply papered over the cracks in his squad, and in his coaching ability.

That's why Sunday's game is so crucial. Manchester City are there for the taking. Beaten by both Leicester and Chelsea this month, and held to a 1-1 draw by Celtic in the Champions League, the Sky Blues are still struggling to adapt to the methods of new manager Pep Guardiola.

Arsenal, in contrast, are a relatively settled squad with systems that have long been in place. But where are the leaders? Where are the men who can Wenger can rely on to grind out three points in a midweek game in mid-winter? 

Against Everton Arsenal shrank in stature the longer the game wore on, while their opponents grew. It's a same-old story for the fans, who have come to dread the turn of each year as their early optimism is replaced by the grim realisation that once again their team has neither the consistency nor the courage to see the fight to its end.

In contrast, the consistency problem at City this season has been in Guardiola's team selection. As Danny Murphy tells BBC Sport, "after 26 games in charge of City in all competitions, he does not know his best XI or the way he wants to play." It shows in the 19 goals that City have conceded in the league so far, eight more than Chelsea and Tottenham, who lie in fifth, one place behind Guardiola's team.

It's natural that a new manager works through various combinations in an attempt his best formation and in Murphy's view the 4-3-3 system Guardiola used in the Champions League against Barcelona and Bayern Munich is his most effective. 

Stick with that, advises the former England midfielder, and let the players grow into their roles and showcase their talent.

As for Arsenal, Murphy says if they are to win at the Etihad they mustn't make the mistake they made when they travelled to Old Trafford last month, sitting off United and allowing their hosts to dictate the tempo of the game. "I think Arsenal might have learned from that game because they got dominated and should have lost," says Murphy.

If they haven't learned from that game, and if they lose to City, the pressure will once again grow for the Gunners to hire a new head teacher.

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