Ten minutes to go at the KCOM Stadium, and I look across from my seat – East Stand, half way line – at shaven-headed referee Roger East, jogging back to the the middle of the pitch after seeing a Snodgrass penalty give City a sniff of a comeback. I swear that he was blushing.
This is not match reporter’s poetic licence. East’s face was as red as the Arsenal shirts. City substitute Mbokani had been through on goal, dinked the ball over the advancing Petr Čech, and been knocked flying by the keeper. Play on, waved East, no whistle, no foul. Until suddenly, as Arsenal brought the ball out from the back, there was a whistle, and a penalty, and a yellow card for Čech.
With a reluctance that the home crowd had come to expect, East had given a decision our way, presumably acting on his assistant’s say-so. With ten minutes to go, it was game back on, and we were in with a chance of snatching a point from a game we’d played most of with ten men.
Arsenal’s two late goals made sure it wasn’t to be. But it didn’t feel like a 4-1 drubbing. We’re not coming away from this one with any bubble burst, just with some selection questions being asked as we head to Anfield next week.
Showing a loyalty to his starting line-up that is unusual at this level, caretaker Phelan carded the now familiar eleven of:
Elmohamady Livermore Davies Robertson
Snodgrass Huddlestone Meyler Diomande
Some commend this is as good man-management and just deserts for a steady start to the season. Others – and I count myself amongst them – reckon that loyalty should come after ability on the list of selection criteria. Marshall is a better keeper than Jakupović. Mason is a better midfielder than Meyler. So why not play them? Is the idea that because those in possession of the shirt haven’t done much wrong, then they stay in the team? Put that another way, and you’re saying let them do something wrong and then we’ll play the better players we’ve just spent millions on.
Still, it’s churlish to be too critical of Mike Phelan, whose caretaking spell has been noteworthy for its stylish play and his chilled-out demeanour. It is this stylish play that marks the opening exchanges, as both teams pass with skill and patience, playing attractive keep-ball, but sitting deep and not making too much effort to break forward.
When City, attacking the North Stand in the first half, do try to move things into the final third, we do it down the flanks. And Elmo doesn’t have his crossing boots on today.
Arsenal prefer to play it narrow and attack through the middle. This is how they take the lead on 16 minutes. Walcott on the edge of the box chips a gentle shot towards goal, Jakupović palms it straight back into the danger area, where Iwobi gleefully pounces and slots it home (though a deflection off Sánchez means it’s chalked up to his account).
Arsenal tails are up, and straight after kick-off Diomande (one more player who seems to be in the team on loyalty over ability) plays a dangerous back pass that sets up another Gunners attack.
City have a few sniffs.
Man of the moment Snodgrass tangles with Monreal just inside the Arsenal penalty area. Through my amber-tinted specs it looks like a good penalty shout. East gives it Arsenal’s way.
Hernández is put through one-on-one with Koscielny but shoots early and wide.
Diomande starts a great move by turning the Arsenal defence about 25 yards out, sprinting forward, and laying the ball to Hernández, who passes on for Snodgrass to force a smart save out of Čech. A couple of minutes later we see the other side of Diomande, as a City attack breaks down when he traps the ball further than most entrants in the half-time ‘Crossbar Challenge’ can kick it.
The stand-out performer for City though is young Sam Clucas, a ginger Rolls Royce of a player, sitting in front of the back four, collecting the ball from defence, carrying it out with unruffled, skilful passing, spraying the occasional pass out to either flank, and several times dispossessing Arsenal with clean tackles. It’s credit to Mike Phelan – perhaps prompted by circumstances – to see in last year’s left winger, this year’s central pivot of calm presence.
Right, that’s enough waxing lyrical. For all the neat build-up play, we’re not testing Arsenal much.
One-nil down and we’re still playing with only an isolated Hernández up front, as if trying to hold on to a point that we don’t have.
