* “What is different is that at that time we were losing momentum,” Arsene Wenger explained on the day before the game. “This time it’s the opposite. We are chasing and gaining momentum. We had two difficult games recently but overall the psychological situation is quite different.”
It was good for us mere mortals to understand why Arsenal were mentally stronger this time, how they were tougher and more resilient than before. Wenger’s team had only won three of their last nine matches, but Wenger had spoken: Arsenal were on the up. Unfortunately, gaining momentum isn’t particularly useful when you are plummeting head first towards the cold hard floor.
So many times we have seen this film played on repeat. So many times have we been told by Wenger that this is a different Arsenal. So many times have we been given excuses for past failure, immediately followed by further reasons why this is the one. He is the manager who cried wolf, and he’s been crying it for five years.
If Arsenal fail to win the Premier League title this season, Wenger should be ashamed. Almost every time he claims that his players are harder, better, faster and stronger, they demonstrate themselves to be softer, worse(r), slower and weaker.
Barcelona and Manchester United have long been Arsenal’s two biggest hurdles. In the space of six days, they have proved themselves physically incapable of beating one, and mentally incapable of beating the other. It is now nine years, five months and 11 days since Arsenal won at Old Trafford in the Premier League. And counting.
* One day, a scorpion (named Arsene Wenger) looked around at the mountain where he lived and decided that he wanted a change. So he set out on a journey through the forests and hills. He climbed over rocks and under vines and kept going until he reached a river.
The river was wide and swift, and Wenger stopped to reconsider the situation. He couldn’t see any way across. So he ran upriver and then checked downriver, all the while thinking that he might have to turn back. Suddenly, he saw a frog (named The Hopes Of All Arsenal Supporters) sitting in the rushes by the bank of the stream on the other side of the river. He decided to ask the frog for help getting across the stream.
“Hellooo The Hopes Of All Arsenal Supporters!” called the scorpion across the water, “Would you be so kind as to give me a ride on your back across the river?”
“Well now, Wenger! How do I know that if I try to help you, you won’t try to kill me?” asked The Hopes Of All Arsenal Supporters hesitantly.
“Because,” Wenger replied, “if I try to kill you, then I would die too, for you see I cannot swim!”
Now this seemed to make sense to The Hopes Of All Arsenal Supporters. But he asked. “What about when I get close to the bank? You could still try to kill me and get back to the shore!”
“This is true,” agreed Wenger, “But then I wouldn’t be able to get to the other side of the river!”
“Alright then…how do I know you won’t just wait till we get to the other side and THEN kill me?” said The Hopes Of All Arsenal Supporters.
“Ahh…,” crooned Wenger, “Because you see, once you’ve taken me to the other side of this river, I will be so grateful for your help, that it would hardly be fair to reward you with death, now would it?!”
So The Hopes Of All Arsenal Supporters agreed to take Wenger across the river. He swam over to the bank and settled himself near the mud to pick up his passenger. Wenger crawled onto the his back, his sharp claws prickling into The Hopes Of All Arsenal Supporters’ soft hide, and the frog slid into the river. The muddy water swirled around them, but the frog stayed near the surface so Wenger would not drown. He kicked strongly through the first half of the stream, his flippers paddling wildly against the current.
Halfway across the river, The Hopes Of All Arsenal Supporters suddenly felt a sharp sting in his back and, out of the corner of his eye, saw Wenger remove his stinger from his back. A deadening numbness began to creep into his limbs.
“You fool!” croaked The Hopes Of All Arsenal Supporters, “now we shall both die! Why on earth did you do that?”
Wenger shrugged, and did a little jig on the drowning Hopes Of All Arsenal Supporters’ back.
“I could not help myself. It is my nature.”
* The two line-ups really hammered home just how much Arsenal really should win the fixture. The defence picked by Louis van Gaal contained no player who would be selected if United were free of injuries. Guillermo Varela started only his second Premier League match, Marcos Rojo was back in from the Old Trafford cold and neither Michael Carrick nor Daley Blind are natural central defenders.
At the other end of the pitch, Marcus Rashford was given his first Premier League minutes as a starter against Arsenal after just two Under-21 starts, an outrageous rise. Both Wayne Rooney and Anthony Martial were injured, and despite the manager’s insistence that Martial’s omission from Thursday’s Europa League tie against Midtjylland was merely precautionary, the Frenchman did not even make the squad.
United’s injury crisis gave Wenger license to try and exploit their defensive flaws, and Arsenal’s manager didn’t hold back. A front four of Theo Walcott, Mesut Ozil, Alexis Sanchez and Danny Welbeck was as attacking as Wenger gets away from home.
* Wenger’s biggest decision came up front, with Olivier Giroud dropped in favour of Walcott’s pace. The presence of Carrick and Blind as a central defensive pairing clearly aided Wenger’s call, as did Welbeck and Sanchez’s ability to swap positions with Walcott and drag United’s defenders out of position.
