Arsenal 1 – 3 Manchester United
0 – 1 Almunia (33 o.g.)
0 – 2 Rooney (37)
0 – 3 Park (53)
1 – 3 Vermaelen (80)
Before the match at Villa Park, I observed that winning both of the home games and drawing the away games would give Arsenal a desired eight points out of a possible twelve. That tally is not possible, seven the best that can be hoped for. And it will be seven gained the hard way with a win at Stamford Bridge an absolute must if the title challenge is not to disintegrate before our eyes.
Arsene‘s concern over the result is plain to see, his comments a public castigation of his charges:
It is difficult to take but easy to explain because we were poor offensively and defensively cohesion-wise. We delivered an off-the-mark performance completely and that is why we were well beaten today. We gave them always too much room, we were naive.
Which pretty much covers the whole of the performance. Do you castigate an individual for their performance or do you look collectively and ask whether they were on their own or one of many who were below the required standard? Sometimes the individual does require a kick to the rear.
Other occasions beg the question as to whether or not that individual playing to a higher level would have covered for deficiencies elsewhere. On this showing, the latter is more relevant and unless there had been a substantial rise in the performance level of three or four individuals, yesterday was still a fixture which would have been lost.
Delivering the required improvement to produce a win at Stamford Bridge is going to be the focus of this week’s training, the manager in his own words, will not be distracted by an transfer dealings today as the January window draws to a close. No doubt yesterday’s defeat will bring howls that this cannot be the case, the manager has lost the plot.
In itself, the cries for new players are the ultimate exercise in futility, trying to get a deal done within such a short space of time not impossible but certainly extraordinarily hard if the groundwork has not already been laid.
The opening minutes saw the teams trade half chances. Arshavin shot wide having been freed on the left whilst Rooney mis-hit an effort, Song blocking Carrick immediately afterwards. As the half progressed, openings were at a premium and the sense was that United had started better but Arsenal were clawing their way back into it, Arshavin going closest and looking the only menacing forward in red.
Nani bucked any thoughts of Arsenal dominating the game, quite possibly playing the best game of his United career; certainly his best against Arsenal.The opening goal gave him a sense that it was his afternoon, clipping the ball over Almunia and watching as the Spaniard turned the ball into the net, his vain attempt to turn the ball to safety going horribly wrong.
Four minutes later, Nani broke, found Rooney who scored on the counter-attack. As with the Champions League semi-final, two United goals in quick succession gave them supremacy in the match, a lofty position that they would not drop. Both goals were avoidable. Both came from the same source, suggesting that the initial lesson was not learned. It also notes that the Arsenal left had been identified as a weak point, Clichy’s rustiness in his search for match-sharpness being duly noted by United and worked on.
Any notion of a famous fightback disappeared after the break. Park and Rooney found themselves outnumbering Clichy as the Arsenal offside trap was clinically broken and the Korean scored. Defensively, it was shambolic, the source once more an Arsenal attack which broke down, United strode through relatively unhindered – OK, entirely unhindered – and found the back of the net quite easily.
Vermaelen popped up with another goal, his second in three games but it was nowhere near soon enough for a fightback to begin. If nothing else, he managed to keep a thousand fantasy football managers happy by earning points, one of the few Arsenal players to do so.
The disappointing aspect of all three goals is that there was an element of self-infliction for all three. Almunia is being criticised for the opening goal; he had to try to stop the ball with United queuing at the far post to give Nani’s work the finish it deserved with little guarantee that the covering defender, Sagna I think, would have been able to prevent the deadlock being broken.
Even so, with a decent contact being made, the expectation is that a goalkeeper will be able to safely turn the ball over the bar; an error in judgement on this occasion. Equally, the tracking back by the midfield, Denilson in particular is getting some criticism, eyes were gazing upon the ball rather than concentrating on where the danger behind them was.
Chances were created in response but it was an afternoon with an all too familiar feeling about it, too reminiscent of the Champions League semi-final with Arsenal undone by counter-attacking football. The mental issue highlighted by Wenger is a key issue which has to be faced up to since this weekend’s opponents have a similarly strong hold over Arsenal, the last three meetings seeing twelve goals conceded.
Arshavin had opportunities, selfishly shooting on occasion when a team-mate was better placed. However, he is a striker and therefore has a selfish attitude. Had he passed and the chance been spurned, no doubt the Russian would have received brickbats for not seizing the moment.
No doubt that the defeat is damaging; the litmus test of a season is how well you play against your closest rivals, an indicator of what the true level of the team is. There has been an accusation in the recent past that Arsenal are ‘flat track bullies’, able to decimate the weak, pounded by the strong. This season has seen some credence to that in terms of results yet the title is won in all games not just half a dozen.
Backing the team is essential now. Good players do not become bad overnight. Mistakes happen in all walks of life, Arsenal were publicly punished for theirs. Players are rightly being criticised for a sub-standard performance but like them, we have to pick ourselves off the floor. We have to get behind them, ready to face the moral turpitude which is seeping through football otherwise known as Chelsea, next weekend.