Then it gets worse. On 40 minutes Walcott is again on the right edge of our box, he crosses low, Coquelin shoots towards goal, and Livermore – central and about six yards out – knocks the goal-bound shot wide with his arm. You’re not allowed to do that. Roger East points to the spot and sends Livermore off for handball stopping a certain goal.
Well before Livermore has trudged off the pitch, Sánchez takes a weak penalty, and Jakupović dives to his right and saves well.
Petr Čech reacts by running from his goal right up to the halfway line to angrily confront the linesman. He seems to be complaining that the penalty should be retaken since Livermore had still been on the pitch when Sánchez missed it. I’ve no idea whether he’s technically right on that, but I do know that rushing 40 yards to agitatedly confront an official is one of those things that refs are supposed to be clamping down on.
Roger East isn’t doing any clamping down on Arsenal today. He ignores Čech’s tirade, as he later does that of Santi Cazorla. East booked Cazorla early on for fouling Elmo, but seems determined to resist any temptation to punish several further offences by the Spaniard with the yellow card that they – cumulatively if not individually – deserve.
At half-time there’s much discussion around me of the recent changes to the laws of the game. Surely Čech should have been booked? And what about Livermore? Surely it’s no longer necessary to send off a player who denies a goal-scoring opportunity? Isn’t it the case that the game’s law-makers have done away with the ‘triple punishment’ and settled instead for a yellow-card for the offence, and a penalty to make up for the goal-scoring opportunity? Well, up to a point. But that point doesn’t include serious foul play and – crucially – deliberate handball. We might not like it, and we like it even less when Čech stays on the pitch in the second half after bringing down Mbokani. But them’s the laws, even if the law’s an ass.
Talking of recent law changes, the second half starts with Hernández, on his own in the centre circle, taking the kick-off backwards. Makes you wonder why we ever did it differently.
For most of the second half, Arsenal seem to have this sewn up. Ten minutes in they score a second, and Walcott on the right of our area is yet again the key. He plays a lovely one-two with Iwobi, chips Jakupović, and the defender on the line (Maguire, on for Diomande) can only head it into the net.
Phelan brings on Mason for Huddlestone, but nothing changes in terms of formation. We still play a lonely Hernández up top, repeatedly being invited to chase long balls with a couple of Arsenal defenders for company. Unsurprisingly, he’s not getting much joy. I can’t work out why we persist with this tactic. It’s effective for holding onto a point, but we ain’t got one to hold onto. I don’t like starting home games with one up front, and I don’t like sticking with this when we’re losing and it’s not working.
On 76, Phelan at last brings on another striker, Mbokani. But he takes off Hernández, so we’re still playing the one up top. But at least fresh legs and new players make a difference. Straightaway the two second-half subs combine, Mason playing a neat ball through to Mbokani, who dinks it over Čech and is knocked off his feet. Referee Roger East pretends to see nothing untoward, until he is reluctantly persuaded to take note of his assistant and give City a penalty. Snodgrass scores. East blushes.
Game on? Briefly it was. But then that man Walcott again advances into our box. Jakupović can only block his shot back out to Sánchez who scores with ease.
After that, any hope of 10-man City getting back into things is gone. The game is Arsenal’s and it only remains for time to be played out. Except Arsenal’s big summer signing Granit Xhaka, on as a sub, has something to prove. Deep into injury time he advances out of midfield, wonders briefly why no one is bothering to close him down, and shoots past Swiss compatriot Jakupović from some 35 yards.
We’ve been tonked in terms of scoreline. But did I mention we had ten men for most of the game? And with ten minutes to go we were still in the game? Now we sit tenth in the Premier League.
A perfect ten it isn’t though. If Mike Phelan was looking for reasons to change his starting eleven and bring in some of the exciting and expensive talent the club finally got round to buying during the international break, well today’s game provided those reasons. We won’t be seeing an unchanged starting line-up at Liverpool next week, and I for one am glad of that.
(Report first appeared on the Tiger Chat mailing list)