Before the game most Arsenal fans would have taken a draw against Manchester United, and the point against Ferguson’s side could still prove to be a useful one. The way I see it, if the Gunners fall short by a couple of points, I would look at many other games where they’ve not been at their best before looking at this one.
Wenger made a number of changes to the starting line-up and the fresher legs might have helped. Arsenal started the game at a frantic pace and it was enough to take the lead. After the game the Frenchman said the fast start was down to mental preparation. It could very well be, it was similar to the kind of initial bout of energy we saw against Bayern in Germany.
Arsenal’s goal looked fairly simple but it was pretty enjoyable with some interesting details. The fact that RvP gave the ball away leading to the transition must surely have worked as a temporarily soothing balm on a multitude of bitterly hurting Gooner hearts. I liked the way Podolski dropped into the space between the lines to receive the pass. That the Germans most noteworthy contribution came in the 2nd minute of the game remains a huge disappointment. More on that later.
Rosicky’s ability to beat Evans with a drop of the shoulder, his perfectly weighted pass, and Walcott’s electric pace were also delightful to watch.
United’s defence was caught off-guard due to the speed of the transition. The gap between their defence and midfield was yawning, as was the distance between Evans and Evra. It wasn’t a good day for French full-backs and Evra’s sluggishness was also uncharacteristic. In fairness to him, it was a clear off-side and should have been given. It happened again towards the end of the first half when Podolski played the ball into Cazorla’s path but this time the ref’s assistant was alert to off-side.
Arsenal seemed in control for large periods of the first half. But as we’ve seen in this fixture before, Wenger’s side doesn’t create too many high quality chances despite creating an illusion of domination. Once United got into their defensive rhythm the Gunners were limited to shots from outside the box.
Apart from the goal, the only other genuinely exciting chance of the first half came from another quick transition when pressure high up the pitch resulted in a turnover. Ramsey made the wrong choice as he passed the ball to Podolski when Walcott was free. I doubt the Welshman even saw his English compatriot as things happened quickly. His choice would be inexplicable if he’d actually seen Theo with yards of space all around him.
The Gunners attempted over a 100 passes in the final third in the first half. The visitors only managed a third of that. However, in terms of chances both sides seemed fairly even, which highlighted Arsenal’s defensive frailties and United’s efficiency on the counter-attack.
Of course, the penalty was down to a big mistake (or two) by Sagna but United had created three other half decent chances. Two of those fell to Phil Jones while an RvP header was saved by Szczesny’s face. Ferguson’s side were playing on the counter-attack and made clever use of the space behind the full-backs, particularly Sagna, whenever they could. Phil Jones made well-timed runs into the box as he attacked the crosses.
The first half was also characterized by numerous technical mistakes like poor touches and sprayed passes by players from both sides who’re usually much more accomplished.
There were fewer of these in the second half and the visitors grew into the game as time went by, but it’s worth noting that United were less efficient when they saw a lot more of the ball. Before a couple of late counter-attacks, Rooney’s header from close range was the visitors’ only real attacking contribution. Arsenal’s defence looked a lot more secure when they had the support of other outfield players and didn’t have to deal with quick transitions.
Wenger made the obvious substitutions – Wilshere for Rosicky, Gervinho for Podolski, and Oxlade-Chamberlain for Ramsey (Sagna might have been the better candidate given his form in this game) – but, to be honest, there wasn’t enough firepower on the Arsenal bench to make a difference against such an opponent.
The Gunners just couldn’t work any combinations in the attacking third of the pitch to break the United defence down. There were many promising moments that were squandered as the players tried thinking on their feet and made suboptimal choices. Arsenal’s inefficient wing play was also easy for the visiting defence.
Podolski down the middle is an option I’ve wanted to see more off, but there is always the risk that the team won’t be able to adapt to his style without sufficient time. The German is the kind of player who can receive and pass the ball in tight spaces but he needs the ball at his feet and doesn’t always move around to offer himself. This really minimized the opportunities for working combinations with Podolski at the centre. The midfield’s inability to make third-person penetrating runs around him just as the German received the ball from another player also cuts out attacking options.
Giroud and Podolski have very different individual qualities and the other players will need some time to change their styles to suit the attributes of a different central striker. I think Wenger should persist with Podolski as long as the Frenchman is suspended. It might not excite the fans immediately but there is potential there that could be harnessed with some focused work in training. It has a bit of a risk for this season but could be useful practice for the next. In any case, it’s not like there is an overabundance of exciting options for that role.
