Sunday, May 1, 2011

A Small, Good Thing

Arsenal 1-0 Manchester United

At last Arsenal won a game, but along with the obvious pleasure of beating United, there was a palpable sense of 'what might have been'. In truth, it was the visiting side who were under more pressure, despite Arsenal's wretched form. Had Arsenal still been within touching distance of the title, would they have won that game? We'll never know for sure, but I doubt it.

The first half was familiar fare. Arsenal had most of the ball, without being particularly incisive. United, despite fielding both Rooney and Hernandez, sat back and tried to strike on the counter. It's a tried and tested routine for them, but this time they lacked punch on the break. Their only notable foray saw Fabio released behind Clichy on the right of the area, but he was left without a target in the middle, and was crowded out.

Arsenal passed the ball well though they did not create many clear cut opportunities. United left themselves open in the wide areas at times, as a result of their narrow defensive shape, but too often Sagna and, especially, Clichy crossed poorly (although the latter did find Walcott with a wicked low cross that the winger diverted over the bar).

It was Walcott himself who produced what should have been the most telling ball of the match, only for a brazen, unpunished piece of cheating from Vidic to take the ball off Van Persie's head. As the cross arrowed into the goalmouth, the flailing Serb raised an arm and deflected the ball beyond the striker. It was not the most obvious transgression to most in the stadium, but the linesman had a decent view and really had little excuse for not seeing it.

Half time: Jamie Redknapp and Graeme Souness raved about Arsenal's play, which I found a bit excessive. They had been decent on the ball but had rarely looked like scoring. The most obvious difference from previous Arsenal-United games was that United were toothless in attack themselves. This was probably the result of a few factors. Song sat back and marshalled Rooney very well, allowing Wilshere and Ramsey, in for the injured Fabregas, to do most of the prompting. Hernandez struggled to time his runs against Arsenal's high defensive line. Nani and Park were ineffective. And maybe Arsenal were a little less naive and accident-prone than they've often been.

Also, it's worth pointing out that United may have been conflicted as to whether they should attack in search of a win that would place one hand on the trophy, or sit on the draw. At the start of the second half, United did play in a more adventurous fashion. Rooney had a free kick clawed out, and Hernandez was a cunt hair away from burying Nani's curling cross in front of a relieved Szczesny at the near post.

If Arsenal were consciously sitting back themselves in the hope of finding more space in attack, it worked. Just after Valencia had entered the fray in place of Anderson, Song cut out a forward pass in the midfield area, and Ramsey released Van Persie down the right. The Dutchman backed Evra into the area, did his usual twisty-turny-thing, then, almost too late, saw that Ramsey had arrived on the edge of the box in acres. Carrick at last saw the danger, but Van Persie's pass was well-weighted, so that the Welshman could shoot first-time. He placed it beautifully into the corner, through the legs of Carrick and past Van der Sar's dive, and Arsenal had gained the lead with their first shot on target.

Then another game started. Arsenal sat on their lead as if George Graham was in the dugout, although without, needless to say, the defensive nous you would associate with that name. United attacked almost relentlessly, but in a fairly ragged fashion. When Carrick was replaced by Owen, they had no real midfield presence. Arsenal broke on them at times but looked too nervous to find a telling through ball or cross or shot to finish United off.

There was panic when Rooney got a lucky break of the ball, attacked Arsenal's box and found Nani to his left, but Szczesny stood up to his fairly tame effort. The biggest escape came when Rooney flipped a ball through for Owen, who had got the wrong side of Clichy. The hapless left back stamped on Owen's calf, fairly blatantly, and sent the striker tumbling, but appeals were waved away, and Arsenal saw out the remainder. Koscielny came out with particular credit, as he did in the home game against Barcelona. He seems more comfortable dealing with top class teams than with the agricultural ones who subject him to aerial bombardment.

United could point to the penalty decision but they had enjoyed more luck up to that point. Vidic should have conceded a penalty and seen red for his illegal intervention. Chris Foy kept getting in the way of Arsenal passes, and even booked Alex Song for an obviously clean tackle on Evra.

Arsenal have a victory that might mean more next season than it does now. All it means now is that yes, they probably should have won the title. United are so weak on the road, and have never really played like Champions elect. Nobody has. United have emerged by default, but I expect them to confirm their status as best of a relatively bad bunch with a win over Chelsea at Old Trafford next weekend.

No comments: