United’s near misses and Almunia’s brilliance keep the tie alive
Manchester United dominated Arsenal at Old Trafford tonight. In virtually every area of the game United were the better team. Arsenal put forth a performance that lacked composure, quality and, at times, even effort. It was a dismal night for every Arsenal supporter. But despite all of the negatives, there is still plenty to play for when we return to the emirates on Tuesday. Thanks to United’s failure to convert their clear scoring chances, and Manuel Alumunia’s heroic performance in goal, we still have hope of advancing to the Champions League final in Rome. Arsene Wenger declared after the match that we would see a different Arsenal at the Emirates next week. If we don’t see a different team, then it won’t even be worth showing up for that match.
People who don’t like redundancy should just skip this next paragraph. I must, once again, put forward my opinion that this ridiculous 4-2-3-1 formation the boss has recently relied upon is an abomination. Let’s start with a technical analysis. It doesn’t work. How about that for a verbose blogger being succinct? Seriously, it doesn’t work. It didn’t work against Chelsea. Yes we were leading, but we were being dominated. Against Liverpool we were also leading and also looked the weaker side. Against Villareal in Spain we were soundly beaten in the first half by a team that put up little resistance to our 4-4-2 in the return leg.
The worst part of the 4-2-3-1 is that it doesn’t appear to offer any extra protection for our defense. We look as vulnerable as ever in this supposedly protective formation. Meanwhile, our creative players look lost. I’ve never seen Cesc look so out of place on a football pitch as he does when playing his role in this formation. Adebayor, who has the ability to take himself out of any match, doesn’t have the attitude or the game to play as the lone striker. He just fades out of the game completely. Theo doesn’t get as many chances to run behind defenders, and playing Diaby as an attacking wide player just doesn’t make any sense at all.
If I have to restrict my criticism of today’s game to one single point, it would probably be the choice of this formation. But if I can have one more critique, it would be the choice of Diaby as our left midfielder. Why would you choose to play Diaby out of position in such a critical match, when Samir Nasri, our usual left midfielder, is available and got two goals against United in our previous meeting this season? It doesn’t make any sense. If Diaby isn’t good enough to play the holding midfield role against United in this game, then he isn’t good enough to start. Period. Don’t compromise the rest of the team to make him fit. Just play a 4-4-2 and try to help your defense by keeping possession. Let’s face it, our defense is frail right now. The best way to protect them is to keep the ball for long stretches of the game. We can’t do that in this formation. But I have one more criticism of Wenger’s lineup today; he should have played Djourou. I realize that he knows his players better than I do, but Silvestre has been on the field for every one of our dreadful performances this season. It’s not a stretch to say that if Djourou had been on the field today, United don’t score their scrappy goal.
Arsene Wenger promised us an audacious performance at Old Trafford and we didn’t get it. But he didn’t start a lineup that could produce an audacious performance. Now he wants us to believe that we’ll see a different Arsenal next week. That eventuality rests entirely with him. If he starts players that can go threaten United, then we will have a chance to do just that.
Many of you may feel that I’m being unfairly harsh. You might say that we needed to be cautious today and that we’re still alive in this tie after the 1-0 result. I say, “nonsense.” We should be down 4-0. Today’s formation didn’t make us resolute. Our keeper and our luck did that. Today’s formation never gave us the chance to get a goal. That failure may ultimately be the reason we don’t go to the final. And when Niklas Bendtner came into the game for Theo Walcott, it just further proved that Arsene didn’t believe this team could get a goal. Theo was responsible for our very, very few bright moments. Taking him off the pitch for Bendtner screamed, “I am so worried that we’re going to lose this game by more than one goal.” Bringing Eduardo on for Ade after 82 minutes was further evidence of Wenger’s lack of confidence.
