Arsenal rampant, Alexis Sanchez beautiful, Mesut Ozil flicking the V’s at the critics. But for all Arsenal’s positives, an abysmal performance from Manchester United…
* “Top of the league,” chanted Manchester United supporters as they brushed past Sunderland last weekend, celebrating their return to the summit for the first time since Sir Alex Ferguson left the club. It was a brief window of triumphalism.
At the Emirates on Sunday, Arsenal were rampant and United abysmal. The valid concern over Louis van Gaal’s side was how their central midfield and makeshift defence would cope with pace and trickery. The answer was returned at a volume to make the manager’s ears bleed.
For Arsenal, the complete attacking display, in the first half at least. When Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil dovetail in perfect unison such as this, they rival David Silva and Kevin de Bruyne for the most attractive Premier League pair. There is still a postscript question to this performance – where was this against X, Y and Z? – but as a near-neutral it seems unmannerly to dull the gloss of superb victory.
* After Arsenal’s 2-0 defeat at Chelsea, Sarah Winterburn expressed her disappointment at Sanchez’s start to the season. The Chilean had taken 31 shots in the Premier League without scoring, and his sharpness seemed lacking. Those doubts can now be eliminated after six goals in a week.
The ‘Cruyff flick’ goal (and that’s Gary Neville’s description) is nothing new, of course – some of us watched Bryan Roy do one at White Hart Lane in September 1994. But it is a fine example of a skill at its very best, used not for its own sake but because it simply made sense.
Sanchez’s goal took this a stage further. Because Ozil’s cross was played with placement rather than power (as if the wonderfully serene German would play it with anything else), Sanchez could not just let the ball hit his right instep and into the goal. Instead, he generated power with the flick, forcing rather than just guiding it into the net. That makes it three times more sexy.
* Football punditry is now largely an industry of opinions over insight, but there is a worrying growth of ‘he who shouts loudest, wins’, with Robbie Savage as its poster boy. This week on RTE Sport in Ireland, John Giles was the latest in a long line of people to criticise Ozil for his alleged lack of commitment. It was quite the rant.
“I think Özil is a total waste,” Giles said. “I don’t think Arsenal have a good team as long as he’s in it. I think he’s the biggest culprit. I don’t think he’s honest in what he does.”
Watching Ozil perform so magnificently against United was joyous without any extra incentive, but can we finally stop the one-eyed nonsense about him never doing it in big games. His passing was wonderful, the first 20 minutes the epitome of what an attacking midfielder should be. “Nicking a living” and “I don’t think he’s honest” made to look as foolish as they should.
* For all Arsenal’s brilliance, they were assisted by a woeful game plan from Van Gaal. When the decision was made to pay £28m for Morgan Schneiderlin, it must surely have been with games like this in mind. Against a formidable and fluid attacking unit, United needed a forceful player to patrol defensive midfield. They needed a Morgan Schneiderlin, not a Michael Carrick. The error was punished.
I recently made the point about the sluggish nature of United’s starts to matches under Van Gaal, an apparent contentment to wake gradually into the game. Since the Manchester derby victory in April, Van Gaal’s side have scored two goals in the opening 25 minutes of Premier League matches. One was a Juan Mata penalty and the other a Kyle Walker own goal. This was Van Gaal’s side finally being exposed for that safety-first mentality against the first team who actually attacked them from the off. A blueprint has been written.
* United’s lack of midfield power was exacerbated by the instructions that were presumably given to Bastian Schweinsteiger, who pushed high up the pitch on Santi Cazorla. During the first half, Schweinsteiger’s average touch position was actually higher up the pitch than Wayne Rooney’s, leaving gaping holes in central midfield. Arsenal were only too happy to oblige.
“There’s just nobody there,” Neville said repeatedly on commentary, as if forlornly describing the home of a friend after a nine-hour car journey.
* The selection of Theo Walcott for a game of such magnitude confirmed his status as Arsenal’s first-choice striker, whatever Wenger says about that term being defunct.
Walcott was at his best against United, delighting in the space he was afforded. He drifted out right to exploit Ashley Young’s struggles, allowing one of Mesut Ozil or Alexis Sanchez to fill the gap. Fluidity has never looked so good.
Despite being the nominated striker, Walcott actually played the perfect back-up role to those behind him. He completed just nine passes in the match (the first setting up Ozil for Arsenal’s second) and had one shot in total. He also had just 26 touches in 75 minutes, but never stopped hassling and harrying United’s defenders, forcing mistakes. If that becomes his forte, it will be an invaluable one.
Olivier Giroud’s weak effort at David de Gea from 12 yards after his introduction made me feel a bit sad for the Frenchman, but you couldn’t accuse Wenger of a lack of perseverance.
As an aside, there would be a certain irony to this Arsenal team competing for the Premier League after months of being told that Giroud is good enough to lead Wenger’s team to the title.
* After 20 minutes, the game was over. It was a third Arsenal attacking move as smooth as silk, and the third time United’s midfield looked non-existent. The defence did its best to follow suit.
Sanchez was actually fortunate to bundle past Chris Smalling, but his finish was of a player back to peak confidence. Wenger and supporters will hope that his removal after holding his groin is a precautionary measure rather than him entering the “red zone”.
* It was a point alluded to by Neville on commentary, but why on earth was Ashley Young not afforded more protection? The winger (not full-back) struggled with Walcott occasionally drifting wide, Aaron Ramsey attacking him and Hector Bellerin overlapping, yet was left brutally exposed. Despite having Sanchez on the left wing, 40.5% of Arsenal’s attacks during the match came from the right third of the pitch, with 30% down the left.
Memphis Depay may well turn out to be an excellent player for United, but he is categorically not the ideal winger to play in front of another winger. He must develop an appetite for tracking back if he is going to be used in that role in important away games.
Depay’s defensive deficiencies could be stomached if he offered promise in attack, but this was another frustrating display in the final third. He lost possession 14 times in his 45 minutes; the biggest individual figure across the full 90 minutes was 20. No shots, no chances created, no use.
* It’s a mark of Arsenal’s ability to shoot themselves in the foot at a second’s notice that Petr Cech’s save just before half-time was so widely celebrated by home supporters, and further evidence of why he should play every match in every competition.
Martial turned superbly in the area, but Cech’s left leg thwarted danger superbly. Going into half-time with just a two-goal lead, seeds of doubt would have grown into oak trees over the 15-minute interval.
Cech played 165 club matches over three seasons between August 2010 and May 2013. He can cope with the workload, Arsene.
* The second half fell into a formulaic pattern of United possession and Arsenal counter, but there is no doubt which side remained the more dangerous. Wenger spoke before the game of his wariness of United’s breaks, but it was his own side who were able to effect that plan, the comfortable lead making the strategy close to foolproof.
With a one- or two-goal lead Arsenal’s second-half plan would have been risky should United have hit back, but the three-goal cushion made it the obvious choice. Supporters may have been urging their side to rub United’s nose in it, but Champions League Winners and Losers discussed the inevitable fatigue of Premier League football. The advantages of playing at 70% for an entire half outweigh the benefits of going for the jugular. Wenger already had his kill.
* Total number of passes: Coquelin, Ramsey, Cazorla, Sanchez, Walcott and Ozil 208 – 244 Carrick, Schweinsteiger and Rooney.
An emphatic reminder that it’s what you do with them that counts.
* Wayne Rooney, Ballon D’Or nomination. It’s a sentence that should inspire struggling footballers across the land.
Two months ago, Van Gaal described Rooney as his No. 1 striker, but this was the final step on the journey to him becoming a complete passenger in United’s side. Rooney offers no attacking threat, no creativity and no vision. United wore black as if to commemorate the passing of his first touch, and it was a sombre affair.
Rooney did manage more than one shot on target, something he has now done three times in his last 26 league games. Both were straight at Cech with little power.
Rooney not contributing is one thing, but we have reached the stage where his effect on this United side is negative, not negligible. He looks a disconsolate and declining figure, surely kept only in the side by the captain’s armband around his fleshy upper arms.
* Matteo Darmian was forgiven for his slight struggles at left-back against Wolfsburg due to the comparative unfamiliarity of the position, but he has no excuses against Arsenal. Van Gaal chose to switch the Italian back to the right flank as a means of dealing with Sanchez, but he might as well not have bothered.
Darmian made no clearances or interceptions during the first 45 minutes, but did concede two fouls and get a deserved yellow card. He regularly tried to venture forward, which would have been fine if a) he had not left huge spaces in behind and b) his team not been susceptible to the counter attack with the huge holes in central midfield. His removal at half-time felt less like a substitution and more like a mercy killing.
* It was not all gloom for United, however. Anthony Martial’s performance in difficult circumstances should provide even more positivity regarding his long-term future. While the Frenchman’s composure in front of goal has surprised everyone since his arrival, against Arsenal he showed his ability to take the ball down in wide areas and head towards goal.
Martial can also square up his opponent, crucial when then attempting to beat them with pace. If United can support him more meaningfully than Sunday, he has already demonstrated a big-game mentality. As Thierry Henry said before kick-off, he is scared of nothing and nobody right now.
* “I believe we had a bit of bad luck as well because they had four shots on target and scored three goals and that happens once in 100 Champions League games” – Arsene Wenger, September 29.
Against Manchester United, Arsenal scored from three of their five shots on target. Reckon he’ll mention their “bit of good luck”?
* Finally, before the game Arsenal and United supporters came together to campaign against the rise of Premier League greed. One banner in particular caught the eye: ‘£5bn and what do we get? £64 a ticket’.
The point is so valid that it hardly bears repeating, but still supporters are pushed towards the bottom of football’s priority list by those in power. As pockets get fuller there should be more and more reason to share the wealth, yet even the suggestion seems laughable. That’s how much we have been battered down.
Away supporters are the lifeblood of the game. They transform a football match from theatre to battle, displaying the loyalty and commitment that makes sport so special. They are being priced out of the game in their droves. The rich get richer, the poor get poorer, the average fan gets more and more detached from his club through no fault of his or her own.
It is a stain on the game that fans have been forced to unite to protest against such capitalist greed. Current initiatives for away fan reductions work out at £200,000 per club per season. Compare that with the estimated £8bn value of the new broadcasting deal, when overseas contracts are included.
“Over the past 25 years money has flowed into football enriching players, owners, executives and agents – we think it’s about time fans saw some of the benefits too,” says the Football Supporters’ Federation chief executive Kevin Miles. He’s right, too.
Football may be a business, but supporters are no normal customers. For too long they have been taken for a ride, but it’s time for change. Loyalty must be applauded and rewarded, not exploited.