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United stroll in the Park as Arsenal surrender top spot

Manchester United 1 Arsenal 0

Park 41

A deft header by Ji-Sung Park shortly before half-time was enough to extend Manchester United‘s unbeaten start to the Premier League and knock Arsenal off the top of the table. This was Arsenal’s tenth defeat in their last 11 games against United and Chelsea in all competitions.

Wojciech Szczęsny made his Premier League debut (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

This Monday night showdown pitted the Premier League’s best home record against the division’s most successful away team, so something had to give. United entered the game unbeaten in their 15 league games this season, while Arsenal started the match having failed to score more than a single goal at Old Trafford for 26 years.

With Lukasz Fabiański carrying a minor leg injury and fit enough only for the bench, Arsène Wenger gave a Premier League debut to 20-year old Wojciech SzczęsnyGaël Clichy, having recovered from a virus, returned in place of the injured Kieran Gibbs, while Tomáš Rosický and Jack Wilshere replaced Denilson and Robin van Persie. Captain Cesc Fàbregas also made his return after a hamstring injury, but started on the bench. Arsenal lined up as follows:

Szczęsny

Sagna – Koscielny –Squillaci – Clichy

Song – Wilshere

Nasri – Rosický – Arshavin

Chamakh

In a tepid opening, with both teams putting five men in a congested midfield, it came as little surprise that neither was able to carve out much in the way of meaningful chances. United, via Wayne Rooney and a Nani free kick, twice tested Szczęsny from long range, but the young Polish keeper was equal to the task on each occasion. Marouane Chamakh beat Nemanja Vidić to an Andrey Arshavin cross, but headed straight at Edwin van der Sar.

If the first quarter of the game had been even, the second certainly saw the home side in the ascendancy. With Arsenal’s midfield struggling to assert themselves and misplacing too many passes, Nani went close with a volley after Sébastien Squillaci‘s weak defensive header fell straight to him. Chamakh was fortunate not to concede a penalty when a cross struck his hand.

Park scored the game's only goal with a looping header

In truth, neither team was enjoying much in the way of quality possession or chances, but the pendulum was certainly swinging United’s way. So it was little surprise when they opened the scoring five minutes before half-time, even if there was an element of good fortune about it. Nani’s cross was deflected by Clichy and Park adjusted to a ball which was just behind him and directed a looping header over and beyond Szczęsny. The Korean has now scored in each of his last three starts against Arsenal.

The visitors started the second half more brightly with Arshavin and Samir Nasri, both of whom had been on the periphery in the first half, prompting some bright moments. The Russian sent first Nasri and then Bacary Sagna free down the right, but United dealt with the danger on each occasion.

The game started to open up. Anderson, played in by Rooney, had a chance to double United’s advantage, but Szczęsny was off his line quickly and decisively to smother. Nasri wriggled his way into the box and forced an awkward save from van der Sar, but Chamakh was unable to turn in the rebound. Clichy did brilliantly to dispossess Nani as United surged forward in a three-on-three counter, only to immediately lose the ball and watch, relieved, as the Portuguese winger blazed over when he probably should have scored. It was not the first time Arsenal would concede unnecessary possession in their defensive third, nor would it be the last.

Arsenal reloaded for the final half hour, with Fàbregas and Robin van Persie replacing Rosický and Wilshere, but the captain in particular looked some way short of full fitness. Despite working hard, the visitors were unable to piece anything together as the game as a whole began to drift again.

Rooney blasted his 73rd-minute penalty well over the bar

Then, disaster. Clichy, prostrate on the ground, was struck on the arm at close quarters. The referee’s assistant flagged for a frankly ludicrous penalty, indicating the defender had moved his arm to the ball when replays showed it was clearly ball-to-arm. Rooney obligingly redressed the balance by sending the ball rocketing into the stratosphere. A reprieve? Or justice? No matter.

Theo Walcott replaced a tiring Arshavin as Arsenal sought to capitalise on their good fortune, but United forced them to repeatedly play in front of their back line as their disciplined defence held firm with a reassurance that was in stark contrast to Arsenal’s panicky and seemingly disorganised efforts. Indeed, on the break, United had much the better opportunities. Rooney nearly atoned for his penalty miss with an audacious chip, but Szczęsny’s footwork was quick and he pawed the ball away to safety.

Walcott did provide a modicum of somewhat belated threat, fizzing one dangerous cross to the back post and volleying a half-chance over deep into injury time, but it was not to be. Instead, a rare threatening moment from Fàbregas where he wriggled his way to the by-line only to run the ball into touch was more indicative of Arsenal’s overall performance. They never really looked like forcing the equaliser – and, worse still, they never really looked like they believed they could either. United deserved their clean sheet.