And that leads me to the performance of the players. I realize that getting a result at Old Trafford was a lot to ask of this team. I realize that the lineup didn’t leave room for a swashbuckling performance. But some of the players just didn’t turn up today. Ade and Diaby were beyond poor. To say that they were poor does a disservice to poor play. They were complete and utter garbage. I can stomach bad play, but I can’t stomach passionless bad play. Ade and Diaby showed us how that’s done. I would rather have seen Nik play all 90 tonight than watch Ade meander aimlessly around the pitch. If that’s a 35 million Euro striker, then I’m worth at least 5 or 6 million Euros. In fact, Nik actually had the best chance to score when he got his header wrong on a free kick. VDS had come out of his net and if Bendtner’s header had sent the ball towards the goal, there would have been no one to stop it from going in. That contribution from Nik surpassed Ade’s entire effort.
Abou Diaby at least had an excuse for his bad play. He’s not a left sided midfielder on his best day. Today he looked out of place, but he can’t blame playing out of position for his giveaways, sloppy passing, and lack of hustle. That responsibility rests with him.
In attack we were toothless, but in defense we were worse. There are pundits writing articles at this very moment about how we stood tall and prevented United from scoring more than a solitary goal. That’s a joke. Manuel Almunia prevented United from scoring mor than a solitary goal. Toure and Silvestre worked hard to ensure that United would score another goal. Both of them played poorly. Silvestre had the further distinction of deflecting the ball directly to O’Shea for United’s lone goal. On that fateful play, we were once again a disorganized mess defensively. But there were other examples of bad defending. The most obvious was our failure to close down attackers. We gave United space to operate and they were more than happy to take it. At one point I wrote on twitter that you could have opened a Wal-Mart in the space between Toure and Silvestre. I must admit, however, that Sagna and Gibbs were resonably resolute. Gibbs had a rough start, but he settled into his role and even created some of our best attacking moves. Sagna wasn’t brilliant but he battled, which is more than can be said for Toure, Silvestre, Ade or Diaby.
The biggest disappointment for me today was that Nasri didn’t get a chance to cause O’Shea problems. If Nasri had been playing on the left, and creating problems for United’s defense, you might argue that O’Shea would have been heading back towards his own end of the pitch instead of camping out in our penalty box waiting to score the lone goal. That might be a stretch, but there’s no denying that Nasri was mostly a lost player today. He might not be in his best form, but he’s a creative player with an eye for goal. Players like Alex Song can move from holding midfield to central defense because they have an inherently defensive element to their game. Nasri is meant to be attacking and it’s wrong to expect him to effectively change his entire playing style for 90 minutes.
Another major disappointment in this game was the lack of a real threat from Theo. He did create a few openings. He produced a clever chip pass for Adebayor on a break away that was barely headed away. But in reality, Walcott wasn’t involved enough. I put that down to the distribution which was mostly shocking all night long. If we were going to get a goal, Theo looked the most likely to be its source. That’s why it was even more disappointing to see Bendtner replace him. I was certain that Nik would be a straight swap for the miserable Adebayor. I think that would have been a very reasonable maneuver. But Bendtner for Walcott just didn’t make sense to me.
Walcott can be most dangerous late in games when players start to tire and their concentration drops. Look at what happened at Anfield in the CL second leg last season. Walcott’s blistering counter attack nearly put us in the semis. Just last week, Walcott produced the same kind of counter attack at Anfield to get us a fourth goal in the 90th minute. There’s no question United’s effort faded late in the game, and if Walcott had been on the pitch, just maybe he could have capitalised on that fact. Unforunately he wasn’t there and I think it was a real tactical blunder by the boss.
Before I sat down to right this match report, I re-read my post regarding things that we would have to do to win at Old Trafford. As I read them again, I realized how comprehensively we failed to challenge United today. Here’s the list, without the explanation of each item.
- Shoot a lot.
- Deliver good crosses into the box.
- Try the Liverpool approach. (Be direct.)
- Don’t play to keep a clean sheet.
- Take advantage of Patrice Evra.
- Don’t play Denilson.