Yet there is no doubt that an in-form Giroud would have started the game. Now nine games without a goal, failing to score at Old Trafford marked the striker’s longest barren run since joining Arsenal.
“As a striker, it is all about momentum. I did well until mid-January, but it has been one-and-a-half months since I last scored,” Giroud told Sky Sports in the build-up to the game. “I try to help the team to set up the game and assist my team-mates, which I am pleased about, but obviously as a striker I want to score. But I am not worried about that. I work for the team and when I have the opportunity to put it in the net I will do it with determination.”
The intent is great, but titles are not won simply by players trying, only succeeding. At the time Arsenal needed Giroud most, he has left them wanting more.
* One positive for United was the return of David de Gea, and it took less than ten minutes for United’s goalkeeper to prove his importance as Arsenal created the first clear chance of the match.
The pass from Ozil was superb, clipped over United’s back line with his left instep, and with enough backspin to allow Nacho Monreal to stride through on goal. Monreal was guilty of delaying his shot, wanting to strike the ball cleanly rather than stabbing it past the goalkeeper. De Gea made himself big, and blocked the effort.
* After 12 minutes, there was a brilliant call from referee Craig Pawson. When I first saw Rashford sprinting into the penalty area and being brought down, I assumed that a penalty was the correct call. Had Pawson made a massive error?
No, he really hadn’t. The slow-motion replay showed that Rashford was fractionally outside the area when the tackle was made, although his foot was planted on the line before he fell to the turf. Despite United’s players angrily pointing to a patch of grass inside the box, the referee got it spot on. As ever, they’re never noticed when they do things right.
* Despite Monreal’s early chance, Arsenal started the game in bizarrely sluggish fashion. It was as if they had turned up and expected United’s ragtag bunch to simply give them the ball and let them score. There was no urgency, no obvious plan, no – to use Wenger’s own word – cohesion.
This was particularly surprising given Arsenal’s performance against the same team earlier in the season. At the Emirates, Arsenal had started at a blistering pace, scoring three times in the opening 19 minutes. At Old Trafford, they played like that was never an option. Supporters in the away end must have feared the worst.
Even after half-time, when Wenger should have firmly reminded his side of just how important this game was, it didn’t show. Arsenal backed off players in midfield and in defence, and allowed United’s midfielders to stream forward. That was precisely how Ander Herrera’s goal came.
* United might not have deserved to take the lead, but Arsenal paid the price for their early slumber. Walcott lost the ball in his own half (him and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain seem to be having a competition on that front this season), and the ball found Varela out wide.
Varela’s cross was sent into a six-yard box in which there were no United attackers. Had Gabriel remained calm, he could have cleared the ball with ease. Instead the Brazilian slid to clear the ball, allowing it to ricochet off the edge of his left boot. The ball fell to Rashford, who guided the ball into the top corner via the edge of Cech’s glove.
* If United’s young striker was in dreamland after his first goal, it took less than three minutes for him to double his tally. Again he was assisted by some shambolic Arsenal defending. It doesn’t matter if you’ve scored one Premier League goal or 100, if you are left unmarked five yards out and presented with the ball on your head, you’ll score more often than not.
Before Sunday, Arsenal and Manchester United boasted the second and third best defences in the Premier League. While United had mitigating circumstances around their own deficiencies, Arsenal’s defence was at full strength. It didn’t show.
* Still, let’s focus on the positives. On Thursday afternoon, Rashford was told by Van Gaal that he would be on the bench for United’s Europa League second leg against Midtjylland, and will have been nervous as he prepared for the game. When Martial was injured in the warm-up, and Rashford was called upon, he would have been forgiven for shrinking into his shell. Not a bit of it.
To score two goals against Midtjylland is one thing, for they were incredibly poor. To score twice with your first two shots in Premier League football in a game of such magnitude is something entirely different. You just try and quieten that hype machine now. By half-time some were already discussing his odds of making Roy Hodgson’s Euro 2016 squad.
Importantly, Rashford also showed that he could take instructions from his manager on board and adapt. After the Midtjylland game, Van Gaal explained how he had told his young striker to stay central in order to get more scoring chances.
“In the first half he ran too much at the sidelines,” van Gaal said. “I said to him at half-time to be in the width of the goal and you shall score. Then he scored two goals – it is fantastic for him.”
Rashford did occasionally drift wide left against Arsenal, but both of his chances came with him playing the role of poacher, feeding off the
scraps bountiful produce Arsenal’s defenders afforded him.
THIS IS AMAZING https://t.co/RQMDz7Bw9f
— Daniel Harris (@DanielHarris) February 28, 2016
If that doesn’t make you smile, chisel yourself a mini statue out of your heart.
* From one striker to another, and the dire display of Walcott.
“I believe he can be a central striker,” Wenger said of Walcott in October, not missing the chance to be more than a little snarky about criticism his forward had faced. “But at the start of the season, I faced questions from everybody: ‘why don’t you buy a central striker?’ So sometimes you have to have strong beliefs and show the players as well that you believe in them in that position.
