It’s the footballing equivalent of Del Boy falling through the service hatch. Except there’s nothing remotely funny about Arsenal’s timing.
The poorest Manchester United side in a generation pitched up at The Emirates without an away win all season. They rolled with the punches, rode their luck, struck a low blow with Kieran Gibbs own goal before Wayne Rooney finished them off with a sucker punch as full-time approached.
Three points went begging and having been ridiculed and lambasted, Louis Van Gaal has somehow steered his ship into the top four. That they are only two points clear of Arsenal is the saving grace. A win in return fixtures over those above and Arsenal will be in their place (OK, four from Newcastle). Trouble is, on this form that is a tall order and to be honest, looking beyond the midweek visit of Dortmund is folly; Arsenal have no form to speak of, leaving performances in doubt and certainly no basis for confidently predicting a top four finish.
And despite the defeat, Arsenal played as well as they have for some time. The word ‘well’ is used advisedly; it’s all relative.
The players must bear the brunt of criticism for the defeat, for any defeat. They have lost the intelligence to be disciplined, to remain calm under pressure and to retain their shape in a crisis. But it’s a results based business and Arsene buys the players, oversees their training and decides the tactics. It’s his team and the can is carried by the manager, no matter how harsh that might be on this occasion. It was a result in keeping with a season with the same flaws apparent.
And defeat is always a bitter pill, made worse with the knowledge that this is the fourteenth time in the last fifteen meetings with Manchester United that Arsenal have failed to win.
It might have been so different. The differential between the two sides shots on target totals was such that any calculator trying to work it out would give up and display an error message. But that counts for nothing when you don’t score more than your opponent. Jack Wilshere was culpable of the worst finish, hitting David De Gea with the goal at his mercy. It changed the outcome, of course it did and having performed so well for England, it was a disappointing end to Wilshere’s fortnight.
Welbeck as well, hobbling at the end, should have scored at least one. At this level, chances such as his header that cleared the bar, must be on target and making the goalkeeper work to save if he cannot score. To put the ball that high into the stadium behind the goal is hugely disappointing. There were others too but then the post would become a litany of missed chances.
And in those missed chances comes a touch of brightness, a shaft of a hope in the darkness because Wilshere has the ability to make those runs more frequently, Welbeck was able to break free of tight defensive marking to miss and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain produced moments of exceptional wing play. It was a defeat that had more ‘positive’ elements than previous weeks.
Perhaps the biggest was the return to the pitch of Olivier Giroud, whose finish was a simply stunning piece of forward play.
It’s the worst start of Wenger’s reign, the club’s worst since 1982/83, a year. Terry Neill delivered nothing like the success Arsène has previously, he had nowhere near the respect to trade on and twelve months later, he was gone. But like Neill, Arsène is struggling to resolve the problems that plague their season or if he does, like Neill, he is unable to make the players respond.
And despite the positives, the same problems plagued the defeat with no sign of them being resolved. Are the players incapable of responding to the manager, so wrapped up in their overwhelming desire to halt a dismal run of performances. That is perhaps the biggest issue Arsenal face, yesterday was not isolated and cannot be separated from the rest of the season with too many long-standing issues surfacing.
We haven’t even touched on the goals conceded. Gibbs was pushed into Szczesny but it went unpunished, hardly surprising because Fellaini’s nudge only became apparent in the replay. It proved costly because the Pole ultimately left the pitch, Gibbs diverted the ball into the net in a subsequent passage of play and Arsenal lost their heads which directly led to the counter for Rooney’s second. Just as it could have been better with more clinical Arsenal finishing, Di Maria was guilty of a miss as bad as Wilshere’s that could have made it worse.
Speaking to the press afterwards, Arsène was clear where the root cause lay,
How you stop that [losing games which Arsenal have dominated] is to be more efficient. That will be linked with confidence and the fact that we have to be a bit more calm and patient. At the moment we are after success and there’s a discordance with our possession, our chances we create and our result. It’s very difficult but we have to keep faith in what we do.
At the moment, that faith in the style, the tactics, the personnel on and off the pitch with questioning of it all increasing on a weekly basis. As we sit here this morning, surveying the wreckage of an afternoon, of a season, the biggest answer needed is how to end the run. Arsène doesn’t have the options to choose from to change things dramatically although if Joel Campbell, Lukas Podolski and Tomas Rosicky do not get into the side for Dortmund or West Brom, surely the penny will drop that they will probably not appear in a Wenger side again.
The latter pair’s situation is baffling. Podolski offers a directness Cazorla cannot yet the latter was preferred when Wilshere went off. Giroud for Ramsey? Can’t argue with that, it made sense, may be could have been made ten minutes earlier but as much as it was a decision dictated by events on the pitch, twenty plus minutes may well have been too much given it was the French international’s first match back. Welcome too.
However, Ramsey will probably be the biggest beneficiary of Wilshere’s absence because I think he needs some time to think, calm down and return to do the basics of his game correctly. Wenger feels the same, noting as much in recent weeks as well as underlining his faith in the player. Whilst I am sure Cazorla will probably return on Wednesday, Rosicky seems to me a more natural fit for Wilshere’s role. He has experience as well and that surely can manifest in leadership in the midfield to retain shape? Surely?
The defeat hurts because United were so poor but there were positives. The negatives of the performance are the hallmarks of the season. Confidence is shredded and there is a collective lack of discipline. Knowing that they have a makeshift back four to protect ought to imbue a sense of responsibility in the midfield, knowing a cautious approach is necessary to prevent their teammates being exposed. That piece is missing and until it is found, the patchwork quilt of performances is going to continue.
The length of that malaise defines how the season ends.