- Clear the ball decisively.
- Win the battle of the supporting players.
- Enjoy the occasion.
Hey, at least we succeeded in not playing Denilson! But seriously, we didn’t do any of those things. We didn’t test VDS with shots on target. We didn’t deliver a single good cross. We never played a decent ball over the top to Ade. (In part because Ade wasn’t working hard to make a good run.) We played from the start with an eye towards keeping a clean sheet. Theo didn’t take advantage of Evra and wasn’t around for the entire game to test him late in match. Our clearances were poor again. We didn’t focus the way we should and that directly lead to the lone goal. We got annihilated in the battle of supporting players. Anderson by himself was more impressive than Diaby, Song and Nasri combined.
Worst of all, the players didn’t appear to be playing with any joy. They looked terrified in the first 15 minutes. There was no indication that they were excied to be playing on the big stage. More than anything they didn’t look ready. At one point in the match, the man from East Lower wrote on twitter that we looked like boys playing against men. That statement sums up this game better than anything I’ve written in this space.
So that wraps up the game. It wasn’t much of a spectacle but that might just be the conclusion when viewed through the prism of an Arsenal supporter. In fairness to United they were very good for 45 minutes. In the second half their dominance ebbed and there were opportunities to play with them. We just weren’t in the right frame of mind to take advantage.
Arsene Wenger promised after the game that we would see a different Arsenal in one week’s time. He invited everyone back for another post-match press conference at which time we would all see that he was correct. I hope beyond hope that he is right. But there are no words to adequately describe the precariousness of our position now. We must beat United by TWO CLEAR GOALS at the Emirates. I say that because I simply do not see any way that we can keep them from scoring and I have no desire to see us in another penalty shootout. (Although if you offered me a penalty shootout for a spot in the final right now I’d bite your hand off.) Assuming United will score at some point in the match, we will need to win by two clear goals. That’s where we stand at this point. I’d be curious to know the last time achieved such a feat. I believe it was November of 2001. The real question is whether the players will have the belief that it can be done next week. After today’s match, hopefully we go back to the Emirates retaining some of our confidence.
Just a few weeks ago, this Arsenal season had a feeling of destiny about it rather than disappointment. But after losing to Chelsea, conceding in the final moments to lose a lead at Anfield, and losing to United, the feeling of impending disappointment is growing once more. The players’ character and mental toughness will surely be tested heading into the second leg with United. The task is not beyond this talented team, but it remains to be seen whether we are ready for it mentally. Perhaps we are fortunate to have a very winnable game at the weekend against Portsmouth. If we can get a good, convincing result in that game, it might boost our confidence. Even though there will be a number of different players utilized in that game, a rising tide lifts all boats. Any win for the Gunners, might just help the team’s mental preparation.
As you can tell, I am hugely disappointed by today’s match. I’m not disappointed because of the result. 1-0 at Old Trafford is not disaster. I’m disappointed by the sheer capitulation and lack of endeavor. I’m disappointed that we didn’t look like Arsenal tonight. When we play our game I believe we can beat anyone. Arsene Wenger believes that too. So it’s really a shame that he didn’t allow the players to play the Arsenal way. He should be thanking his lucky stars for Manuel Almunia. We all should. He is an often maligned goal keeper that has been ridiculed by his share of pundits as being the weak link for Arsenal. Tonight, Almunia alone kept our European dreams alive. He should be very proud of his effort.
With all that negativity behind us, let’s get excited again for what will come. Perhaps we can still make history on our own ground. I know that I’ll be hoping for the best. But for us to get the result we need, Arsene Wenger will have to play an attacking formation and put his faith in the football that has been the hallmark of his time at Arsenal.
I hope you survived the nerve wracking 90 minutes today. If so, then you’re just barely prepared for the nerve shattering 90 minutes that waits for us when United arrive at the Emirate next week. Regardless of the devastating effects it might have on my nervous system, I really can’t wait!