I was hoping a draw will be a good result but it was not to be. Both teams had a number of key players missing. Wenger sent a mixture of first team players and second stringers to play in their usual style while Ferguson sent a similar group out with a clear plan. In the end the man with the plan won, once again.
I wasn’t surprised when I saw the Manchester United line-up that had a lot of defensive players and quick runners. Their plan was predictable and quite simple – Don’t concede, keep trying to create something on the counter attacks. Sooner or later there will be a mistake as the defenders have to constantly cover a great deal of space. One goal is enough and might even lead to more.
Now if I’d been a United fan, I’d have been embarrassed by the way my team was playing hopeful long balls from the first minute. But that does not take away a couple of facts. First is that there is no law against such a style and second that the percentages are in favour of this approach more than the one used by Wenger.
What annoys me is that Arsenal continue to flop against these tactics again and again. If the Gunners had just moved the ball all day in this game it would easily have ended 0 – 0. A replay at home would have suited us after United played a midweek Champions League tie. If Arsenal had been patient and maintained their defensive shape chances would have come as the game went on. But such a simple level of tactical understanding seems to be missing from the players but more importantly from the manager.
How can Arsenal get into a situation with 4 United attackers against 4 or 5 Arsenal defenders from a virtually harmless position? Diaby takes a harmless shot. Van der Saar catches it and is able to release a long throw. Low and Behold it become a 4-v-4 situation within a few moments.
Both Djourou and Koscielny made mistakes. It is easy to criticize the defenders in such a situation but they had to cover the space in front and behind them with hardly any support. United never got into such a mess at the back as they always had midfield players tracking back. Even Rooney was doing his bit.
To be fair, this season Arsenal have improved in this regard and the midfield usually does get into better defensive positions. But in a knockout game away from home with a midfield of Denilson and Diaby, what were Arsenal trying to do? Why not just stay deeper, hold positions, and play in the middle of the park inviting the opposition out in an attempt to create some space in behind?
The other predictable aspect was that United will force us wide and will defend the crosses. What’s the point of putting crosses into the box when you have one guy in there against five opponents? If you’re going to commit forward why not get more bodies in the box? Arsenal did it but only in the final twenty minutes or so but by then it was too late.
On the positive side, at least in this game Van der Saar had to make a number of good saves. In the past, the United keeper hasn’t really been troubled.
Arsene has to find a better system to suit the players that he has. I don’t expect Arsenal to have 10 great midfielders. Looking at the United team today even Denilson didn’t look out of place. But given the way Arsenal played there was just too much space around the Brazilian and it was like playing to his weaknesses rather than strengths.
Once again the left axis of Gibbs-Denilson-Arshavin was quite woeful. Brown hardly ever got forward but United still got a lot of joy down their right. Sagna wasn’t doing too well on the right either, which made matters worse.
Even in terms of attacking runs the home side players always seemed to have a clear plan whereas there were many occasions when the Gunners were running into each others’ spaces thereby reducing passing options and space. The fluid approach can work when you have your best players on the pitch but not when you’re playing a number of squad players.
One important point to note is that if United can win with the likes of O’Shea and Gibson in midfield then Arsenal can win with Diaby and Denilson. But just like Ferguson showed, Wenger has to learn to adapt his tactics to the players he can start. Until he can do that, or get in another coach who can help him do that, there will always be something or the other that goes wrong.
Almunia: Made some good saves. I don’t blame him for either of the goals. Was exposed way too often.
Sagna: Disappointing. Got his positioning wrong at times. Seemed too keen to go forward but didn’t offer enough in defence. Knocked his own man out as he was late in recognizing the danger.
Djourou: Might have done better for the first goal. Made some important interceptions. Extremely unfortunate injury.
Koscielny: Just like Djourou he could have done better for the first goal. I liked the fact that he went forward and tried making a contribution at the other end.
Gibbs: Very poor.
The back five wasn’t impressive but they were also in a difficult situation too often. The players in front just didn’t do enough and United found it easy to bring the ball from their Goalkeeper to the Arsenal penalty box.
Denilson: He is a limited player and if the team tactics don’t cover those then it seriously affects the attacking and defensive options.
Wilshere: Not very effective in an advanced role. Didn’t make the right runs, didn’t have the final pass, needs at least another year in a deeper position.
Diaby: Another one like Denilson although with different kind of limitations. Didn’t offer anything in the final third. Did do a fair bit of defensive work but it wasn’t enough.
Even with Fabregas, Arsenal have struggled to break down United as there is virtually no space in the middle. Things did get better late in the game but that was down to a high number of bodies getting forward in desperation. It’s difficult to see what Arsenal were trying to achieve by playing the same style with this midfield against such a defensive United side. Defensively the midfield was decent for large parts and that’s the reason United had few chances but the moment they tried to be adventurous the balance was lost and the door at the back was opened. After that it just got worse.
Nasri: Probably the only really impressive player in the side. Skinned Evra on a couple of occasions but rarely had enough options in the box.
RvP: Almost always had two men around him in the middle. Looked useful when he moved to the inside channels or wide. Had a couple of decent shots at goal. Struggled with the lack of bodies and movement around him.
Arshavin: tried to create something on a number of occasions but it didn’t work for him. Was double-teamed whenever he got close to the box.
I thought the attacking players were grossly outnumbered on most occasions. They struggled to get any incisive balls or runs from the midfield and also due to the lack of a clear attacking plan.
Subs: Chamakh and Rosicky had some chances but couldn’t put it in. It was good to see Ramsey back in action. He will be like a new signing next year!
Wenger: I was really disappointed with the tactics or the lack thereof. Ferguson probably doesn’t even have to think much before playing Arsenal these days as Arsene makes it all too easy for his side.
Now it’s just a matter of getting a positive result at West Brom and then hoping to see some keep players recover from injuries during the international break. This season can still get much worse if Arsenal don’t get their act together.