Saturday, March 12, 2011


It's why Alex Ferguson is the most successful manager of recent times. And the lack of it is why Arsene Wenger and Arsenal's glory continues to recede into the past.

Manchester United 2-0 Arsenal
After being outclassed at the Nou Camp, Arsenal took up the more familiar mantle of moral victory at Old Trafford. They owned the ball, played most of the football, exerted a lot of pressure... and lost. The extent to which Arsenal can cling to their moral victory should be tempered by the fresh memory of Tuesday night. Would any Arsenal fans have complained if Bendtner stuck away that late chance and Arsenal fluked their way through?

In any case, United did show more in attack than Arsenal did against Barca. They scored from their first decent attack. Denilson showed some fatal hesitation in midfield, failing to close down Rafael's poor first touch, and the Brazilian played in his twin down the right. The ball was worked inside to Rooney, he crossed first time for Hernandez, and although Almunia did well to parry a strong downward header, Fabio gobbled up the rebound. All very familiar for Arsenal fans. They had been allowed possession and showed some apparent menace up to that point, but their attacks stalled on the edge of the box. United had been wretched on the few occasons they had the ball, frequently pumping it straight through to Almunia. The first time they put a move together, however, Arsenal had no answer. This team can attack for 80 minutes and not break through, and they will not defend well for the other ten. It's an unfortunate mix.

Arsenal showed their intent at the start of the second period, and Koscielny stormed forward to find himself on the end of two chances. First he chickened out of shooting and tried to square the ball to Van Persie, but when the ball ricocheted back his way he produced a good effort which Van Der Sar did well to save. United showed their superior cutting edge again almost immediately; Rafael's cross found Djourou denying Hernandez with a desperate challenge, and as with the first goal, a United player was first onto the free ball, Rooney nodding into the far corner.

The game continued in this frustrating fashion. Arsenal did make some clear chances, and deserved at least a goal. Chamakh wasted the best one. Sagna's cross was deflected right onto his head, but the attempt was neither powered nor placed, and Van der Sar again made a fine save. United threatened sporadically on the break. Clearly, this had been their intention from the start, with their "midfield" comprising Gibson and O'Shea in the middle, Fabio and Rafael on the wings. They allowed Arsenal the illusion of control, confident that they could repel the Gunners' narrow, intricate attacks.

Arshavin played well first half, but faded, showing his lack of fitness. Nasri had his moments and was unlucky with a clever near post effort in the first half. Nobody played particularly badly. The team's ineffective style, its lack of cutting edge, was again exposed. Fabregas and Walcott may have made a difference, but on another day United would have had Fletcher biting into tackles, Nani and Park ripping Arsenal apart on the counter. Both sides were understrength but United are more flexible.

Completing a miserable day, Djourou picked up what looked a serious injury, leaving Arsenal down to ten men for the last ten minutes, and unable to launch a convincing attempt at an unlikely comeback. Then we were treated to the sad spectacle of Paul Scholes launching into two of his trademark rubbish tackles- booked for the first, but allowed the second, because even when leading 2-0 in the final seconds, United players are not punished by scared referees. They have fallen foul of some poor decisions in recent away games, but at Old Trafford, they can do whatever they like.

Arsenal can cling to the fact that United played with more or less the same tactics and style as Leyton Orient or Leeds. United will have something more tangible to hold onto at the end of the season.

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