Saturday, September 3, 2011

Eight Two.

Eight fucking two.

It has taken me a week to recover enough to write this thing, and it has been an eventful few days since. Reinforcements have finally arrived, but I'll leave that for a seperate post. This one will focus on a game that will never be fully erased from the memory.

Manchester United 8-2 Arsenal

Even the most optimistic of Arsenal fans surely feared the worst. Sagna was added to the list of casualties, meaning the full backs were Jenkinson and Traore. The midfield consisted of Coquelin, Rosicky and Ramsey.

Given the personnel, there is an argument that attack was going to be the only form of defence. The front three was Arshavin, Walcott and Van Persie, so it was certainly a lot stronger than the makeshift back four. And Arsenal have, in the last few years, been incapable of shutting up shop and staying solid.

Sure enough, the game started in an open fashion, and kept going that way. It was immediately apparent that Arsenal were struggling to deal with the tempo of United's passing. The absence of Michael Carrick and the rejuvenation of Anderson invests their midfield with a lot more dynamism than was the case for much of last season. Their strength on the flanks and their fast, direct style meant they were set up to hit Arsenal where they were weakest.

With United playing Rooney and Welbeck up front, Arsenal had an apparent numerical advantage in midfield, but they only sporadically made it count. The tempo of United's passing stood in stark contrast to Arsenal's half-assed pressing. Wenger spoke afterwards of the draining effect of the Udinese game but to hear such excuses so early in the season is a bit much.

The Gunners needed the "senior members" of the back four to stand firm, but the first United goal exposed Djourou's alarming regression. With Walcott, yes Walcott, ranting at Jenkinson over some poor positional play, United took a quick throw and worked the ball infield to Anderson. The Brazilian's scooped pass initially looked more speculative than incisive, but Djourou inexplicably refused to attack the aerial ball, instead trying to block off Welbeck and allow Szczesny to claim. The ball bounced through, Djourou was outmuscled, and Welbeck nodded the ball over the keeper. An absolutely shocking goal to concede.

Soon afterwards, Arsenal found an apparent route back into the game. Arshavin played a nice ball behind Evans for Walcott, who made the most of some contact and went down. Shock horror, Howard Webb gave the penalty, but equally predictably, the usually reliable Van Persie's nerve failed him in Arsenal's theatre of nightmares. He abandoned the usual tactic of hitting hard to the keeper's left, and rolled it to De Gea's right. De Gea read it and made a routine parry.

Straight away, Ashley Young collected a pisspoor defensive header by Traore, weaved his way inside Coquelin, and bent an exquisite shot into the top corner from long range. That's when you knew it could get ugly.

The frightening thing is- it could have been even worse. Arshavin was throwing himself into reckless challenges and could have been sent off twice over.

Just before half time, goals at both ends. A panicky foul by Jenkinson on the edge of the area was punished by a spectacular Rooney free kick, then Walcott ran onto Rosicky's slide rule pass and fired through De Gea's legs. 3-1 at half time.

Easy to forget now, Arsenal's strongest spell came after the interval. There were two gilt-edged opportunities to turn the game back into a genuine contest. First, Rosicky flipped a ball over United's static backline, and Van Persie volleyed first time with his chocolate leg, only for De Gea to again deny him with a save at the near post. Van Persie had oceans of time to take the ball down and if he did so it surely would have been 3-2. Then Arshavin got through down the left and bore down on goal but snatched his shot just wide of the near post.

And then Arsenal fell to pieces. Coquelin was taken off, and United exposed the hole where a holding midfielder should have been protecting an awful defence. The wretched Djourou gave away a free kick within range, and again the foul was punished, again by an imperious Rooney free kick. He disguised his intention, wrong-footed Szczesny, and bent his shot in off the far post. Game over again, but that was only the beginning of the nightmare.

The next goal arrived a minute or so later and was an even better illustration of Arsenal's shambolic defending than Welbeck's opener. A swift United counter attack found Rooney on the edge of the area, and with half the back four stepping up, and half standing still, he slipped an easy pass through to Nani. The winger had all the time in the world to conjure yet another impudent piece of showboating for his Arsenal scrapbook, shaping to drill the ball and then dinking it over the flailing Szczesny. Exhibition stuff from United, but atrocious defending.

Park Ji Sung was introduced as a sub and it was not long before he scored his customary goal against Arsenal, benefitting from more woeful "defending" from Djourou and burying a left-footed shot into the corner from the edge of the box.

Van Persie was presented with an easy chance at the other end after good work from Jenkinson, and blasted home an angry shot to make it 6-2. Normal service was quickly resumed as Jenkinson was caught by the pace of Hernandez and bundled over the Mexican on the edge of the area. Second yellow for the young defender, but Rooney failed to complete a hat trick of free kicks.

A regular hat trick would do though, and he got that after Arsenal's nemesis Evra stormed into the box and was tripped by emergency right back Theo Fucking Walcott. Rooney sent Szczesny the wrong way. Seven goals conceded- unprecedented stuff. Another three goals for Rooney against Arsenal- and on the subject of Rooney, has any player been so awful and so sublime in the space of less than twelve months???

United were not finished. Near the end, they piled on the misery with a fourth belter, this time Young's second. Eight two. Amazing. As bad as Arsenal were, you could only admire the ruthlessness of United's finishing. At least four of the goals- Rooney's two free kicks and Young's two curlers- could only be classed as half chances.

To some extent, the result stemmed from exceptional circumstances- you would hope Arsenal will never again field a team like that in any league game, let alone at Old Trafford- but those circumstances were partly of Arsenal's making. Wenger did not ask for a lengthy list of injuries and suspensions, but he did discard players like Clichy, Denilson, and Eboue and failed to replace them with players ready for Premiership action. That's not to even mention the slow response to the Fabregas and Nasri debacles.

And for all the talk of Arsenal's makeshift defence, United's defence, midfield and even attack were all completely different to the norm from last season. Jones and Evans at centre back? Smalling at full back? Anderson and Cleverley in the centre of the park? Welbeck partnering Rooney? None of this is particularly familiar, but Ferguson and United are making it work, whereas Arsenal played like a bunch of strangers, and seemed resigned to their fate from the off. The game showed up the terrifying discrepancy between the two squads.

Whatever about the subsequent transfer action, the most worrying legacy of this game is the growing sense that nobody at Arsenal football club can coach defence. Arsenal have been ripped apart by good, bad and indifferent sides at pretty regualar intervals over the last few years and there is still no sign of anything being done about it. There has been too much talk, in fact, of a makeshift defence being an excuse for the result. Ok, two naive full backs, but Djourou and Koscielny were first choice players almost all last season. They are not awful players but Djourou in particular has suffered a worrying loss of form and you wonder if that would have happened if he was at a club that put more emphasis on the defensive side of the game.

As I said, this has been a problem for some time. You only need to look at the regular ridiculous scorelines Arsenal have been involved in since the start of 08/09. 4-4 at home to Spurs. 4-4 against Liverpool. Some crushing home defeats to both Chelsea and United. Losing at home to Spurs after leading 2-0. Drawing 3-3 with Spurs at the Lane after, yet again, leading by two goals. And who could forget the second half collapse at St James' Park.

And now this. But there is, perversely, more optimism around the club now. Maybe it needed a catastrophic result like this to open Arsene Wenger's eyes. Maybe the season can be salvaged from the wreckage of one result.

No comments: