Arsenal 1 Manchester United 3
In the pub prior to the match, I remarked to Lord Lowe that strangely, I didn`t feel one bit apprehensive about this game. His reply was that neither did he and that perhaps that was an implicit admission that deep down we never genuinely believed in Arsenal`s ability to run a close title race. It wasn`t even half time when that feeling had edged its way from the subconscious and manifested itself in the form of frustrated sighs and rolling eyes. The Premiership`s most prolific choke artists were back in town. It`s a familiar old story by now, with the focus of attention and pressure not veering towards N5, Arsenal are capable of stringing a good run together. The second they are whispered about as contenders or the pressure of a big game rears its head, spectacular implosion ensues. I`m not talking about your car bonnet blowing up on the M6 implosion; I`m talking, Jimi Hendrix choking up his own pelvis bone in a drug fuelled frenzy on the living room floor style implosion. In reality, there is little to choose in quality between Arsenal and United nowadays. But psychologically, there is a canyon sized chasm.
The game began in a quite surreal fashion. United had obviously expected the home side to start brightly as home sides are usually wont to do, so they adjusted accordingly, awaiting the avalanche that never materialised. United were never made to earn their vast superiority in this game, we presented the impetus to them on a silver platter. No closing down of players, no tackling, no desire for possession whatsoever, United almost seemed embarrassed at first. They had the baffled reaction of a man who had just been caught in bed with another man`s wife, only to see the cuckolded husband cheerily offer the love rat a cup of tea. There was only one player that looked even vaguely out of short trousers for Arsenal and that was Andrey Arshavin. That`s not to say he played well, he didn`t. He was guilty of poor decision making in the area time and again, but hell, he was having a go and didn`t look quite so much like a rabbit caught in headlights. He latched onto Wes Brown`s poor headed clearance and lashed an early shot just wide. But United sensed they could get some change out of Arsenal`s weak left side, which explains why Nani was deployed ahead of Valencia. It was Nani who easily beat a cumbersome looking Clichy on the right hand side and whipped in a low cross which was cleared by Gallas. Arsenal flickered briefly and threatened to score when Arshavin received the ball in the centre circle and powered his way past Wes Brown. Arsenal`s two invisible men Nasri and Rosicky were nowhere to be seen in support, so Arshavin was forced to go it alone, curling his shot just wide of van der Sar`s far post. It was clear by now that if Arsenal were going to produce anything of note, Arshavin would have to do it on his own. Nasri and Rosicky were about as useful as inflatable dartboards. Neither attacked, neither defended, neither particularly wanted the ball. They hid for the whole match.
Fabregas motored through United`s midfield, evaded Scholes` risible attempt to hack him down- typical Scholes and typically he got away without censure-, Fabregas fed Arshavin who miscued his shot horribly. From there the Gunners truly went into Salmon Rushdie mode, retreating into a secret location for fear of slaughter. Their whereabouts it`s still a mystery, so if anyone has seen the Arsenal football team this morning, please do get in touch with the missing persons bureau. United fired an ominous warning when Ji Sung Park`s cross found Nani on the back post and his shot deflected wide. The goal was coming and United despatched a killer blow on 33 minutes. Nani out on the right hand side again fronted by Nasri and Clichy, in keeping with the unfalteringly polite way Arsenal had approached the game, they stood and watched as Nani produced a back heel flick which Nasri and Clichy admired so much that they stood and watched him saunter off. Denilson very much maintained the role of gracious host by waving Nani through to the by line with a movement that I won`t even call a "challenge", Nani dinked the ball towards the back post, Almunia could not adjust his feet in time and could only tip the ball into his own net. It was academic really; Ji Sung Park was completely unmarked on the back post anyway.
Just four minutes later, the contest was brought to an abrupt end. Arsenal had a corner, Arshavin tried to tee up Gallas in the area, United had a wall of defenders in his way and won back possession. What followed was a brutal expose for Arsenal`s blasé approach to defending and United`s clinical attacking. Rooney switched a low pass to Nani who found himself in acres of space on the right, careering forward towards goal with only really Vermaelen appearing to sprint back. Denilson sort of jogged, Song ambled, the rest frankly, didn`t bother. As last man back, Sagna took up an awful position in no man`s land as Nani advanced, challenging neither Nani in possession, nor Rooney who was sprinting in behind. Denilson casually allowed Rooney to sprint in behind him as Nani played a simple pass and Rooney lashed the ball into the bottom corner. I remember when Arsenal used to counter attack like that. Not sufficiently scorned by that first lesson, the away side almost undid Arsenal on another soaring breakaway. Once again, the likes of Song, Rosicky and Nasri made no attempt to track back as Rooney made his way to the by line and pulled the ball back to Scholes, he controlled and shifted the ball to Nani who should have scored, but pulled his shot wide. Song, in his self assumed role as a forward player, nearly grabbed a consolation on half time, picking up Fabregas` back heel flick and bundling his way through, only to shoot narrowly wide. At half time, I remarked that I would happily take 2-0 as a final score. If there were more goals to be had in the game, they didn`t look like coming from timid, frightened Arsenal.
