Friday, October 28, 2011

1-6: Changing of the Guard or a Freak Result?

Manchester United 1-6 Manchester City

Man United's defence has been unconvincing so far this season, and their vulnerability was finally, and brutally exposed by their bitter, and now dangerous, local rivals.

City have won derbies over the last decade or so, but previously, those results had little significance beyond the local. At the end of every season, United were hoisting trophies, and City remained a sleeping giant at best.

While the lopsided nature of last Sunday's scoreline is largely due to the dismissal of Jonny Evans with the score at 0-1, it is, nonetheless, very impressive. United have had numerous difficult spells during Ferguson's long reign. But no team has previously had the talent or the balls to come to Old Trafford and hand them such a whipping. Circumstances played a big part, but boy did City take advantage of their opportunity to lay down a marker.

Just how significant will the game prove to be?

It should send City's confidence sky-high. They already have the best squad of players in the league, and are playing the best football (despite their manager's reputation for negativity). They are rightful favourites, at this point, to win the title.

But United under Ferguson have the handy habit of turning adversity to their advantage. One would expect them to be just as galvanised by their own humiliation as City are by their moment of glory.

With that said, there are deficiencies in the United team that were cruelly exposed by their neighbours and this has surely shot some holes in the aura that often allows United to coast through games against lesser sides. Their relatively ordinary central midfield and a defence that has been unsettled by changing partnerships and by an apparent decline in the performances of its senior members are primary concerns.

They do not have a player with the creative flair of David Silva, or indeed a player with the destructive zeal of Nigel De Jong who, frighteningly enough, City don't even seem to need at the moment.

The evidence is that if United are to make it title number twenty, they will need to rely on their neighbours' oft-showcased appetite for self-destruction.

David Silva was the star again. His imperious volleyed pass through to Dzeko for the final goal has garnered much of the attention, but he was involved in so much. He has that admirable habit, like Bergkamp before him, of making the players around him look better. He attracts the attention of defenders, and that frees up space for others, and he has the vision, technique and selflessness to help those other players exploit the space fully. Witness the build up to Balotelli's second goal, and how Silva waits and releases to Milner at just the right time.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Better, Closer, Warmer/ RVP

Arsenal are grinding out wins, dismantling the wall of discontent brick by brick.

Since that defeat in a close-fought North London derby, the Gunners have twice been indebted to their captain and talisman Robin Van Persie. He scored braces against Sunderland and Stoke respectively to ensure six points from the last two home league games.

His performance against Sunderland was memorable not only for two well-taken goals- one smashed in with his right, the other a free kick curled home with his left- but also for an audacious attempt that so nearly proved a goal of the season contender. With the score at 1-0, Van Persie collected an Arteta pass, bamboozled Kieran Richardson with a cute dragback, and lofted a cheeky chip from the edge of the box that confounded the keeper but rebounded off the upright and out.

He is certainly Arsenal's best player, and his familiarity with the woodwork means he is probably the league's unluckiest.

There have been many improvements in Van Persie's game over the last few seasons. He is now very two-footed. He scores a lot with what he once termed his "chocolate leg", and the chipped effort in the Sunderland game also came courtesy of his right foot.

His team play has improved a lot since his early Arsenal days, when he was an exciting and often spectacular player with a very individualistic style that sometimes angered team mates.

He is more mature, more of a leader, deserving of the armband.

Lastly, and most importantly, he is scoring many goals, different goals. His vicious left foot and his considerable ability meant he was never starved of goals (except while injured), but in the early days, he was as likely to score from twenty yards as from three. Although never as averse to the tap in as Bergkamp, Van Persie was something of a DIY finisher, a man who would wait for the ball to be played to him, feint this way and that, then smash a shot from whatever angle he saw fit. It often made for spectacular viewing, but nobody ever suggested he was the much sought "fox in the box" that Arsenal are always said to lack.

