Déjà Vu As Manchester United Rip Us Apart. Again.

Arsenal (1) – (3) Manchester United
Vermaelen (79′)
The Emirates Stadium, London

What a shambles.

Manchester United will not have an easier game all season. It was a walk over, and extremely difficult to watch. Men against boys? You’re not far off.

The match was effectively over by half time, and Park completely killed off the game as a contest on 53 minutes.

There were a lot of positives going into the game. Wes Brown and Jonny Evans were starting in central defence for only the 4th time this season, with Vidic injured and Ferdinand suspended. In 3 previous games together this season, the partnership of Brown and Evans had failed to win, losing twice and drawing once. So surely an attacking team like Arsenal could expose the same frailties Burnley did?

The sad fact was our biggest attacking threats were Thomas Vermaelen and William Gallas, and that in itself tells its own story. And massive defensive errors cost us dearly.

Credit to Manchester United however, they turned up to the Emirates and had exactly the same gameplan that worked so well when they visited us in the Champions League game last season. United were technically and tactically far superior today. They showed intelligence in their play and confirmed that The Premier League is a two-horse race.

It’s a shame we didn’t adapt our game considering they did exactly the same to us less than 9 months ago. If it was a one off performance from United you’d understand but it’s the fact they’ve done this before which is the most disappointing thing.

I might as well have watched last years Champions League tie.

Anyway, if we lose to Chelsea next weekend, we’ll be 8 points behind and they will have a game in hand. Which would effectively put us 11 points behind the league leaders.

The simple fact is however it wasn’t the defeats to Chelsea and Manchester United that did the most damage, it was the needless draws to teams like West Ham, Burnley, Everton and Aston Villa. We’ve simply dropped too many points lower in the league.

Back to today though, and the first opening 10 minutes looked promising as the game was end to end. Andrei Arshavin came close a couple of times and so did United. The problem with Arshavin was that he was clearly not interesting in passing or playing in a team mate, but kept putting his head down and trying to shoot. That didn’t bode well as the game went on because our passing game completely deteriorated. Players like Fabregas, Rosicky and Nasri just didn’t provide the support as the match progressed because they knew the little Russian wasn’t going to pass.

The goals we conceded were a disgrace, but we’ve seen it all before.

Last season it was the Ronaldo show but this time Nani’s pace and invention ripped us apart. Arsenal are predictable and Alex Ferguson knows this – he persists in starting Rooney with Nani and Park in support despite the fact they’ve hardly scored this season. Why? Because pace rips our team apart. We can’t cope with it.

It’s better to analyse the goals individually to find our shortcomings:

Goal 1

Nani had the ball on the right hand side with Clichy and Nasri seemingly giving him nowhere to go. A simple (but nice) piece of skill takes them both completely out of the game and he waltzed passed Fabregas, gets the byline and chips the ball into the middle, only for Almunia to palm the ball into his own net.

In Almunia’s defence, it looked like Rooney and Park were both unmarked at the far post so they probably would have finished off the move anyway. But the question I ask is why didn’t he palm the ball away from goal? He obviously tried to push it over the bar but unfortunately he failed miserably.

Poor defending all round but United will love the skill involved from Nani.

Goal 2

As Arsenal were pushing for the equalising goal (with Arshavin and Gallas trying to be too clever) United win the ball back and it breaks to Wayne Rooney. He plays in Nani who goes on a 60 yard slalom run completely unchallenged, and then picks out Rooney who coolly lashes the ball into the bottom corner.

The problem I have with this goal is United only had 3 players involved in the attack (Rooney, Nani and Park) while Arsenal had 6 players chasing back. Nani wasn’t even put under any pressure and the fact Rooney’s run wasn’t tracked was a complete disgrace, and shows a complete lack of defensive understanding. We had 6 players chasing back yet Rooney (in the middle of them all) finds space and scores. Both Denilson and Nasri were next to Rooney when he scored but failed to pick him up. All one of them had to do was track Rooney but they switched off. Totally shambolic and Rooney won’t have scored an easier goal.

Goal 3

Another goal from a break.

Clichy was exposed with two men (Park and Nani) running at him but instead of giving Park something to think about he stay between the two United runners and let Park stroll in and slot the ball passed Almunia for their third.

I understand that you have a responsibility to block off the square pass but Park (like Nani for their second goal) literally ran 60 yards unchallenged. At least if you make him think about the pass it puts him under pressure, but as it transpired he walked into the area and had an easy decision to make.

So 3 amateurish goals to concede.

