Manchester United 2 Arsenal 1
Our train journey began in good spirits for the journey to Manchester. Literally. Having a few beers on a morning train on your way to football probably isn`t the most advisable behaviour, but it`s probably acceptable. Just. When Ryan whipped out a bottle of baileys, a bottle of tia maria (!) and a bottle of jagermeister, I strongly began to suspect that my critical faculties would not survive mid morning.
Having arrived in Manchester at around 09.50, we had plenty of time to sink another pint in Green`s pub near Piccadilly Gardens and prepare ourselves for a fixture that lacks any kind of intensity nowadays. United fans aren`t stirred by it, it`s clear from the lack of a charged atmosphere. Ferguson speaks about Arsenal in almost reverential tones. Only the bile directed towards van Persie filled the crisp early afternoon air and turned it blue. Arsenal fans have more songs for players that they hate than the players that play for us. It`s small time.
Inside three minutes, the inevitable happened and, in a way, I was relieved. It was probably a necessary purging for the visiting fans and it stopped 100% of the vocal effort being concentrated on van Persie for a little while. Valencia tidily flicked Ferdinand`s pass to Rafael. Santos and Podolski were again occupying the same corridor of space, slightly in from the touchline, leaving Rafael in oceans of space at the extremity of the right flank. Rafael`s low cross posed no danger until Vermaelen badly miscued his clearance and it fell to the grateful feet of Robin van Persie. We know he doesn`t miss those. For his part, he chose not to celebrate.
Arsenal did not really get going at all. Ramsey on the right has been identified as a causal effect on our lack of cutting edge, but he was the first player to get in behind the United defence, forcing de Gea to beat away his cross shot. Van Persie could have added another when Rooney opened out his body and delivered a slide rule pass, van Persie bent his run around the back of Vermaelen, but Mannone beat away his right footed effort. Rooney went from provider to recipient for the next chance. Carrick`s dinked pass flew over the head of Mertesacker and found Rooney, who had to shield his eyes from the watery winter sun as he controlled, Mannone was again equal to his strike.
The Gunners created little or nothing to trouble United. Arteta, Wilshere and Cazorla reads as a better midfield on paper than Carrick and Cleverley, yet the latter pair did not see so much as a shadow between them. Giroud toiled for space but was easily schooled by Ferdinand. The Frenchman did find space from a Cazorla corner, but got his angles wrong with his header, flicking the ball well over. We looked a lot like a team that had lost its top goalscorer. Just as Arsenal looked as though they might make it to the half time team talk with some chips to gamble, Mike Dean intercepted with what our manager would doubtless describe as an "Old Traffordish" penalty.
Ashley Young`s cross travelled towards Cazorla`s face, he put his arms up to protect his face, the ball hit his elbow, penalty given. I thought it was an incredibly harsh award. Cazorla`s arms weren`t out past his shoulders or up above his head. Even if you could convince me that that`s a penalty, you could never, ever convince me in a lifetime of rainy Sundays that a United player would have been penalised for the same 'offence.` Wayne Rooney stepped up but blasted his spot kick low and wide, United`s 4th spot kick miss of the season. Occurring on the stroke of half time, the miss might well have proved to be a boon for Arsene`s team talk.
Yet United continued to dominate early in the second half and ought to have extended their lead on 47 minutes. Ferdinand`s long ball had Vermaelen all of a tizz as he slipped on the ball and allowed van Persie in on the right channel. The Dutchman rolled the ball across goal for Valencia, but he completely miscued with the goal at his mercy. Vermaelen`s mistakes- particularly his propensity towards pushing too far forward from the edge of the area and allowing runs in behind him- are becoming more commonplace. It raises the thorny issue as to whether the cloth fastened to his arm is sparing him from the subs bench. Sometimes it seems that you don`t have to work very hard to get chances against Arsenal. You certainly don`t need to dominate. Just keep the ball vaguely in their half of the pitch and wait for the finger to hover too close to the self destruct button. You`ll get an individual error soon enough to help you on your way.
Arsenal did foster a rare opportunity when Santos` marauding run down the left saw him find Cazorla, who likes to drift wide in the second half of games. His low cross was collected by Giroud, who spun and shot at goal, but the angle was just against him with the ball hitting the outside of the post. Yet that just seemed to motivate United to eke out a much more favourable chance. Almost as if to taunt us as to how easy they found it. Young`s clipped through ball found van Persie, who`d snuck in behind Vermaelen. Van Persie had time and space to control and roll the ball towards goal, but he was too casual and Mannone once again spared Arsenal`s blushes.
It wasn`t long before United did flex their muscles though. Rooney and Young swapped passes from a short corner, which Arsenal didn`t do enough to close down. Rooney`s cross was headed in by Patrice Evra of all people. If Evra is winning headers in your six yard box, it`s hard to deny there are issues there. Anderson steered Valencia`s pull back over as Arsenal briefly threatened to completely crumble. But the seal was put on their afternoon when Jack Wilshere saw red for a second yellow card. Jack wearily overran the ball and put a clumsy, tired tackle in on Evra. The challenge was not only a symptom of tiredness, but of Jack`s crippling one-footedness. Had he made the tackle with his right foot, there`d have been no need to lift his leg. It`s the single biggest flaw in his game.
Mercifully, both sides appeared to call an amnesty. United settled on 2-0, Arsenal were happy to limit the damage too. The supporters voiced their displeasure though with a cutting jibe aimed at the CEO, "Ivan Gazidis, what the f**k do you do?" they asked. Maybe he can play upfront? I dunno. I understand that the chant wasn`t solely about this performance, but nobody really exercises themselves about the CEO when the team performs. Nobody cares if the team fly to an away game or one of your players accepts his ex teammate`s shirt when the players play well and you have a good squad of players winning games. I rather suspect that the gripes all revolve around the manager, but people find it difficult to become mutinous to a coach that has given us so much, so other issues come to the fore. I guess the truth is, I don`t really know anymore. I don`t know where the issues are or what to do about them. I don`t think many people do, but it seems to be difficult to profess bafflement in the 21st century. There`s always a quick fix and an easy answer. Sack the board. Pay Theo an extra £15k a week. Bring in a defensive coach.
Arsenal mustered their first shot on target in the 92nd minute. The regularity with which this seems to be happening is troubling. Troubling a goalkeeper for the first time when the game is nearly over and already lost in any case. Missing direct players such as Chamberlain, Diaby, Rosicky etc makes us a bit more one paced and predictable, I think. There again, the away support screamed for Walcott from about the 10th minute and when he did eventually come in on 52 minutes, he was easily neutered. Arshavin did find Walcott in an avenue of space in the United area, his low cross found Giroud, but de Gea beat the ball away with his feet.
The away side did manage to make the scoreline even more flattering on them than 2-0 would have been as they notched a consolation. Santi Cazorla saw his original effort blocked by Rafael, but the Spaniard wrestled the loose ball away from the Brazilian before bending it into the far corner. There wasn`t even time to take centre before Mike Dean sounded the final whistle. All talk of a title is dulled to silence and we know now, if we didn`t before, that 4th is pretty much the ceiling of our ambition again. 4 wins in 10 games makes this Arsene Wenger`s worst ever start to a league season. A lack of fluency going forward is certainly striking. Maybe the return of Chamberlain can help arrest that, but should a club like ours be relying on a raw teenager as a panacea to our ills? 4 shots on target in 3 league games suggests that, for all the talk of shared responsibility, we haven`t come close to replacing van Persie yet. LD.
MANCHESTER UNITED: 1.DE GEA, 2.RAFAEL, 6.EVANS, 5.FERDINAND, 3.EVRA (c), 7.VALENCIA (17.Nani `81), 23.CLEVERLEY (8.Anderson `61), 16.CARRICK, 18.YOUNG, 10.ROONEY, 20.v.PERSIE. Unused: 13.Lindegaard, 14.Chicharito, 22.Scholes, 25.Powell, 31.Wooton.
ARSENAL: 24.MANNONE, 3.SAGNA, 4.MERTESACKER, 5.VERMAELEN (c), 11.A.SANTOS, 8.ARTETA, 10.WILSHERE, 19.CAZORLA, 16.RAMSEY (14.Walcott `52), 9.PODOLSKI (23.Arshavin `81), 12.GIROUD. Unused: 6.Koscielny, 22.Coquelin, 25.Jenkinson, 29.Chamakh, 36.Martinez.
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