Against Stoke, however, his match-winning brace was more reminiscent of Van Nistelrooy than Bergkamp. Both goals were the product of intelligent, hungry movement inside the box. And this is typical of Van Persie's output in the last few seasons. He is scoring more in and around the six yard box and this is why he is more prolific. It's actually been a while since he scored a truly spectacular goal- his free kick against Sunderland was the first such goal he has scored in a long time, and there has been nothing of late to rival his comic strip volley against Charlton or his sumptuous curler against Blackburn- but that does not matter, because he has become a better, more effective player.

New boy Gervinho has already shown frequent signs of a good understanding with the Dutchman. He may not be quite as quick as Walcott, but he uses his pace better when running with the ball. Walcott so often looks clueless when confronted with a full back and the ball at his own feet. Gervinho, on the other hand, has a handy habit of cruising beyond his marker with a sudden burst of acceleration. This led to Van Persie's two goals against Stoke, and also the vital equaliser in the away leg against Udinese. Gervinho also teed up the Dutchman's first against Sunderland with a nicely weighted pass. With this Arsenal team struggling to find much rhythm or swagger, the forging of some fruitful partnerships is vital. Signs are that there is genuine chemistry between these two.

Between the Sunderland and Stoke games, Arsenal executed a classic smash and grab in a sleepy Champions League game against Marseille, leaving qualification as group winners a distinct and welcome possibility. The game was a non-entity. Marseille's league form has been terrible, and they somehow managed not to trouble Arsenal's wobbly rearguard. With the match petering out in a dreary stalemate, a late attack saw Gervinho's micontrol fall kindly for Aaron Ramsey. The Welshman's first touch threatened to take him into traffic but he kept his composure and swept the ball home.

Last night, Arsenal reserves beat a strong Bolton side in the Carling Cup. Former Gunner Fabrice Muamba opened the scoring for the visitors, but Arshavin levelled with a fine run and finish. The Russian quickly turned provider. After another positive run he waited patiently to allow Park onside, then weighted his pass perfectly so that the Korean could shoot first time. His confident, curled finish was hopefully a sign of things to come, as Arsenal badly need another regular goalscorer to take some of that weight off Van Persie's shoulders.

So the last few games have provided some kind of lift in mood, but talk of a real revival may be premature. Arsenal have failed in all of the big tests so far, and while results are always paramont, there is still a feeling that lately, they have been labouring to victory against poor opposition. They have not played well for a solid ninety minutes, they still show no notion of how to defend set pieces, and they are still without an away win in the league. And next up, they go to Stamford Bridge.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

So Much for the Gulf: Spurs 2-1 Arsenal

I prefaced last November's North London derby at the Emirates- a game Spurs came from 2-0 down to win- with a post entitled "Is The Gulf of North London Closing?".

Consider it closed.

Last term, Spurs had the upper hand in head to head league meetings- they produced another comeback from a two goal deficit to force a draw at the Lane- but Arsenal were still way out in front overall. Spurs never threatened a title challenge, and fell back out of the top four, unable to balance the twin demands of Champions League and Premier League.

Now, without the distraction of Europe's premier competition, and having held onto Luka Modric, they look a better bet than Arsenal to challenge for a top four place. For the first time in a long, long time, they probably have a better team than the Gunners. And the old hoodoo is well and truly over. The days when Spurs could not buy a win against their North London neighbours are a receding memory.

I remember, during Arsenal's long unbeaten run against Tottenham, many games in which the gulf in class was not particularly evident. Arsenal rarely produced their fluent best against Spurs, and Spurs often took the lead in these games, but always seemed to choke. Arsenal had the ability to grind out at least a draw, and often a win.

That old grit is gone. This was Spurs' turn to play an average game and scrape through.

It might have been different had Gervinho buried a very presentable first half chance. Van Persie, who was otherwise subdued, skinned Kaboul on near the touchline, and cut back for his team mate, who snatched a miserable effort wide of the near post.