With United’s injury problems and the fact we were at The Emirates, you would expect today’s game to be the one more likely to win with Chelsea coming up next week.

Player Performances

I’m not going to bother with individual player ratings today, but the only people in an Arsenal shirt would can be even remotely happy with their performance today were William Gallas, Thomas Vermaelen and Alex Song. Everyone else was a disgrace.

Andrei Arshavin had a chance to really hurt Manchester United but didn’t take it. His selfishness in the opening 20 minutes really set the tone for our attacking play and the passing and fluidity we usually have wasn’t there. We really had 2 or 3 real openings in the first 15 minutes and some vision for the final ball could have made this a different game.

Denilson was the worst I’ve seen him this season. He gave the ball away so many times and I did think for the moment he should be wearing a Manchester United shirt. His passing, positioning and all round play was well off the pace and the way he gave away the ball from United’s third goal summed up his performance. Should have been taken off well earlier (at half time) and replaced by Ramsey, or made Rosicky or Nasri drop deeper.

Update: Just watching MOTD2 and also forgot to mention that Denilson almost scored an own goal from a United corner, and he was the one who let Nani stroll passed him for the first goal.

Rosicky, Fabregas and Nasri were all on the periphery of the game.

United defended well so they never really got into the game. Fabregas had moments of skill but couldn’t make anything happen. Rosicky and Nasri we ineffective and in all truth, Song and Vermaelen were Arsenal’s biggest threats.

Song and Vermaelen played well but were sorely let down by those around them. Song had 2 or 3 half chances and did well to get into those positions – but when you’re relying on your defensive midfielder to score goals then you are getting desperate. Vermaelen once again had that desire and scored with a left footed volley, and came close with a header. Gallas also had a glorious chance to get a second goal with 4 minutes remaining which really would have made the final minutes interesting.

Arsenal’s best chance of getting anything from the game was just after Vermaelen scored on 79 minutes. For a good 5 minutes Arsenal went for it and put United under the most pressure they’d experienced throughout the whole game. We had 1 or 2 half chances but just as Arsenal were getting some kind of momentum Almunia’s inability to deal with a simple pass back effectively killed off any hope of a miraculous comeback as United had the perfect chance to kill time and the game.

And that summed us up really.

Team News: Vermaelen & Song Start, Bendtner Out

The big news is that Thomas Vermaelen has recovered enough and will start against Manchester United this afternoon. That is massive news. And after all the press about Sol versus Rooney, the centreback doesn’t even make the bench.

Arsene has decided not to start Bendtner and has opted for Arshavin supported by Rosicky and Nasri.

And our bench is encouraging. We have Theo and Bendtner who can come on and make a different in the last 15 minutes.

But while Arsenal have their first choice defence, United are missing both Vidic and Ferdinand, who have been replaced with Jonny Evans and Wes Brown.

I always thought Arsene would start with Arshavin down the middle, especially if Vidic and Ferdinand were out. With Nasri and Rosicky playing alongside him, we have various options to change positions throughout the game and stretch the United defence. And we saw what he did to Liverpool a couple of months ago.

If we were ever going to beat Manchester United, it’s this afternoon.

The Arsenal team to start against Manchester United is as follows:

Manuel Almunia, Bacary Sagna, Williams Gallas, Thomas Vermaelen, Gael Clichy, Alex Song, Denilson, Cesc Fabregas (Captain), Tomas Rosicky, Samir Nasri and Andrei Arshavin.

Substitutes: Fabianski, Silvestre, Eboue, Traore, Ramsey, Walcott, Bendtner.

And the United line up is:

Van der Sar, Rafael Da Silva, Evans, Brown, Evra, Scholes, Carrick, Fletcher, Nani, Park and Rooney.

Substitutes: Kuszczak, Owen, Berbatov, Giggs, Valencia, Gibson, De Laet.

For our Manchester United match preview, click here.

Alex Song Is The Key To Arsenal’s Title Ambitions

Manchester United (The Emirates Stadium, London)
Premier League Fixture – Matchday 24
Sunday 31st January 2010
Kick Off: 4pm – Live on Sky Sports 1

After the Aston Villa game, things looked bleak.

The disappointing 0-0 draw and failure to keep the pressure on Chelsea was followed with news that Thomas Vermaelen’s season could be over as it was suspected he had fractured his leg, but Arsenal confirmed that there was no break and his absence from the game should be short term [1]. He will miss the clash against Manchester United, but should be back soon after.

And that news is a massive boost. Colossal in fact.

