Both sides were very comparable in the stats for passing and possession. But perhaps those were the only similarities, on the pitch the performances couldn’t have been more different. We were given another reminder about Manchester United’s dominance over Arsenal in recent years. This fixture has become predictable and easy for the Red Devils.
Any game plan Wenger might have devised was rendered worthless by some calamitous defending as early as the 3rd minute. Santos was neither tight on Valencia nor in a position to deal with a rampaging Rafael. The speed of the move meant Podolski was never going to be in a position to track the full-back who actually did Arsenal a favour by playing an early, aimless cross. Vermaelen should have dealt with it with ease. It’s tough to say whether he was trying to clear it or cushion/pass it to Arteta. In any case his effort was disastrous. Van Persie smashed it in first-time.
The other vital aspect of this goal was the Dutchman’s anticipation and ability to finish. When Valencia played the flick, RvP was inside the centre circle. From that point he sprinted forward with purpose and awareness. It would have been easy for him to assume the Belgian defender will deal with the ball but he kept his eyes open for even the tiniest of openings. That skill cannot be taught and would cost a fortune if bought. That’s one of the main ingredients missing from the Arsenal attack this season.
After the goal United were able to sit back and play in second gear. I don’t think Arsenal created anything of note in the entire first half. The only half-chance was in the form of a Ramsey cross and that too was missed opportunity as the Welshman delayed his cross.
At the other end, the Gunners were not as troubled as most teams facing United are but the hosts did have noteworthy opportunities on the break. They did conjure to waste most of them with the Penalty miss being the most blatant. On a couple of occasions Vito Mannone kept his team in the game.
The patterns of play were predictable and disappointing. United got into a good defensive shape and limited the passing options that the Gunners had. Arsenal’s passing was slow and lacked any sort of incision. Once again the understanding between the attacking players was not at the level needed to open up such a defence. Their runs were easy to read and there were hardly any moves where three or four Gunners combined with one-touch passes.
The beginning of the second half was slightly different. Arsenal had a bit more urgency and it seemed to me that Santos finally realized he had some space to run into with Podolski drifting inside and pulling Rafael away.
In a 10 minute period after the restart, the Gunners got into three or four promising positions but their final ball was poor. Santos disappointed at least twice when very well placed. Cazorla did find Giroud once and the Frenchman did well to hold off Ferdinand, but his shot from a tight angle only found the post.
That impetus only lasted a short while as the Red Devils raised their defensive game to close out the openings. The next ten minutes were largely a midfield battle but the game was settled by two events in quick succession.
Van Persie got in behind the Arsenal defence in the 66th minute but he rushed his shot and could only win a corner. From the resulting set-piece, Evra doubled the home advantage via a free header. How did one of the shortest players on the pitch get that kind of space in the box? Perhaps, Arsenal would have done better if Mertesacker had been present to “organize” the defence? Oh!, well, he was there and couldn’t make any difference.
Within a couple of minutes, Wilshere was shown his second yellow card for a needless and dangerous-looking foul. In the past, we’ve often seen the youngster lunge after the ball once it’s rolled away from him due to a heavy touch. This case seemed very similar and it’s hard to argue against the ref’s decision considering the fact that Jack had already clattered into Van Persie earlier in the game after getting his first yellow for a bad foul on Cleverly. None of those were leg-breaking challenges but they did look clumsy and overly aggressive.
With Arsenal down to 10, United saw the game off at a canter. The Arsenal substitutes didn’t really have a chance to make an impact as the team looked deflated. The Gunners did get a goal back with the last kick of the game but at the end this was the third straight defeat in which the score seemed to flatter the Gunners. A 2-1 score creates the impression of a close game but this never was one.
Mannone: MotM in my opinion and the only Arsenal player who was consistent. Can’t be faulted for either goal and made some useful saves. Showed good composure and distribution was respectable.
Sagna: His flank was largely safe defensively. Was 6/6 on ground duels which is interesting because the team as a whole only had a 37 percent success rate. Did put in a couple of crosses into useful areas but couldn’t make a meaningful impact in the attacking areas.
Mertesacker: Saw a lot of the ball as part of Arsenal’s “illusionary domination”. Can’t be faulted for the first goal but misjudged the flight of the ball for the second. On the whole he had a good game as his positioning prevented some dangerous situations from turning into chances/goals.
Vermaelen: Did his part for the Be a Gooner, Be a Giver campaign, almost gave a second away but was saved as Valencia couldn’t direct the ball into an open goal. Wasn’t as composed and assured as a central defender should be, couldn’t offer any attacking threat, wasn’t able to lift the team when the chips were down. A disappointing effort in more ways than one.
Santos: Was 2/11 on ground duels and didn’t impress with his positioning. Was lucky that United took it easy for bulk of the game. Did get into useful attacking areas early in the second half but final ball was highly disappointing.
The Arsenal defence wasn’t under the cosh, so to speak, throughout the game but they showed enough vulnerabilities to give the opponents a relatively easy win.
Arteta: Rooney didn’t allow him enough time or space on the ball and that limited the contribution that he could make. Was still a vital presence in front of the defence and was one of the few players who showed composure/confidence on the ball but it was easily his least effective outing for the Gunners this season.
Cazorla: Got a goal, created that chance for Giroud, and was generally involved with whatever little quality that Arsenal produced. His link with Podolski isn’t working anymore and that’s an area of concern. Conceded a cheap penalty (not harsh IMO).
Wilshere: In his long absence some fans might have forgotten his tendency for rash tackles but this game served as a stark reminder. He’s still a young man who has a lot to learn and not a superman who is going to magically heal all of Arsenal’s woes. Had virtually no attacking impact and didn’t do enough to support the defence.
The midfield played in the manner that United allowed them to. This had been the crux of the battles between the sides that Ferguson’s side have been dominating. Arsenal do see a lot of the ball but it’s mostly in harmless areas. United protect their goal well and are much more efficient on quick transitions.
Ramsey: The effort was there but decisive output wasn’t. Didn’t have the pace to get in behind, didn’t look up when he did get behind Evra on one occasion, wasn’t able to create space for himself or his teammates. He was the extra midfielder and that helped with the possession, which in turn protected the defence from wave after wave of attacks, but that’s just one part of the game.
Giroud: 36 touches, 4 dispossessed, 4 unsuccessful touches, 16 total loss of possession, 13/18 passes ; in contrast RvP – 41 touches, 0 dispossessed, 0 unsuccessful touches, 7 loss of possession, 26/30 passes. The Frenchman has big boots to fill and frankly, no one expects him to be just as good individually but he is lacking on many fronts. Didn’t have the same awareness, anticipation, and movement. Couldn’t link with wide players. It’s one thing to get into a good area, it’s quite another to know what your teammates (and opponents for that matter) can or cannot do. In fairness, the team isn’t playing to his strengths.
Podolski: He has struggled against well-organized defences that don’t give him space to run into. Doesn’t offer enough in terms of working combinations with teammates, making penetrating runs, or vision in tight areas. He is the best goal-scorer in the side but hardly got into a threatening position throughout the game.
The front three just didn’t do enough to help convert possession into incision. All three have their weaknesses and United did well to control their strengths.
Subs: Walcott might have made a difference but wasn’t effective once the team was down to 10. Arshavin looked lively in the little time he got.
Wenger: Hasn’t found a way to deal with United’s style despite numerous attempts in recent years. He said the team’s title chances will be known after 10 games. I doubt many see Arsenal challenging for the Premiership or the Champions League this season. Should have substituted Wilshere earlier but betrayed his squad’s lack of depth when he gave a lack of options as the excuse for keeping the youngster on.Follow @goonerdesi