I feel sorry for the poor sods that are Arsenal fans. Ok. No. It is mostly Schadenfreude (MEGALOLMAXLOL). There is only so much to be gained from constantly claiming moral victories and aesthetics. Ask any United fan and while they would like to plead patience, they know all too well that the result is king. And so it turned out to be in the late kick-off between United and Arsenal and the Emirates.
United came into this game with an injury list that consisted of 3 of their first choice back 4 (Rafael, Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo), their first choice midfield anchor (Daley Blind), a striker (Falcao) who would have probably been preferred over a terrible, terrible Robin van Persie. Thankfully for them, Di Maria, Michael Carrick and David de Gea (United’s most consistent player by a margin and a brilliant keeper to boot) pulled through. It did not help United that Luke Shaw was forced off and replaced with Ashley Young but Young played quite well in a defensive capacity.
Arsenal came into the game with injury problems too. Laurent Koscielny and Mathieu Debuchy (2 of Arsenal’s first choice defensive line) were missing. So were Theo Walcott and Mesut Ozil, one of whom would probably have started in place of Oxlade Chamberlain (who was excellent throughout the game and has been on a great run of form for club and country). Arsenal were also without David Ospina but to be honest he would not have replaced Sczezny in goal anyway. Arsenal were also forced to play Nacho Monreal at center back but while Koscielny’s injury is the direct cause, Arsene Wenger’s ridiculous decision to let Vermaelen go while signing the square root of bugger all as replacement is the primary reason they have struggled in recent weeks. Also, Calum Chambers was fit but played at right back which is just ridiculous but more on that later.
United, for their part, suffered in the first half from a change in system that was seemingly forced on van Gaal. He chose to play Smalling between the steadily impressive McNair and a slightly rusty Blackett. Perhaps, he did not think that McNair and Smalling could handle Welbeck and Sanchez alone or maybe van Gaal wanted to make sure that there was enough cover for a dodgy backline. Either way, United looked uncomfortable from the off. Arsenal looked like hunters and United were hapless prey. But Arsenal, as discussed below, failed to make United pay. United somehow managed to go into the break on level footing mostly due to luck and De Gea.
Any analysis of this game has to focus mostly on Arsenal’s lack of final product. They look great until it comes to that moment in the final third where the finish has to be applied. Wilshere, Welbeck, Sanchez and Chamberlain were all guilty of finishes that were either too scuffed or too close to De Gea. The Spaniard was his usual self but was made to look better as a result of some average finishing from the strikers and midfielders. This is now typical Arsenal and the return of Giroud cannot come soon enough as he has that ability to finish so lacking in all of Arsenal players apart from Alexis Sanchez.
The second half saw a marked shift in both resolve and tactics from United. The system remained the same but off the ball, van Persie shifted right to help out Valencia and Di Maria did the same on the other side. This stemmed the Arsenal tide largely. However, they continued to look better on the ball. van Persie was sometimes missing and failed to always track Keiran Gibbs which in turn led to concerted pressure from the left side. This pressure never really materialized into a goal and like a scrappy away side, United managed to hit Arsenal twice. United got the first goal out of nothing when in one of their rare attacks they crossed the ball in and Fellaini caused Gibbs to crash into Sczeszny and from the resulting kerfuffle, Valencia smashed a shot cum cross goal wards more in hope than expectation and the aforementioned Gibbs stuck a foot out to deflect it in. From then on, United looked fairly assured in defense and increased the lead after soaking up considerable Arsenal pressure when Di Maria took advantage of a Fellaini (yes! I know with his foot and all) through ball to square for Rooney who ran on past Monreal and chipped the keeper. United could and should have had a third when Di Maria was through on goal but missed a sitter. Giroud slammed in a brilliant consolation out of nothing to briefly give Arsenal hope but that was a microcosm of what the club has become. Arsenal never really applied a serious spell of pressure after United scored. While they did have a few shots on target, it always appeared as if United had it under control and apart from a few last ditch tackles and de Gea saves, they were actually less threatened than in the first half.
United have now risen up to fourth following a bunch of results this weekend that went in their favour. This has not been a vintage performance by any stretch of the imagination. They look vulnerable defensively which has largely been due to the number of injuries and the inconsistent back lines that they have played. Playing a new system in the 3-5-2 and then reverting to a Diamond or a 4-4-2 or a 4-2-3-1 has not helped either. However, the last four matches have seen better performances from them. Given their transfer outlay, attack was not going to be a major issue and while they have been inconsistent, it is a given that this team will click and get into gear. If they can sort out their defense, then United can make a more concerted push for the top four. Anything else is beyond them.
Arsenal are the most infuriating team in all of football right now. There is so much promise that is counterbalanced by mental blocks, their manager’s stubbornness and myopia towards players that are not good enough (Diaby, Flamini, Arteta, Monreal). They lack a defensive midfielder. They lack a center half beyond Koscielny and Mertrsacker and playing Chambers at right back takes away from what Sagna did so consistently for them last season. Hector Bellerin is a young right back who is pacy and did quite well when called upon. Wenger still insists on playing Chambers in a position where he is not great defensively and offensively not sharp enough. Yet in stark contrast to the way United have introduced McNair and Blackett, Wenger insists on playing Monreal at center back denying Chambers a chance there even though he excelled there at the beginning of the season. This also keeps Bellerin waiting in the wings and severely limits an attacking avenue down the right.
It must be infuriating for Arsenal supporters and they expressed their frustration several times in the game causing the commentators to apologize. The question is whether one can really blame them? How long can a club continue to skirt mediocrity and brilliance in the span of a few minutes? How long can a club continue to stay within touching distance of the top but always manage to look a level below? How long will a club manage to torture its fans with such torturous hope and yank it all away by playing like a team without serious intent to ever crack the big time?
Arsenal have refused to learn from their mistakes and Wenger continues to show a weird aversion to change. It would be trite to say that Wenger needs to go but he needs to accept that he can no longer run the ship in the same haphazard manner. Arsenal are arguably at a precipice. Arsenal and Wenger need to be decisive and change the way that they approach games. It is time they realized that Wenger’s definition of ‘sterile domination’ for Spain in 2014 now applies to them and has done so for a while. They lack grit and toughness. They lack a durable squad and the blame for most of this lies on Wenger who has continued to do the same things in the hope that somehow they will yield different results.
They can no longer sell the idea that supporters should shell insane amounts of money to watch their team fight for 4th place. The past few seasons have seen huge increases in ticket prices and Arsenal supporters are forced to pay through the nose while the club claims record cash reserves. All of this is further compounded by the increase in quality of Southampton and the relative closeness of the rest of the chasing pack. Arsenal have been able to assuage supporters by the continued promise of Champions League football. Imagine if they were to finish below 4th. North London would lose its shit.