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Arsenal outflanked by United

Arsenal 1 Manchester United 2

van Persie 71; Valencia 45+1, Welbeck 81

Arsenal succumbed to a third consecutive Premier League defeat as familiar defensive weaknesses on the flanks and Danny Welbeck‘s late strike cost them at least a share of the points. The loss left them five points adrift of the top four despite the four teams immediately either side of them – Tottenham, Chelsea, Liverpool and Newcastle – mustering only a single point between them this weekend.

Coming off back-to-back Premier League defeats at Fulham and Swansea, Arsenal welcomed back Thomas Vermaelen, with Tomas Rosicky replacing Yossi Benayoun in the middle of the park, and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain making his first league start ahead of Andrey Arshavin.

Szczesny

Djourou – Mertesacker – Koscielny – Vermaelen

Song – Rosicky

Ramsey

Walcott – van Persie – Oxlade-Chamberlain

The reverse fixture back in late August was, of course, the 8-2 rout at Old Trafford which prompted a flurry of transfer activity at the end of the summer window.

Arsenal peter out after strong start

The first half started with both sides on a fairly even footing, but as the half wore on United gradually asserted their dominance.

Oxlade-Chamberlain was a constant threat on both flanks (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

With Tomas Rosicky lively and the entire midfield snapping at United’s heels early on, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Theo Walcott provided an injection of pace down both flanks, regularly stretching the visitors’ defence. Walcott struggled to find any end-product as he worked tirelessly but ineffectually. However, Oxlade-Chamberlain quickly made a mark, getting down the left in the opening minutes with a cross that narrowly evaded Robin van Persie, and later pulling back a dangerous pass from the right side which Walcott wastefully ballooned high and wide.

However, as the half progressed Arsenal found themselves pinned back into their own half as United’s wide men gained the ascendancy. Antonio Valencia made some surging runs down the right, while Nani regularly tormented Johan Djourou on the other flank. The Swiss defender didn’t help himself with some poor positional play, often starting too far upfield and inside to allow the Portuguese winger space to receive the ball and build up a head of steam.

When the opening goal arrived, it came as a direct result of more Djourou waywardness. Arsenal had already survived a few narrow escapes, with Wojciech Szczesny saving at his near post from Nani, Laurent Koscielny and Alex Song making key interventions and United players squandering good crossing opportunities. But their luck ran out when Nani picked up the ball on the left in added-on time. Djourou, standing in exactly the right place for a centre back but completely the wrong one for a right back, failed to spot Ryan Giggs drifting down the flank as Nani fed him, and then failed to apply any pressure on the veteran winger as he measured a cross to the back post. Valencia arrived late, outjumped Vermaelen and powered a header past Szczesny. It was a bitter blow for the home side on the stroke of half-time.

Familiar scorer, familiar failings

It came as little surprise to see Djourou withdrawn at half-time, to be replaced by 18-year old Nico Yennaris, making his Premier League debut. Wenger had clearly demanded a reaction from his side, and they responded with a much-improved spell to open the second half. Rosicky nipped in after Chris Smalling slipped, advanced into the box and teed up van Persie, who stunned the Emirates crowd by screwing the ball well wide. Aaron Ramsey scooped over from just inside the area after a jinking run by Oxlade-Chamberlain. And Rosicky saw a shot blocked by Patrice Evra after good persistence down the left by van Persie.

In between, Valencia had missed a presentable chance to double the visitors’ lead, dragging a good opportunity horribly across goal, but there was no doubt that Arsenal had wrested the initiative from a suddenly pedestrian-looking United. Koscielny charged forward out of defence to set up Oxlade-Chamberlain, who dragged a 20-yard effort inches wide of Anders Lindegaard‘s right-hand post with the keeper beaten. Danny Welbeck outpaced Per Mertesacker and poked a shot past Szczesny, only for the big German defender to scramble the ball off the line.

The excellent Koscielny started the move that led to van Persie's equaliser (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

Another threatening United break ended with a brilliant saving tackle from Koscielny on Rafael da Silva as the full back raced into the area, setting up a devastating Arsenal counter-attack. Koscielny picked out Rosicky with a good pass, who in turn released Oxlade-Chamberlain down the left. He raced forward and cut inside before spotting van Persie’s diagonal right-to-left run and clipping a perfect reverse pass into the captain’s path. His instant cross-shot between Jonny Evans‘ legs evaded the diving Lindegaard and nestled just inside the far post. 1-1. Game on.