I thought this game ended on a positive note because Arsenal didn’t concede from a counter-attack at the end. When the Gunners had some pressure in the United box and won successive corners late in the game, my main thought was not of them scoring one but conceding one on a quick break. It almost happened when Rooney released Giggs down the left. In his younger days that would have been a goal. On this occasion, the Welshman’s shot was deflected behind for a corner from which Evra’s free header went over the bar. Arsenal succeeded in preventing United from winning a game they didn’t play particularly well in. Odd as it may sound, it is a commendable result given the recent history of these two teams.
Szczesny: Made one useful save from Van Persie and Rooney’s header was straight at him. Can’t be blamed for the penalty. Wasn’t troubled as much as United couldn’t direct some of their better chances towards the goal.
Sagna: Bulk of the blame for the goal falls on his usually reliable shoulders. Could easily have been sent off for a desperate lunge in the second half. Deserves some credit for tracking Jones’ run and putting pressure on him when the youngster looked set to score. But broadly speaking, this was a game he’d want to forget soon.
Mertesacker: Made some useful interceptions and got on the end of a few of the balls put into the box. Played his part in minimizing the damage Van Persie and Rooney could inflict.
Koscielny: Was again the busier of the two centre-backs with numerous useful interceptions and tackles in front of the Arsenal box that broke up potential attacks. Passing could have been better – for instance, the first chance for Jones resulted from a counter-attack after one of his loose passes went straight to an opponent around the centre line.
Gibbs: Saw much less of the ball than Sagna and probably benefitted from the fact that Valencia was having a bad day. Offensive contribution was marginal.
The defenders had a fairly decent day but it wasn’t as good as is needed for getting big results at this level on a consistent basis. United were able to break forward more often that Wenger would have liked and with relative ease. They were also able find clear spaces to cross and get on the end of some balls in dangerous areas in front of the goal. The tendency to gift goals through major individual mistakes is rankling.
Arteta: Steady game from the Spaniard with decent defensive contribution. Not his best or worst game. Can’t really recall many noticeable events, which is partially good, but a bit more influence from the most experienced midfielder can always help.
Rosicky: Excellent assist and he seemed to be running the show in the first half without quite orchestrating the second breakthrough. It’s good to see him drop deep at times but I’d also like to see him get really close to the striker more often, particularly when the leading man has good technical skills to combine. I expected he will be taken off but was also a touch disappointed.
Ramsey: It’s good to see him have more and more influence on games and hopefully it will become decisive soon. For instance, that pass that didn’t got to Walcott or that superb throughball that Podolski couldn’t take in his stride were moments that could have given him a lot more confidence and the team that extra edge. Pressing up the pitch was useful but I did get a feeling the full-backs, particularly Sagna, could have done with more support.
Cazorla: Forced a couple of good saves with enterprising shots from distance. Wasn’t able to create as much or get closer to Podolski, which was a surprise because usually they combine well. Does look like a player who could use a day off.
The midfield had control of the central third in the first half and produced enjoyable combinations in that part of the pitch but they couldn’t quite find the combination to unlock the opponents in the attacking third. Often it was a matter of picking the wrong option, or seeing the pass a little late which allowed the defence to recover.
I do get a feeling that Ramsey’s greater freedom in midfield is putting greater positional burden on Arteta and is restricting his contribution. Will have to see this over the next few days before forming any opinions.
Walcott: Took his goal well but had very little to offer once the game got congested. He’s not the kind of player who can adapt to a change in partners very quickly and naturally.
Podolski: Have already covered his role and issues above. He really has to move a lot more when playing centrally for a team like Arsenal. Too often you feel he is waiting for something to happen without realizing that it’s his job to make things happen. Constant movement, often seemingly aimless, is an unheralded but vital part of a striker’s role, especially at a club like Arsenal. Dropping deep can help, as it did for the goal, but he also needs to move horizontally along the defensive line with an eye for the space in behind. Even when he drops deep he needs to be alert to options before he receives the ball instead of looking for them after receiving and controlling it. The opportunities are lost in the blink of an eye when playing in tight spaces against well-organized opponents.
The attacking players were involved with the goal but spent the rest of the game being largely ineffective. In part it’s the problem with the system which demands a great degree of mutual understanding, but it’s also an issue with individual qualities and limitations.
Subs: None of them added anything different or extra, which was understandable and regrettable.
Wenger: Ferguson’s ‘formula’ nearly worked even with a side that wasn’t completely motivated. The result does not hide the gap between the two sides. United were more efficient in attack and more stable defensively. It is a systemic issue that Wenger has to address.Follow @goonerdesi