Minutes later, Spurs scored a fine goal that was two parts skill and one part luck. Adebayor picked up the ball in the kind of space that Arsenal too often afford opposition attackers, and flighted a pass over Mertesacker to Van Der Vaart. The Dutchman controlled with his upper arm and, as the ball sat up, struck a clinical shot across Szczesny and into the net.

It had, to that point, been typical Arsenal. An advantage in terms of possession is not really an advantage at all for this team. While they seemed in control for periods, and could point to Gervinho's missed sitter, the fact remained that Spurs had twice forced Szczesny into heroics before the goal. First Scott Parker and then Van Der Vaart were denied at close quarters. How many chances woudl the home side have created if they were in better attacking form? Also, despite Redknapp's needlessly gung ho selection of Modric, Van Der Vaart and Bale behind a front two of Adebayor and Defoe, Arsenal failed to turn a numerical midfield advantage into incisive attacking play.

Second half was largely more of the same. Arsenal equalised when Song took advantage of Van Der Vaart's lazy attempt to close down, and crossed low for Ramsey to turn the ball in. Again, despite Arsenal's possession and their illusion of control, the best chance came at the other end. Adebayor was played through by Van Der Vaart but his shot was turned wide. Another brillint save by Szczesny.

Which made the winner all the more cruel. Sleepy play by Arteta and Ramsey allowed an opening to form down Arsenal's right from a quick throw in (Sagna had departed with a bad injury, and Jenkinson was deputising). The cross found Modric, and his shot was blocked, but Kyle Walker seized on the ricochet and blasted an effort that the Pole seemed to be behind. The swerving ball skipped over his fingers and into the net.

Szczesny, depite his considerable talent, is a young goalkeeper and mistakes are inevitable. More disturbing was Arsenal's reaction to the goal. Or rather, their lack thereof. Barely three passes were stitched together by the men in red during the rest of the game. As the clock ticked down, Arsenal often struggled to get out of their own half. They looked resigned to their fate. They failed to fight convincingly for themselves, for the club, or for their manager.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Basel Expose United's Soft Centre

United's suspect defence was evident in the defeat of Chelsea and even, strangely enough, in that ridiculous hammering of Arsenal. It was forgotten, naturally enough what with the lopsided scoreline, that Arsenal had chances after the break to bring the score back to 3-2 and make it at least a contest. Not that I'm suggesting that Arsenal would have won any points had that been the case. I'm merely pointing out that the praise of United up to this point has rather ignored their unusually soft looking defensive work.

There is an argument that the lower lights of the Premiership don't show enough ambition against United, especially in games at Old Trafford. United's fearsome home record is enough to psyche out most opponents, and managers tend to set their teams up defensively, hoping for a draw. Against many teams- Arsenal being an obvious example- defending deep in numbers and springing on the counter attack is a worthwhile ploy. But United typically play with tremendous width (Arsenal, as we know, don't), and their wingers tend to provide great service on a fairly consistent basis. When United need a late goal in a tight game, how often do they score from a cross? Ask the same question of Arsenal, and you get a very different answer.

In other words, defending deep against United has proven over recent seasons to be a fruitless strategy. Basel showed that, when you catch them on an off-night, attack really is the best form of defence. United found themselves 2-0 up thanks to Danny Welbeck's brace, but Basel had made chances and did not allow themselves to be disheartened by the deficit. Rather than fall back on damage limitation, they continued to plug away in attack, and plundered three goals to lead. It would have been an unprecedented result- Sir Alex Ferguson has never presided over a game in which United led by two goals and lost.

But Basel visibly tired in the latter stages, and United equalised very late when a super deep cross from Nani found Ashley Young in acres at the far post, and he nodded firmly downwards and into the back of the net.

Despite a very easy dra for the group stage, United find themselves with only two points from the first two games. They will still, of course, go through, but Basel's performance showed that United's impressive results in the Premiership owe a lot to a lack of strength in depth in that league.