Manchester United 1-0 Arsenal
There was no pizza throwing. No mass brawls. No unbeaten runs broken. No raised voices in the tunnel. For entertainment value, this Monday night instalment of Manchester United and Arsenal was a damp squib. Oh, wait. Yes, there was, at least, an overblown penalty but whereas Wayne Rooney joined Brian McClair and Ruud van Nistelrooy in blasting over the crossbar, it felt somewhat expected that the woefully out-of-form England striker would miss. Arsenal’s reaction was just as flat, although, that may have been masked by their belief that justice was done after Gael Clichy was harshly penalised for a handball he couldn’t avoid. By then, the Gunners were already one-nil down and had it all to play for but meekly succumbed to Manchester United’s attempts to reclaim top spot.
The game had intensity but note quite in the way it was exhilarating – and all a bit meaningless, like Cheese Rolling in Gloucestershire. The reasons, it seemed, were that both sides approached the match with an air of caution while Arsène Wenger was scathing of suitability the Old Trafford pitch. “The technical quality of the game was average on both sides because the pitch was very poor in my opinion and the game suffered a lot from it,” he said.
Whether or not the pitch had a part to play in Arsenal’s performance, their attacking play was below their usual standard. Manchester United nevertheless defended obdurately against the ineffective attack but it was these types of defence that Wenger has tried to make his side better against. The altered 4-3-3 from last season has now become a 4-2-3-1 but the fundamentals on the ball remain the same; stretch play up the pitch when the team has possession thus creating multi-angular passing options. As a result the team can be more direct with the ball played forward quickly although to what level does it become a hindrance to the team?
In Champions League matches, especially at home, where the opposition naively comes to play a short, passing game, Arsenal are quick to seize on them and impose their technical superiority. In the league, opponents can be frustrating and attack Arsenal where they can be exposed. That worked for Manchester United, who despite not being miles better, was better and deserved their three points. “The game-plan was to stifle the midfield and to make sure we got possession of the ball in there. We did that well in the first half. We played very well and maybe we should have been further in front,” said Sir Alex Ferguson. “In fairness, with the goal we did score, we deserved that. In the second half we had some great opportunities on the counter-attack; we were disappointed [not to make more of that]. Arsenal had more of the game in the second half without actually making many chances.”
Arsenal’s impotency can be summed up by not being one word – compact. Off the ball, distances were too large between team-mates and when they did have the ball, seldom made the correct decisions. There was a fifteen minute spell where Arsenal dominated and had penned back United, playing the type of football they are more renowned for. Samir Nasri’s shot that nearly fell for Marouane Chamakh on the rebound should have been the spark to bring Arsenal to life but they ultimately lacked ideas. Bringing on the unfit Cesc Fabregas and Robin van Persie made little difference.
It was a night Nasri failed to impose himself. At times the midfielder seemed inhibited and lacked the belief he could make the difference because, when he did get on the ball, he looked Arsenal’s best player. On the one hand, Park Ji-Sung neutralised his threat as United doubled-up on him, the other, he just couldn’t link-up effectively with his team-mates. Chamakh and Wilshere displayed nice touches without looking like providing the killer instinct while Arshavin was his usual self – seemingly sprightly on the ball but lethargic when it came to decision-making. “The way Arshavin always wants ball to feet, never in space – not just annoying. Predictable too,” commented Alessandro Costacurta for Sky Italia. Wenger craves a powerhouse in his midfield and could not wish more for the safe return of Abou Diaby so as a result, has had to rely on the surge of Alex Song.
In defence, Gael Clichy had a night to forget against Nani as the left-flank was horribly exposed. Arshavin was never going to track back and as his best work is usually done centrally, it may have been a wise move to swap him with Tomas Rosicky. This would have allowed Arsenal to defend better down the flanks but in not reacting quicker, just conceding space to their opponents. United were already outnumbering them in the centre and the lack of defensive work done by Nasri and Arshavin meant Arsenal effectively had two men across the middle – Song and Wilshere – and that left them too much work to do – and left Clichy exposed. Darren Fletcher realised this, and especially in the first-half, regularly looked to break down Nani’s side. Their goal came from a Nani cross as Arsenal exerted too much intensity getting back and couldn’t match the run of Park who headed in off the post.
Arsenal would have felt this was a chance missed, not just because Manchester United had a game in hand; their opponents are not much better but have the experience and efficiency they so crave. Matches against the top sides will decide the title says Wenger although with a more competitive league season, that is not necessarily the case. With the win, Sir Alex Ferguson’s side go top although in truth, Arsenal was always second best.
<Figure 1> The pressing from Arsenal in the first-half was a double edged sword. Arsenal’s pressing was surprisingly lax and never harried Manchester United’s defenders. As a result of playing too high up the pitch, the wide forwards never gave protection to the full-backs and also meant a lot of work for Song and Wilshere to get through.
Arsenal’s mass accumulation of cards this season have not been without reason; the inefficiency the system sometimes poses means the Gunners can get in to bad positions and often with a lot of space to defend. Song’s cynical foul on Nani was a case in example of that.