“I always said that he will play through the middle and he got his knee injury when he played well through the middle against Tottenham. It took him a while to come back, I must say. But now in the last two games, the last few games, he looks always dangerous in this position. The quality of his movement is outstanding and he has found his finishing again.”
Against United, Walcott was atrocious. No shots, no chances created and six passes completed in 63 minutes. He touched the ball 17 times and managed to lose possession on ten occasions. It would be hard to do worse deliberately.
Walcott may well have individual matches where he proves himself adept in the role, but he will never be a first-choice striker for a title-winning team. Arsenal’s longest-serving player is a personification of his club: Bright sparks, an enjoyable highlights package but an eternal feeling of lingering disappointment.
When Walcott plays well, he combines the roles of wide attacker and central striker. When he plays badly, Arsenal may as well have ten men. You can’t afford to take that risk in big games.
* A word too about Sanchez, who has faltered badly in recent months. The Chilean has left Ozil carrying the responsibility for creating chances.
Sanchez had three shots at Old Trafford, all off target, and created only two chances in the entire 90 minutes. He was also wasteful with the ball, looking weary even during periods of the first half. Has Arsene finally broken him?
The statistics do not make for good reading. In Sanchez’s first six months in England, he scored a goal every 146.7 league minutes, created a chance every 30.9 minutes, and had a shot on target every 58.7 minutes. In the last six months, goals have come every 202.3 minutes, chances created every 40.4 minutes and shots on target come every 75.8 minutes. Put simply, he’s operating at around 70%.
* Arsenal did get themselves back into the game, with Ozil’s left-footed rebound making the score 3-2. Yet that should have been the catalyst for a fightback. All it provoked was a limp finish, and ‘oles’ during the final ten minutes from gleeful United supporters.
This is an Arsenal team who scored in the last minute of their last Premier League game to haul themselves into the title race. Where the hell has that fight gone? Wenger’s side played the entire second half as if it was United, not them, who needed to score.
That kind of gutless, limp reaction can only be passed down from the very top. Wenger can throw out his arms in frustration from now until September, but it won’t change the fact that, again, his players bottled the big occasion. Many supporters are getting sick of the broken record.
* Van Gaal has not ventured to the edge of his technical area much this season, preferring to stay in his seat and let others bark orders. During the second half, we saw why.
United’s manager was upset at Arsenal players falling to ground too easily, and made his feelings clear to the fourth official. And how.
Video: Van Gaal arguing with official pic.twitter.com/sk7seT9g1q
— utdreport.com (@utdreport) February 28, 2016
If Van Gaal achieves nothing else in England, being the most theatrical person in an argument with Mike Dean is worth an award.
* Van Gaal may have seriously underperformed as United manager, but one cannot doubt his faith in the club’s academy players. Clearly much of that faith has been forced upon the Dutchman by the club’s crippling injury crisis, but the squad of players against Arsenal still contained unprecedented levels of United inexperience. Morgan Schneiderlin only turned 26 in November; he was United’s third oldest player on the pitch at full-time.
Guillermo Varela – 22
Jesse Lingard – 23
Marcus Rashford – 18
Timothy Fosu-Mensah – 18
James Weir – 20
Paddy McNair – 20
Memphis Depay – 22
Adnan Januzaj – 21
Joe Riley – 19
Andreas Pereira – 20
Not all of the above list will make the grade at Old Trafford, but they will be better players for Sunday’s experience. Despite the uncertainty over Van Gaal’s own position as manager, this was a triumph for unity and hunger over a hamstrung opposition. Inexperience can be a handicap; it can also be a powerful force.
* On Wednesday, I got an awful lot lot of stick for a piece suggesting that Wenger should consider picking a reserve side against Barcelona. The advice was issued with tongue placed in cheek, but the point was at least (I think) valid. Such was the damage defeats to Barcelona had done to Arsenal’s confidence in the past, they needed to find a way to avoid a repeat.
“I leave any individual assessment to you,” said Wenger after the game. “You are big enough, and strong enough and intelligent enough. I want to analyse it again.” Thanks Arsene, we will.
On this evidence, Wenger has still not managed to find a way to protect his players. Until he does, they may never lift a meaningful trophy (sorry FA Cup). Arsenal’s squad is affected more by defeat than victory in a manner not matched by any other club. The power of triumph is lost on the merest zephyr, the lasting impact of defeat left hanging around like an unpleasant odour in a sleeping bag.
It’s impossible not to think of the longer term. Arsenal could still win the league title of course, but more likely is a meek acceptance of second or third best. While Manchester City, Manchester United and Chelsea will all respond to unsatisfactory seasons by changing their managers, Arsenal will simply play their eternal waiting game. Some choose proaction, while others rely on reaction. Arsenal are railing dangerously close to inaction.