Gunners lose it in first half

Posted by Andrew Mangan

Arsenal can take some heart from a spirited second-half performance, but the three points were lost Sunday in the first half thanks to Arsene Wenger's team selection.

Laurent Koscielny came in for Per Mertesacker -- Arsenal's most consistent central defender this season -- and lasted just six minutes. The red card was the right decision; Koscielny had both arms wrapped around Edin Dzeko, and Mike Dean had both a perfect view and no choice but to send Koscielny off.

- Brewin: Arsenal masters of their own downfall
- Report: Milner helps City end hex at Arsenal

I think there's a debate to be had about whether a penalty and a red card is an overly harsh punishment, but that's all it is. As the rules stand, it was a penalty and a red card, and although Dzeko missed the spot kick, City took advantage as Arsenal struggled to come to terms to playing with 10 men.

That said, neither goal was entirely down to playing with one fewer man. On the first, Arsenal -- and in particular, Thomas Vermaelen -- switched off when City took a quick free kick. James Milner's finish was excellent, but it's an opportunity that could have been prevented with a bit more concentration.

As for the second, Pablo Zabaleta's commitment in the challenge against Kieran Gibbs saw him emerge with the ball and set off the move that led to Dzeko's tap-in. It's a small thing, but they make a big difference at this level.

I think questions also have to be asked about the decision to start Abou Diaby. In the absence of Mikel Arteta, Wenger had a number of options available to him:

1. Francis Coquelin, a more natural defensive midfielder than Arteta.
2. Aaron Ramsey, who could have formed a 'double pivot' in midfield with Jack Wilshere, providing a platform for Santi Cazorla.
3. Diaby.

The Arsenal manager chose the man who hasn't played in the Premier League since the defeat to Chelsea in September, and the Frenchman looked off the pace and lacked the kind of touch necessary in a game like this, especially one in which Arsenal had to work extra hard to keep the ball. With 11 men, it would have to carry him a little bit. With 10, it was too much.

It's not a criticism of the player but rather the decision. Wenger said before the game it was a risk and a gamble, and it didn't pay off. I find it hard to believe that Ramsey was more of a risk, especially when he'd have been played in his favoured central midfield position. The Welshman created Arsenal's best chance with a great pass to put Theo Walcott through, and to me, at least, it would have made more sense to start him and use Diaby from the bench if necessary.

If anything, it shows that the squad needs improvement, but this is a point that has been made, and hammered home, countless times this season already. Walcott was anonymous up front, a performance highlighted by the fact that 58th-minute substitute Olivier Giroud had more touches of the ball by the end of the game (stat via @7amkickoff). The team and the manager lack options, and I'll stand by what I've said in this column before: Investment in the squad isn't a January luxury; it's a necessity if a top-four finish is to be achieved.

Finally, analysis of this game can't end on a negative note after the performance of Wilshere. The young man was always trying to drive Arsenal on; he was strong, committed, brave and determined. To be fair, no Arsenal player was found wanting in terms of effort, but Wilshere stood out.

If others can follow his lead, this current Arsenal squad might achieve more. He walked a bit of a tightrope after picking up a yellow card, but that's the combative nature of his game. Some of the touches and flicks showed that as his fitness returns, so, too, are the skills that set him apart from most young English players of this generation.

Arsenal now has to regroup and get itself up for a difficult cup replay on Wednesday evening. There will be tired legs but hopefully a new face or two.

ESPN Conversations