Three minutes later, Wenger took the young winger off and replaced him with Andrey Arshavin, a perplexing move which – unacceptably – drew immediate boos from some sections of the home crowd. It proved to be a disastrous decision. With less than ten minutes remaining, Arshavin half-heartedly allowed Valencia to cut inside him far too easily, and the Ecuadorian had time to play a quick one-two with Ji-Sung Park and then measure a pull-back for Welbeck, who made no mistake with a crisp finish from near the penalty spot.

Arsenal pressed hard for a second equaliser, with Mertesacker coming closest with a goal-bound header which was blocked by Evans, but to no avail. A chorus of boos rang around the ground at the final whistle as Arsenal slipped to a third consecutive league defeat – and their eighth in the Premier League this season.

Post-match reaction and analysis

Arsene Wenger was disappointed with the result after the way his team had responded positively in the second half:

I am really disappointed because we had a difficult first half, a nervous first half. [It was] technically not at the level we want and we came back well with a fantastic fighting spirit in the second half. I thought we had the chances to win the game quite comfortably in the second half but you feel the Manchester United team is a bit more mature in every position than we are.

It was important not to make a mistake, either tactically or attention-wise, and especially on the flank. We were caught at a moment where we felt we were closer to winning the game. Having battled like we did and to come out without anything is very difficult to take.

He explained that fatigue was the reason for his decision to take off the excellent Oxlade-Chamberlain:

I can understand that the fans are upset about the substitution, especially when it doesn’t work, but I made the right decision at the start of the game [in starting Oxlade-Chamberlain]. He had started to fatigue, stretched his calf and he was sick in the week.

Finally, he responded to the increasing pressure to strengthen the squad before the January transfer window closes:

Spending the money is not the target, to buy good players is the target. We need our players back. People are not conscious that we miss ten players. When you see what we created in the second half without [those injured] players, it is important to get the players back.

There is little doubt that the Arshavin substitution was the critical moment of the game. Oxlade-Chamberlain had proven himself to be the most threatening support for van Persie, in stark contrast to the misfiring Walcott. The change sucked some of the momentum from Arsenal’s fight-back, and Arshavin’s lackadaisical approach to his defensive duties cost his side dearly.

Indeed it was on the flanks overall where this game was lost, as Arsenal were solid through the middle of the field, with Rosicky influential, Mertesacker solid and Koscielny dominant. Vermaelen, for all his qualities, could not offer the same threat coming forward as Evra, and Djourou’s ineptitude was a major factor in allowing United to gain the upper hand in the first half. It was particularly damning that Yennaris, on his league debut, greatly strengthened Arsenal’s right flank after half-time and greatly reduced Nani’s effectiveness.

Most disappointing of all, however, was the lack of support shown by large sections of Arsenal’s home support. Booing the team after a poor performance is one thing. Jeering an unpopular substitution which sees the arrival of an unfavoured and out-of-form player is unforgivable. I know fans pay a lot of money for the privilege of attending games at Emirates Stadium, and I do not dispute their right to express their displeasure. But leave it until after the game. Don’t undermine the team’s confidence while the game is still being played. Or else we are no better than those Blackburn fans who have been hounding Steve Kean and actively delighting in every setback.

Arsenal have the relative respite of a fourth-round FA Cup tie at home to Aston Villa next weekend, with a difficult trip to a resurgent Bolton a week on Wednesday – the day after the transfer window closes. It is a game they can ill afford to lose if they are to harbour any hopes of regaining a top-four spot over the final 16 games of this season.

Arsenal man of the match: Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. Pacy, confident and adventurous. He is not the finished product yet, but equally he is ready for more game time and will only improve with additional experience.

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

4 Responses to Arsenal outflanked by United

  1. Shrek2be says:

    Djorou must be heartbroken, also feel the Verminator was noticeably absent for both goals

    • Tim says:

      Djourou is, obviously, a natural centre back, but his inability to adapt to full back has cost us dear in recent games. His positioning is simply awful. Vermaelen was certainly not at his best on both United goals, but equally he should be cut a little slack given that he had just been rushed back from injury. Let’s put it this way – the sooner Vermaelen is back in the side on a regular basis the better, whereas I don’t want to se Djourou anywhere on the pitch any time soon.

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