Monday, February 1, 2010

Arsenal Analysis: Gunned Down By Superior Manchester United

The fat lady is not yet in sight, but the Gunners' title hopes now rest on other teams dropping points.

Is that it?

The fat lady may not have been sighted yet, but after Sunday’s comprehensive home defeat by Manchester United, Arsenal’s hopes of lifting the English Premier League title were, it seemed, reduced to little more than the academic.

Thumped by Chelsea, by three clear goals, at the end of November, and now beaten 3-1 at the Emirates Stadium by the defending champions, they can have few arguments against those who say the championship is now, almost certainly, a two-horse race.

It hardly matters now that those two punishing home defeats have book-ended a run of 10 unbeaten league games that earned 24 points. Without a centre-forward, following Robin van Persie’s injury last November, Arsenal were again made to look naïve by physically, and tactically, superior opponents on Sunday.

Unexpected collapses notwithstanding, only a victory at Stamford Bridge next Sunday, coupled with a Manchester United drop in form can, realistically, rescue their season…and, in the style stakes, what a pity that is for those who love the flowing, passing football that has characterised the best passages of Arsenal’s season.

This time, against a team that denied them space and time, Arsenal were left stripped naked and chasing shadows – made to look slow in defence, second-best in midfield, and lacking focus and penetration in attack. It is a pity, for football-loving neutrals, that the real Arsenal of 2009-10 just did not turn up. Or froze on the night.

Goalkeeper Manuel Almunia, not for the first time, had a miserable afternoon, scored a ridiculous own goal, lacked authority and did little to inject confidence in a defence that seemed paralysed by fear of Wayne Rooney’s movement and pace.

In that respect, it was a reprise of last season’s UEFA Champions League semi-final second leg when the speed of United’s counter-attacks, led by Cristiano Ronaldo, cut Arsenal apart.

Of the defence, as a whole, it was the left side – the triangle of Gael Clichy, Thomas Vermaelen and Denilson – that was most vulnerable with the Brazilian, like Almunia, enduring a nightmare afternoon.

He was slow and late to make a challenge on Nani in the creation of the first goal, when the Portuguese winger’s cross, after he had eluded Clichy and Samir Nasri, was flapped into his own net by Almunia. For the second goal, Denilson was caught unawares as Rooney, from his own half, ran past him, played in Nani again and left the Brazilian in his wake as he met the return pass to score his 100th Premier League goal.

Punctured twice in the same place before the interval, it was all over for Arsenal in reality long before Ji-Sung Park capitalised on a blunder in midfield, where the Gunners’ struggled to keep possession, and simply ran clear of a non-existent defence to score easily.

Of the midfield trio, only Alex Song emerged with any real credit for a mature, abrasive and spirited performance. Captain Cesc Fabregas, despite a few sharp individual forays, was too easily marked out of the game and Denilson was poor in all respects; his frailty contributing directly to this defeat. It was surprising he lasted an hour before being hooked off for the equally hapless Theo Walcott, a winger who specialised in running down blind alleys.

In attack, despite all their technical gifts and obvious natural talent, Nasri, Andrey Arshavin and Tomas Rosicky were unable to combine successfully and find a way to unlock a pedestrian United defence. Vermaelen’s late, deflected consolation goal was just that and hardly signalled a revival. Arshavin, in particular, was much too selfish.

Wenger, often blind to some of his own team’s shortcomings, recited a litany of failings afterwards, but will know that most of his boys were unable to cope with the experience and strength of their opponents. That kind of durability and cohesion, that comes from years of battle at the highest level, coupled with the threat of Rooney, gave United the psychological ascendancy.

This was manifested clearly in the disjointed and selfish way that Arshavin and Co repeatedly lost the ball, wasted openings and lost their patience and composure. The ill-judged attacking charges of both Gallas and Vermaelen, borne out of frustration, did nothing but leave Almunia exposed – Clichy was the only defender back when Park ran to score the third goal. At times, it was like watching a schoolboys’ team.

All of which must have left Wenger ruing his reluctance to spend money during the transfer window. His team, in this game against these opponents, was crying out for a genuine target striker. By the time that Nicklas Bendtner was sent on, half-fit, after 70 minutes, it was too late anyway. The Gunners were out-played, seemingly unprepared for the intensity of the contest, and looked like a team trying to play if off the cuff. Not even the greatest artists can rely on that kind of inspiration to save them every time.

The results against Chelsea and Manchester United have to be taken to heart. No more self-delusion should be accepted. Everyone loves to see the beautiful flowing football, but success requires other more prosaic features too – like closing people down, denying space, tracking back to defend and stopping the opposition from playing, and scoring.

In this game, Denilson’s failings made it clear why Abou Diaby has become such an important part of this team – and how sorely he is missed when he is unavailable. It is hard to believe he would not have tracked Rooney’s run for United’s second goal or tackled Nani before the first – and thereby kept alive their chances in the game and the title race.

Diaby is sorely missed. His physical presence glues the team together and he will be needed at Chelsea...


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