Apologies for the delay in the post, but as I had mentioned in the preview this was a family weekend and, in hindsight, it turned out to be a good one to miss the game.
When I’d seen the team sheet I’d feared this would be a three or four nil kind of a game. No Vermaelen, no Sagna with Jenkinson, Traore, and Coquelin in the back five against an in-form United start was a disaster waiting to happen.
The result wasn’t a surprise and I don’t want to get into the analysis in detail because, honestly speaking, dwelling on the game hurts and I am sure many, if not all, of you would want to move on.
Since the start of the season I have been talking about the ease with which opposition teams have been bringing the ball to the Arsenal defensive third. They lacked the quality in decisive moments. United didn’t.
The number of defensive flaws in Wenger’s 4-3-3 are staggering considering the ambitions of the club. I am more convinced than ever that without a change/addition to the coaching staff there is little hope of challenging for the big titles.
In this particular game, the defenders made a number of mistakes but once again the load on them was unbearable. There are some basic issues that just have to be ironed out.
For the first goal, Djourou was trying to block the run of Welbeck hoping Szczesny will come and deal with the ball. Watching the replays it seems to me that Djourou was the closest to the ball and could easily have reached it before the United youngster. In 09-10, a lot was asked of the goalkeeper and it seems remnants of those errors still exist despite clear change in focus last season. That tells me the defensive coaching still isn’t good/clear enough.
The second goal was an excellent finish but one has to wonder why no one was tracking Ashely Cole.
Rooney scored the third and fourth with top class free-kicks. I believe Gooners, irrespective of their attitude towards the manager and the board, have all been wondering what prevents Arsenal from developing a couple of good set-piece takers from a bunch of so many technically gifted players. Again one has to question the coaching/training. Is enough emphasis put on this or are players left to work on it on their own?
Szczesny too has a weakness in defending set-pieces. Starting with the Henry kick in the Emirates cup, the one by Di Natale, and then these two kicks by Rooney, all show that Wojciech is rooted to his spot and is slow to react to his right. On the other end he tends to move early and leaves a gap that Rooney expertly exploited for the fourth goal. This too appears like an error the coaches should identify and correct.
The fifth goal came from ridiculously ineffective pressing after a corner was cleared and then an appalling lack of effort in tracking back which left the back four vulnerable just when they were running back to get in position.
Sixth was schoolboy defending from the team, the seventh was the price of having Walcott at right back (why couldn’t Arsenal play with a back three?), and the final goal was again an excellent finish with the defence all over the place.
The gunners did manage two at Old Trafford, for just the second time in the Wenger reign and the first time in a League game under Arsene (if I am not mistaken). The first one again highlighted how bad De Gea is at the moment as the Walcott strike went straight through the Spaniard. The second came from some dogged work by Jenkinson and a good finish by Van Persie. How the Dutchman managed to botch the penalty with such a clown in goal is beyond me.
I must say, looking at this performance, United look like they are stronger in attack than they have been for years. But they are also a bit more vulnerable defensively and once teams realize that, their games will be a lot more interesting. On current evidence though, it will be hard to stop the reigning champions from holding on to their trophy.
I don’t want to do much of an individual analysis here. Ramsey deserves a mention for his quality and effort, Rosicky for a couple of wonderful passes and a terrible overall contribution, Arshavin for being the barking dog that never bites (always threatened, never delivered), and the rest of the players for doing as best (or worst) as they could.
Most of the blame does fall on the manager because it seemed the team lacked tactical cohesion (something we have seen often enough in the past). He could have started with a guy like Lansbury instead of Arshavin just to have another defensive body if three youngsters were starting in the back five. The Russian is experienced but out of form and awful at defensive work. Lansbury would have at least ensured another body in the right areas.
The manager also went with an attacking approach even when his team is still developing an understanding. Playing deeper and inviting pressure would have been the right approach in such a game with Walcott and Van Persie left up to play on the counter. There are times when Wenger’s inability to modify the tactics to suit the realities reach hair-tearing levels.
Even his substitutions are hard to understand in such instances. Coquelin, while inexperienced and making his debut, was still working hard to get into the right defensive areas. Once he was taken off it became all the more easier for United to pass the ball in front of the back four. Did Wenger really think he had a chance of getting a point from this game by introducing AOC in place of Coquelin or had he given up on the game/final score and just wanted to see how the youngster did?
While it is clear Arsenal need reinforcements, something the manager and management have acknowledged, I strongly believe the need for a coaching addition is paramount. Some might ask, why bring in a new coach and not a new manager? My answer is that all evidence suggests a change in manager will guarantee a drop out of the top four on Arsenal’s budget. Wenger has a system that works but there are too many critical holes that need to be plugged.
It took Clichy a long time to settle in the role and he sacrificed a lot to keep the gaps on the left covered as best as he could. It is games like these that highlight how valuable his contribution was. Similar arguments can be made for some other players as well and of course, Cesc and Nasri are big losses. Arsene will have to sign the right players but that might not be enough. Let’s not forget Baines was part of the defence that was hammered 6-1 by Arsenal and players like Cahill, Jagielka, and others have always been members of teams that conceded more than the Gunners despite being more defensive minded.
There is no quick fix and there aren’t any players in the current market who are going to come in and perform miracles. The most important answers will have to be found on the training pitch even if four or five new players are signed.
I think for once the international break has come at the right time for Arsenal. The Gunners need time to strengthen and regroup as this season can easily slip away in the next few weeks.
I want to end with a word of appreciation for the away fans. Their support was the only heart-warming memory from an otherwise eminently forgettable game. Hats off to everyone who was there!