Speaking to Sky Sports after the match, Wenger said:

We gave everything. I believe it was a game that was very intense. Both teams were well organised and the intensity of the game was very high. Overall, the technical quality of the game suffered from a very bad pitch and that’s why on both sides you have seen unusual technical mistakes.

To be honest, the pitch looked decent enough to me, although it was a bit slippery on occasion. When asked about his team yet again failing to deliver in a big match, he responded:

I don’t think we failed to deliver. We lost the game – that can happen here. Overall you have to give credit to Man United’s defensive quality. They defended very well and we tried very hard and gave absolutely everything to create chances. We had a few and were a bit unlucky, I believe, to lose the game.

He later told arsenal.com that how the team responds will be critical to their title aspirations:

It is a big frustration and a big disappointment but what is important is that we bounce back in our next game. Overall on what I have seen tonight there is no reason not to believe and we know we can play better offensively.

And he pronounced himself pleased with Szczęsny:

Overall that was a good performance from Wojciech. [He looked a bit nervous] in his kicking in the first half but overall with his hands he didn’t make any mistakes. In this job you don’t look at the size of the game. When you have the quality, you play. Every big goalkeeper has started at 18 or 19 years of age. You had Van der Sar, I saw him when he was 18 and he played in big games.

This was a disappointing – but by no means awful – performance by an Arsenal side for whom too many players had poor games, and provided only a sporadic threat going forward. While defensively this was a more solid showing than we have seen in many previous games, the back four still looks brittle and vulnerable every time an opponent breaks forward. Squillaci and Laurent Koscielny struggled to contain the lone threat of Rooney, and Nani gave Clichy the run-around most of the night. Too many 50:50 – or even 60:40 – balls were lost; too often possession would be won back only to be squandered immediately in dangerous positions. A more ruthless and confident side than United would have made Arsenal pay more dearly for such profligacy.

Greater defensive solidity – perhaps it would be more accurate to say less terrible defending – came at a price, however. One second half effort from Nasri aside, I cannot recall van der Sar having to seriously worry about dirtying his gloves. Chamakh received little support and was easily handled by Vidić and Rio Ferdinand. Arshavin showed only briefly after the interval, while Nasri escaped the attentions of Patrice Evra on just a handful of occasions. Rosický, Wilshere and Alex Song were industrious but largely ineffective, with the Cameroon midfielder having a particularly bad day at the office as far as his passing radar was concerned. Of the substitutes, only Walcott had any notable impact.

Arsenal slip to second, two points behind United who also have a game in hand. That could easily change this weekend, as Arsenal welcome Stoke while United travel to Chelsea. With everyone facing tricky fixtures in a heavily congested schedule between now and New Year, this result was by no means critical in terms of defining either team’s season. But defeat will have done the psychological welfare of Wenger’s side no good at all. United have a happy knack of finding ways to win big matches even when not playing particularly well – it is a quality which Arsenal continue to lack and will need to find if they are to continue as serious contenders in the title race. Close, but no cigar.

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About Tim
Father of three. Bit of a geek. That's all, folks.

8 Responses to United stroll in the Park as Arsenal surrender top spot

  1. Sheree says:

    I am always amazed, and impressed, by United’s ability to grind out a win, even when they’re not playing well. That, for me, is the mark of a great team. I would love to see Arsenal win the Premiership largely because I believe they play the most attractive football and I’m a big fan of Wenger. But, I guess, until marks are awarded for technical merit and artistic impression, it’s going to be tough unless Arsenal can consistently beat the other pretenders to the throne.

    • Tim says:

      Agree. United always look like they know they can win any game,no matter how badly they are playing. We only tend to look as if we think we can. The collective lack of belief in the final 20-30 minutes last night was palpable, and that final mental step remains a big problem for us.

      Having said that, although United had the better of things we certainly competed well and on another night we would have sneaked a 0-0 draw. But sometimes you just have to accept that the other team had half a chance and seized it. That’s football.

      I’m now off to start surfing the net/blogs and read the deluge of “sack Wenger/sell the players” hysteria which has no doubt ensued overnight … 😦

    • Tim says:

      Well, you make your own luck. And we simply didn’t do enough to warrant anything more than a 0-0 draw – certainly, last night’s blunt performance was never going to win us the game.

      As usual, the “sack Wenger, sell the team” brigade are out in force today. Because obviously it’s THAT easy …

  2. aardvarkian says:

    I feel sorry for Big Sam, though. Once again the New Owner Syndrome claims another victim.

    • Tim says:

      As a rule, I find it difficult to have sympathy for anything associated with Allardyce. But clearly the new owners’ aspirations seem to be somewhat out of kilter with any sense of reality. A top five place with an English manager? With what budget? And who is this manager exactly?

      Nope. Still not feeling sorry for Big Sam. 😉

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