Because the thought of Sol Campbell or Mikael Silvestre playing against United, Chelsea and Liverpool doesn’t bear thinking about. Fortunately Sol’s recently performances have looked half decent, but with Rooney in stunning form (19 goals in 22 league games) Arsenal will have to be at their defensive best.

But the more important news I believe is the return of Alex Song from the African Cup of Nations.

The last game he played was the 4-1 win over Portsmouth but since then we’ve struggled against Everton and Aston Villa. And even against Bolton at The Emirates, we contrived to give away two stupid goals before coming back to win 4-2. With Song in the side we’ve managed to get past the loss of Van Persie and kept ourselves in the title race.

And his performance against United will be vital to whether we get anything from the game. Cesc Fabregas has thrived alongside Song in midfield, and overall we’ve just looked more secure defensively. For me, Song has been one of the players of the season so far.

How will he perform after an arduous trip to Angola? Who knows, but I’m a lot happier he is back in the squad coming into this run of massive games. Especially with Vermaelen missing on Sunday.

Ideally we’d have our first choice midfield of Song, Cesc and Diaby but the big Frenchman looks to be short for Sunday but could be back for the Chelsea game. So it looks like Denilson will play in his preferred role slightly further up the pitch.

Eduardo is out with a “small, small” hamstring problem so it looks like a baptism of fire for the returning Nicklas Bendtner, although at the time of writing his is a doubt with a groin problem picked up at Villa. If he does make it, the positive news would be that Eduardo doesn’t like playing there anyway and we would get to see Arshavin play wide which is his preferred position. Having to play him down the middle would be a waste.

Then for the other attacking spots we have either Rosicky or Nasri (or both if Bendtner and Eduardo are missing). Or Wenger might opt to play Eboue instead.

So how will United play?

In recent games they have played a 5 man midfield and attempted to nullify Arsenal’s attacking threat. Earlier in the season at Old Trafford, we dominated large portions of the match but couldn’t add to our 1-0 lead. Then we collapsed in dramatic fashion and literally gifted the game to United and lost 2-1.

Last season we lost 3-1 and 1-0 in the Champions League games but managed to beat them at home with a double from Samir Nasri. Then in the away game (when United had already won the title) we played well but drew 0-0.

We all know about the form of Wayne Rooney and he has a knack of scoring against us. With the departure of Ronaldo he really has flourished and Manchester United haven’t really suffered as much as people thought they would.

Defensively, they welcome back Vidic from injury but lose Rio Ferdinand as he starts his 4 game ban for violent conduct [2]. John O’Shea is also out and will miss the rest of the season with a leg problem. So United have one or two injury problems of their own.

I’m sure United won’t be any different and will try and rough up Fabregas in the middle of the pitch, especially with players like Carrick, Scholes and Fletcher in the side.

Overall, it’s a tough one to call. On the one hand, United have been in stunning form, but I’ve always maintained that they have their shortcomings. Yes, I realise that it is a slightly ridiculous statement considering they’re second in the league but I’ve always felt that this season, if you get at United then they can be beaten.

And their recent wins have been against Manchester City, who have a patched up defence, and Hull City, who well, are managed by Phil Brown. I don’t really need to go on do I?

The bottom line is though their biggest threat is Wayne Rooney, and our biggest threat is Cesc Fabregas. And whoever steps up and takes the game by the scruff of the neck with emerge victorious. Fortunately Alex Song is back and if he picks up from where he left off then we’ve got a great chance to stop Shrek. I do believe that our supporting cast is stronger though (Arshavin, Rosicky) but their influence depends if they can find their form. We know how special Arshavin is but his game recently has been poor.

An interesting little side note to the game is that Arsenal v Manchester United will be the first UK football match to be shown in 3D [3]. The special 3D showings will be launched at nine public houses throughout the country, in selected pubs in London, Manchester, Edinburgh and Cardiff. Although I don’t know much about it, the first thing that comes to mind is that it would give you a headache, but you never know, it might be completely awesome.

Aston Villa Game Had A Draw Written All Over It

Aston Villa (0) – (0) Arsenal
Villa Park, Birmingham

I was going to post this afternoon that the Villa game was going to be a draw, but decided not to in fear of ridicule if that didn’t end up happening.

But after the Stoke game I knew we’d have problems.

In seasons gone by, throwing an FA Cup game has ruined our late January and February. A couple of seasons ago we were flying high in the league and then got battered 4-0 by Manchester United at Old Trafford. Then we lost momentum with a string of draws (sound familiar?) and we lost our grip on the title race.

