Tuesday, 2 February 2010

Pitiful. Arsenal beaten in every department by United

Arsenal 1 Manchester United 3
(And it's worth noting that the '1' was a consolation goal - perhaps we woke up from our lethargy thereafter, but United are far too professional a team to let a three goal lead slip.

If you want to clutch at straws, perhaps you could point out that United were due a win away at us in the League - February 2005, almost five years ago, was when they won away to us last (as long as you discount the Champions League...)

But fundamentally we were poor. Really, really poor in fact. This may sound hyperbolic, but I cannot recall a worse performance at home: at least on other occasions when we've been hammered, the opposition have had to be excellent. United were average, they placed some nice counter-attacking football but the three points were gifted to them on a platter.

It's worth looking at why we looked so good at the beginning of the season - the new formation looked like it worked, because we pressed high up the field. Bendtner and Van Persie made sure the opposition could not clear the ball easily. Above all else, it was a formation based on working hard - 4-3-3 became 4-5-1 when we didn't have the ball.

Perhaps our players are tired, but the high work rate has gone out the window. Gael Clichy is clearly not the player he once was, but it's unforgivable that the midfielders and attackers refuse to track back and help the defence. It's very easy to characterise us as flat-track bullies but that's because we can score three our four goals against a mediocre team.

When we play United or Chelsea we can't - I can't recall the last time we scored three against either of them which is telling in of itself. The point is though, that although Gallas and Vermaelen have been excellent, we've looked dodgy defensively all season - there's no hiding from that.

Playing gung ho may work against the smaller teams because out-scoring them work so a lack of clean sheets is not an issue. But against United or Chelsea, it is inexcusable. Look at results like when we last won at Old Trafford (sadly, in 2006). It was a performance underpinned by defensive solidity and we managed to nick a goal. We've played United and Chelsea eight times in the last 12 months. And in that time we've scored five and conceded eighteen, with seven defeats from eight.

There's no way you can spin that: its not a one-off result, there may have been an occasional dodgy refereeing decision but eight games is enough to tell a reasonable story.

Part of me, struggles to get angry. In my lifetime of supporting Arsenal we have always been a top team. But although statistics don't tell the whole story they seem to indicate United and Chelsea are simply better than us. It's hard to write and it's hard to take. But it's probably true.

The saving grace, is that is only on a one-on-one basis. We are still in the title race because we have been rather excellent against the smaller teams this year. Maybe that will continue. Frankly, it has to. United won the League last year while only taking five points from the rest of the Big Four. Arguably, that is our problem - although they haven't been as majestic against the bottom ten teams this season, they're raising their game for big games - something Arsenal are emphatically not managing.

Look at the team from the United game and who can you absolve of blame? Vermaelen, Arshavin and perhaps Rosicky. It's difficult to criticise Nasri because as a team we didn't press and didn't close down - it wasn't only him. But while there were poor performances all round, there were three players who deserve an absolute rollicking.

First and foremost amongst these is Manuel Almunia. It pains me to say that. If any other keeper had scuffed that kick towards the end of the match, it would be fair to conclude they had merely been unlucky. With Almunia, it was the culmination of six months of mediocrity. It would be disingenuous to imply he was responsible for all three goals: the latter two were counter-attacks where he was put in a very difficult position, and even for the first goal Nani should never have been allowed to put his cross-cum-shot into the box.

Indeed, although we conceded three goals, if this was a one-off it would be easy to excuse Almunia. But whereas last year I made him my player of the year, his fall from grace has been spectacular. He adds nothing to this team: no doubt goalkeeping is about confidence but right now he must be at rock bottom. His excellent shot-stopping is nowhere to be seen. To see how his standards have fallen, it is merely necessary to juxtapose two performances: in the Champions League semi-final first leg last year, Almunia kept us in the tie with a series of great saves; on Sunday, he didn't make a single save of note and scored an own goal. Need I say more?

It is even harder to write a piece criticising Gael Clichy: but in a sense Clichy is the embodiment of everything that is wrong with the current Arsenal team. Everything Cashley wrote in his book about nearly crashing his car was ridiculous. But considering the high wages paid to young players, it is unbelievable that for five grand a week, we let the best left-back in world football leave. For a while, it seemed the correct decision: Gallas became an inspirational skipper and Clichy played as an excellent left-back. Then we played a certain match at St Andrews and I'm unconvinced he's been the same player since. Gibbs is an exciting prospect but as long as he is injured, teams will continue to try and attack the left-back area, just as United did. Perhaps this will give Clichy the chance to turn it around and show he really is a top level left-back but it is more likely that we'll continue to ship goals.

Although Denilson was very responsible for all three goals, I think it's fair to say he just had a dreadful game - his performance was shocking but as it was out of character, it is the easiest one to let slide. The problem with Denilson, is that he'll probably play well against Porto in the Champions League. But without any time on the ball - as soon as he faces an aggressive side - he gets shaken up and doesn't play nearly as well.

The question now is whether this team can pick themselves up. Cesc and Sagna have made pronouncements on the official site about how we have to beat Chelsea. It's difficult to disagree with that. But it's also hard to see it happen.

Generally, I disregard everything Myles Palmer says. But his point about Shava repeatedly shooting on Sunday because he had no other choice might be true. This Arsenal side needs to play to its strengths and with RVP out injured, the two world-class attackers in the team are Arshavin and Fabregas. Maybe, as I was saying post-match on Sunday, opposition teams have Arshavin worked out so all he can do is shoot early and hope. But what seems more plausible, is that he wants more support in attack. If we want to play 4-3-3, we have to see far more from our wide men. At the beginning of the year, it was Shava and Bendtner playing out of their skins with RVP up front.

We can't bring Van Persie back yet. But what we can do is look at what made us relatively successful and try and re-capture that. Arsene Wenger is paid five million pounds a year: he needs to earn some of that on the training ground this week.

Keep the faith,

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