Sunday, November 4, 2012

Annual Defeat at Old Trafford

Manchester United 2-1 Arsenal

A close scoreline. Not a close game.

The last time Arsenal took anything from Old Trafford was towards the end of 2008/09, when they coasted to a goalless draw that was enough for them to seal another title.

Arsenal have won one league game away to United in the last ten years. They never perform at Old Trafford.

This time around, United didn't have to be good, but still could have matched the eight goals they scored in last season's game. In fact, they made a greater number of gilt edged opportunities here, but whereas last time they were freakishly clinical, this time they were wasteful, and let Arsenal off with a flattering final score.

Vermaelen set the tone for a wretched performance by teeing up Van Persie for the game's opening goal with less than three minutes on the clock. The further we get from Vermaelen's early days at the club- when he seemed an endearingly wholehearted, all action defender- the clearer it becomes that he is a liability. His positional play is consistently poor, and when he makes the kind of schoolboy errors that pockmarked his performance on Saturday, there really isn't a way to justify his continued presence in the starting line up. Except for the fact that he's been made club captain. So the captaincy farce, like the goalkeeper farce, continues for another year.

That being said, he was in abundant company in not turning up for this game. Santos and Ramsey both struggled again, raising the question as to why Wenger refuses to take them out of the firing line. Ramsey is a central midfielder and lacks any real pace or trickery. His common inclusion on the right of the attacking three seems confusing and self-destructive. Together he, Giroud and Podolski must rank as one of the most toothless attacks that lined up anywhere in the Premier League over the weekend.

Are there other options? Yes, but they are ones that Wenger does not seem to appreciate at the moment. Arshavin may be a frustrating figure, but he is surely too talented to be frozen out when alternatives are so limited. Walcott is the victim of his own greed, perhaps, but Wenger needs to be more pragmatic and admit that sadly, Arsenal are now bad enough that the brainless but sometimes effective speed merchant is a part of their best eleven.

At the back, meanwhile, Santos has served substantial notice of his status as a liability, and Vermaelen could be moved to left back, allowing Koscielny to take his rightful place in the centre of defence. Or Sagna could be moved left and Jenkinson come in on the right. But no. We are forced to tolerate the calamitous Brazilian again.

What was most disconcerting, perhaps, was the malfunctioning midfield. Wilshere, Arteta and Cazorla probably constitute as technically proficient a trio as Arsenal have ever fielded in the centre of the park, and should certainly be expected to exert some degree of control against Carrick, Cleverley and Rooney. It never happened. Arsenal never had a foothold in the game.

Part of it was down to Rooney's effective man-marking job on Arteta, which meant that Arsenal found it difficult to build from the back, but that should hardly in itself be an insurmountable obstacle. Maybe it was just that the trio are unused to playing together, or that Arsenal are lacking muscle in that are of the pitch. But it is the weakest area of the United team and still the home side were almost completely untroubled.

The question is thus raised again as to whether Wenger is at this point capable even of exacting the maximum from the players at his disposal. To be fair, the fact that they secured Champions League football again last season means he still deserves a lot of credit for regrouping after a couple of hellish periods, but Saturday served up another reminder of how long it's been since Arsenal performed convincingly in the games that matter most.

It's so disappointing to see that United, a team who have done it all, are still palpably so much hungrier than a group of players who have won nothing at all. Patrice Evra enraged Arsenal fans and players alike in 2009 when he described United's procession  to victory in that year's Champions League semi-finals as a contest of "men against babies", but the words cut so deep because they carried an edge of truth. Here, it was the despicable left back who was allowed to head home United's richly deserved second goal and finally put the game to bed, after Rooney had dragged a penalty wide and he, Van Persie and Valencia had spurned opportunities from open play.

Cazorla found the top corner with a peach of a shot just as the game finished, but the contest was long over, especially after Wilshere was sent off for picking up a second yellow card. There was a real sense of optimism around Arsenal after they fought their way to a point at Eastlands, but that positivity has evaporated in the interim after listless displays at home to Chelsea and Schalke and away to Norwich were punished. Another defeat against United means that Arsenal are worse off, points-wise, than at the same stage last season.

Thus we are left to watch three superior sides disappear into the distance, and worry as to whether Andre Villas Boas will affect much of an improvement at Tottenham. Another long winter, in other words.

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