Eight minutes into the second half, United had the third goal that their supremacy warranted. It was a remarkably simple goal that had shades of Pienaar`s goal for Everton three weeks ago. Denilson conceded possession, Fletcher knocked the ball over the top of Denilson`s head and Park Ji Sung could scarcely believe his luck as he was left unattended to saunter in on goal. Denilson jogged back, Song trundled, I honestly could not tell you where Nasri and Rosicky were- they didn`t seem to be doing much attacking, so I`m at a loss to work out why they weren`t tracking back and defending either. Clichy politely stood to one side as Park ambled through on goal to make it 3-0. A spectacularly calamitous goal to concede. Reviewing it on highlights packages, I`m embarrassed that a team that regularly qualifies for the knockout stages of the Champions League could defend so dreadfully. Have Europe`s strike forces no shame? The Gunners made a good fist of defending in an even more laughable fashion on yet another United breakaway. This time Carrick`s aimless clearance found Rooney in the centre circle. Arsenal thought it would be a good idea to stand off one of the best strikers in the world and give him time to turn and size up a good run at the backline. Eboue kept up Arsenal`s impeccable manners by falling over like an extra in a Benny Hill sketch as Rooney ran at him. Fortunately, Rooney was presumably too embarrassed to expose us so shamefully again by whipping the ball wide from close range.
The home side did manage to bring a semblance of respectability to the score line with ten minutes left. Nasri`s cross was not convincingly cleared by Jonny Evans and Thomas Vermaelen hooked an acrobatic volley goalwards which ricocheted into the net via Wes Brown`s calf. I can`t recall too many Arsenal goals over the years that haven`t even brought me to my feet. At this point, Arsenal actually began to play. They weren`t excellent, but they looked kind of not bad. Which in the context of the game was a drastic improvement. It was typical of this team, when the pressure is off and the chances of recovery are slim to none, we turn it on. Had the scores gone to 3-2, we would only have filled our pants and tossed it all away again. A Fabregas corner saw Theo Walcott unmarked in the area, but he headed woefully wide under no pressure. The comedy reel continued apace when Eboue`s back pass to Almunia was met with yet another in a long line of Almunia shanks. This one fell straight to the feet of Nani, fortunately, Vermaelen roared back with a saving tackle. Gallas lost his bearings in the six yard area and headed a close range effort wide from five yards, whilst Rooney shot wide from close range when United produced yet another counter attack with no Arsenal players tracking back, blah, blah, blah etc. In the end, I was grateful for 1-3, it could and should have been more.
I guess this is the part where I`m supposed to say something positive? Well there really isn`t one single positive to garner from that at all, bar the fact that we got away with 1-3. In reality, the gulf between United and Arsenal isn`t as big as the game suggests. But we allowed United to be much, much better than us. We practically force fed them the impetus in the first half by standing off United when they had the ball. Review the game in your own minds, try and think of a time during the 90 minutes when you saw a convincing challenge from an Arsenal player. No, me neither. Frankly, the players once again looked absolutely inhibited by the occasion. The manager spoke of his massive regret that we couldn`t make more of a game of it in the Champions League semi final last year. It`s obviously not a regret shared by the team as they willingly rolled over and asked to have their tummies tickled again. Arsenal are a much better side than that and our players are much better than that. The difference in attitude was alarming in the respective counter attacks of the two teams. United poured forward in numbers whilst Arsenal players ambled back as a token gesture more than anything. Arsenal had a break on themselves in the second half, Fabregas drove through midfield alone, Nasri and Rosicky didn`t join him, neither did any of his midfield colleagues (it was possibly the only time in the match when Song was actually behind the ball). He forlornly ploughed forward only to find two United players snapping at his heels. Compare and contrast with Denilson`s "tackle2 on Nani for the first goal, or Song having a brief constitutional with our centre forwards whilst United broke away for the second goal. Arsenal were polite in their tackling, insofar as you can call it tackling. Nasri and Rosicky did not track back and defend, nor did I see much evidence of them breaking forward to attack. Our naivety in defence was lamentable when one considers the lessons we ought to have learned in our Champions League defeat to the same opposition. But this is a point I have made several times, our players only have experience of being comprehensively turned over in big matches, so to expect them to learn how to win them is a fool`s errand. A summary of our team? Almunia was awful, Sagna was below average, Clichy was spectacularly bad, Gallas and Vermaelen were O.K, Song was hideous, Denilson tried his best to be even worse, Fabregas was foiled by Carrick (you`ve the suspicion that he might have had more joy if Nasri and Rosicky had turned up and given him an option once in a while), Nasri and Rosicky were pathetic and cowardly and Arshavin, on any other day would have been utterly awful such was his decision making and finishing, but actually came out looking like one of our better players for no other reason than the fact that you noticed he was there. It was a thoroughly disappointing display because the players sold themselves, their manager and the supporters well short and the label of "choke artists" will follow them until they can usurp it on the pitch. Next Sunday would be a good start. I won`t hold my breath.LD.
1.ALMUNIA, 3.SAGNA (27.Eboue `72), 10.GALLAS, 5.VERMAELEN, 22.CLICHY, 17.SONG, 15.DENILSON (14.Walcott `61), 4.FABREGAS©, 8.NASRI, 7.ROSICKY (52.Bendtner `72), 23.ARSHAVIN. Unused: 16.Ramsey, 18.Silvestre, 21.Fabianski, 30.Traore.