Manchester United 2 – 1 Arsenal
1 – 0 van Persie (9)
2 – 0 Evra (67)
2 – 1 Cazorla (90)
Rooney missed pen (44)
Wilshere sent off (72)
By the time Jack Wilshere left the field having seen red, the match was over. It was over long before that. Last season, the corresponding fixture threw out a result at once humiliating and exceptional; the same United team was beaten 6 – 1 by Manchester City. It could be dismissed, put out of our minds, a freak result in a season of the unusual scoreline. This time? A performance so redolent of recent matches should have brought about a wider margin of defeat. As much as I dislike Sir Alex Ferguson, had United scored six, there could have been few complaints. Unless they were all from penalties, of course…
At what point does the manager admit defeat with 4-3-3? At what point does he admit that he cannot make it translate into an effective tactic in the Premier League with this personnel? Surely it must be dawning on him by now? The lack of discipline in the back four at the moment makes me wonder if 4-4-2 would work. Santos and Vermaelen will win a gold medal at unsynchronised swimming at the next Olympic. There is a common problem on the left side when the Brazilian is in the team, Podolski cannot seem to work effectively with Santos on any kind of defensive solution. Kieran Gibbs injury cannot be healed too quickly.
I don’t care if Santos swapped shirts with van Persie at half-time, to me it’s a stupid as Steve Hodge claiming Maradona’s shirt after that match in 1986. To some it is a problem; get over it, there are deeper concerns. Such as the Brazilian’s inability to provide a disciplined defensive performance. Yes, we all love those little samba shimmies he produces. Time and place springs to mind.
And United exploited this fault repetitiously throughout the match. He was not the only culprit in defence. Vermaelen has been worryingly out of sorts since returning from injury, the assuredness of his initial season has gone and an uncertainty manifesting in rashness has taken its place. It is not as if punishments have not been few and far between, lessons there for him to learn from. This time Rafael exploited the space at left back before the Belgian skewed his clearance; He provided the unerring finish into the corner.
Arsène’s pre-match plan to contain the match never materialised. The statistics show Arsenal had possession but so much of it was ineffective, a point acknowledged by the manager post-match when he called it, “illusory domination“. Yet this is not an unfamiliar problem for the manager; it has still not been addressed. Rooney might have made matters worse but Mannone made the first of a string of good stops; someone enhanced their reputation in this match.
Arsenal had barely threatened, certainly not managed anything on target. When Aaron Ramsey’s run and cross being stopped by De Gea is the highlight of the opening forty-five minutes, the paucity of fare on offer is laid bare for all to see. Trailing by a single goal was a bonus to Arsenal. Cazorla raised his hands in the area and a penalty ensued. Quite rightly. We’ve seen them given against Arsenal at home, let alone Old Trafford. Rooney missed and some claim justice was done. It wasn’t. The referee did not influence the outcome of this match, United were a different proposition to Arsenal without any perception of favourtism.
Arsenal reacted briefly at the start of the second half, Giroud narrowly missing. OK, Valencia and Carrick had gone close beforehand but we’ll ignore that in the vain search for something hopeful, something positive. Such rays of light were few and far between; United added a second when Evra scored from close-in. The wagon was listing before the wheels came off. Wilshere might have been sent off previously, along with Cleverley. The difference came with substitutions; Ferguson removed his errant midfielder before punishment was meted out. Wenger lacked that clarity of thought or the will to do so. That doesn’t absolve Wilshere of blame, far from it, the midfielder is rated as one of best in the game but the flaws in his game were exposed.
In the end, Cazorla reduced the deficit, gave the scoreline an illusory closeness. The problem for Arsenal is that this is a repetitious performance. The lacklustre performances have been too frequent since the last international break and there is no rational reason why. Form had been good previously – or relatively so – but individuals are not standing tall. Vermaelen is as much a problem as Santos. Rashness has influenced his game, is it a lack of confidence in himself or his colleagues? Has he been made captain because he is next on the transfer list, a gentle way of moving him out of the club?
Whatever the problems are, this is where the manager and coaching staff have to address them. It is repetitive that every Autumn sees results drop away with the changing of colours of the leaves. As the ground becomes a rainbow hue, the draws and defeats increase. Each team has a downturn at some point; Arsenal’s seem more entrenched and a resoultion needs to be found swiftly.
At the end of this, almost on the outside, is Theo Walcott. Wenger has repeatedly excluded the winger from the team despite evidence that he is enhancing attacking play in recent weeks when involved. Yesterday, the lack of width was evident and in those circumstances, it is right to ask the manager questions of his policy. It is all very well ignoring a recalcitrant player but Arsenal and Wenger are as culpable in this situation. Aaron Ramsey has the potential to be an excellent central midfielder but is not going to be a wide player. Square pegs don’t fit in round holes no matter how hard you hit them.
These are tough times for Arsenal. The manager has work to do.