And with games against Manchester United, Chelsea and Liverpool we face a big test.

Not least because the worst possible news has finally happened – Thomas Vermaelen has been seriously injured.

Arsene said after the game:

“Thomas Vermaelen we don’t know [the extent of the injury].

“There will be an x-ray. He is on crutches and it is a fibula injury. We have to check tomorrow morning if it is just a nerve or a broken bone.”

And our backup, after sending Senderos on loan is Sol Campbell. Things could turn out disastrous as he will have to face an in-form Wayne Rooney, Nicolas Anelka, Didier Drogba and Dirk Kuyt. Okay, he might be able to cope with the last one.

No doubt about it, losing Vermaelen is huge. It’s massive and I realise there’s 4 days left of January but I cannot see Arsene signing a top quality centre back to replace him, nevermind someone in Vermaelen’s league.

Up front, we look toothless.

The only real goal threat is Cesc Fabregas, and while he had a good game tonight the attacking support was no existent. Eduardo is struggling, Rosicky is still finding his form and Arshavin is playing as if he’s disillusioned at the club. He has small spells of inspirational moments but for the majority of games recently he has been ineffective.

Will too many draws ruin our season again?

The positive news going into the killer run in is that they are not must win games. If we can beat United and Chelsea and take points of them then fantastic, but the most important thing is that we don’t lose and have an insurmountable gap after the Liverpool game.

Manchester United will be on a massive high after smashing Hull 4-0 and getting past Manchester City in the intense Carling Cup Semi Final.

But as we’ve seen in the past, we tend to do well when everyone is writing us off so here’s hoping…

Not Really A Shock As Arsenal’s FA Cup Run Ends

Stoke City (3) – (1) Arsenal
Denilson (42′)
The Britannia Stadium, Stoke

What can you say about that?

Arsene only played 2 first team players (Fabregas and Denilson) and we lost 3-1. Stoke scored in the first 70 seconds from a trademark throw-in we didn’t deal with, and although Arsenal played their reserves Fabregas added that bit of quality which made Arsenal tick.

I did wonder why of all the players, Fabregas was picked in the starting line-up – surely he is the one player you would want to protect going into massive league games against Villa, United, Chelsea and Liverpool?

Ramsey would have been an adequate replacement, and one he was introduced in the second half Arsenal looked more lively.

The game could have gone either way in fairness, and as the scores were level in the second half and we were controlling all the possession, Stoke hit us with a sucker punch and from then on the game was over.

I can’t be bothered doing individual player ratings, but Walcott in particular was awful. I joke that he’s just a sprinter but today he didn’t help his cause. All that pace, no control or composure on the ball – you wonder if they kid has actually progressed since he arrived. I’m not expecting Maradona-esque control after returning from injury but I would expect one or two signs of quality. And he’s not a kid anymore, he’s 21 now.

Sol Campbell on the other hand, and Silvestre, both had decent games. Both made some last ditch tackles and overall did well. Fabianski was hit and miss, and wouldn’t have Almunia losing any sleep about the number one jersey.

Traore was his usual self – shaky at the back but offers that something in the attacking third, and Eastmond, Coquelin and Thomas were reserve players thrown in at the deep end. Vela was on the periphery as usual and couldn’t impose himself on the game.

Substitutes Arshavin and Eduardo couldn’t get into the game when they were introduced but Ramsey added something to Arsenal’s attacking play.

In the end, Stoke were in our faces, never gave us any time on the ball and were very physical. I did think their tackling was over the top at times but the referee wasn’t interested in protecting our players.

Summary?

Well Arsene rested his first team players, played his reserves and tried to nick a passage into the next round of the FA Cup. If we won, then fine but if we didn’t then it would hardly make much of a difference on our season. The fact is a lot of supporters weren’t too bothered about today’s game because Arsene hasn’t had the FA Cup as a priority for about four seasons now. The fact that Liverpool, United and now Arsenal are out shows how (sadly) the FA Cup has been devalued over the years.

I do have to mention the ITV coverage was hugely biased, and the whole incident where Arsenal won a free-kick from a handball was hilarious. For a solid 5 minutes, the commentator was moaning about how it didn’t hit his arm and there wasn’t any intent so it shouldn’t have been a free-kick. Then they showed the reverse angle (where it clearly hit his arm) and he soon shut up. How ridiculous.

I understand they’re all for shocks in the cup, but to w*nk over Stoke like they were Real Madrid for 90 minutes was uncomfortable to watch.