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Man Utd 3-2 Arsenal: Chokers gonna choke

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Arsenal went to Old Trafford yesterday seeking a win to cement their title credentials – instead they came away with exactly what they deserved, nothing, and cemented their reputation as chokers. Let’s not beat around the bush here, yesterday’s defeat against an injury ravaged United side, playing a kid up front in only his second senior game, was a bottle job of epic proportions.

I take nothing away from Marcus Rashford, by the way. Two goals and an assist is a fantastic days work for a young player, and credit to him for that. But like we do with so many goalkeepers, we really played a significant part in the success of his day and the quality of his performance.

Having started reasonably brightly, and created a fantastic chance for Nacho Monreal which he missed/de Gea saved, we settled into that familiar first half routine of slow, safe, unadventurous passing with little or no endeavour. There was a moment when Aaron Ramsey had the ball deep in their half on the left hand side, he looked for some movement, there was none. He looked again, there was none, and he went all the way backwards.

We were static and staid. Having picked a rather swashbuckling attacking trio with Theo Walcott up front and Danny Welbeck on the right hand side, with their right back booked after just 9 minutes, and the left back only back after a lengthy injury absence, it was all set up for us to really have a go at them. That we didn’t is obvious, that we couldn’t is the real worry. Whether it was the pressure on the day or something else I don’t know, but we hardly caused them any problems at all.

Walcott was nigh on invisible, and I wish he’d stayed that way because when he did get involved it was another of his feeble attempts to dribble the ball out of defence. He lost it, stood watching as United spread it wide, crossed it into the box, Gabriel’s attempt to clear saw the ball fall perfectly for Rashford who probably couldn’t believe his luck as he smashed it home from close range.

The Brazilian, preferred to Per Mertesacker after what happened on Tuesday, made a very good case for the BFG’s immediate reinstatement with a piece of ghastly defending for their second. The cross was hopeful more than anything, but it’s a forward’s dream when the centre-half who can see him clearly simply doesn’t bother to mark him properly, and Rashford nodded home from close range. That Gabriel then turned to Koscielny to blame him only compounded his stupidity.

We needed one back before half-time, and the Mesut Ozil – Danny Welbeck combination that worked at Leicester provided that goal, a very tidy header from a free kick beat de Gea at his near post, and you hoped that would be the spark Arsenal needed for the second period. Just before the break it looked as if we should have had a penalty when Rashford clearly moved his arm towards the ball, but the officials didn’t spot it.

While we had more of the ball in the second half, it was more of the same. We were meek up front, and got absolutely nothing from Walcott. That he managed an hour of the game before being hooked for Giroud is, with hindsight, astonishing. Not that the Frenchman served much better, and when the midfield disappeared – Coquelin and Ramsey nowhere – Rashford set up a Herrara for a shot which deflected off Koscielny to make it 3-1 to United.

Bellerin had to be alert to prevent them going 4-1 up, before Ozil got it back to 3-2 in the 69th minute. Not his finest finish, but it bobbled up and into the top corner. 21 minutes of normal time to go, and there were 5 minutes of added time. That’s 26 minutes of football. 26 minutes to get something from the game. 26 minutes to pile on the pressure. 26 minutes to get a goal, or the goals, that might save your season and your title challenge.

In those 26 minutes we had 2 attempts on goal, only one of them was on target, and that was feeble Koscielny header that any of us could have saved. 26 minutes of Premier League football, from a team supposedly trying to win the title, and that’s all we could come up with against two midfielders at centre-half, and a kid at left-back who came on for the injured bloke. That’s very bad.

With 10 minutes of the game remaining, Arsene Wenger made his final change, throwing on Alex Iwobi for Danny Welbeck. I like Iwobi, I think he’s a fine young prospect with plenty of potential, but what exactly was it that made the manager think he’d be more likely to get us a goal than Joel Campbell, a player who has scored this season and whose experience made him a much more obvious choice? Iwobi never got into the game in any significant way, he found it hard going. Maybe Campbell would have too, but it seemed an odd decision all the same.

At no point did I have any confidence that we’d get even an equaliser, let alone goals to win it, and for a team that is reportedly a title challenger, that’s poor. And I say reportedly, because while we’re still there or thereabouts, we’re not playing like a team that seems capable of winning the title, and we haven’t been for some time.

I’m always wary of dealing in intangibles, like ‘desire’ and ‘wanting it’, but that looked like a team that could have given more yesterday. They froze, nobody took responsibility. Certainly those players should be capable of better than that, but when push came to shove, too many of them couldn’t cope with the pressure. It’s very difficult to argue with what Graeme Souness says here:

I don’t buy into this ‘narrative’ that this is the best chance we’ll ever have to win the title, but you cannot look at a Premier League where our main rivals for the league are Leicester and Sp*rs, and not see it as a massive opportunity. Yet rather than be decisive and stake a real claim for the top prize, we’re cracking under the pressure and yesterday’s result against that United side is cast-iron evidence of that.

The first two goals were our own fault, as were the two goals against Barcelona the other night. That’s not down to anything other than lack of concentration and application and, perhaps speaks to the quality of some of the players. The manager made changes yesterday to try and spark his team back into life. They didn’t really work.

While I understood the decision to start Walcott, can we step back a bit and look at the bigger picture. The issue isn’t the selection of Walcott, but that Walcott is the player we have to select. A footballer whose bland, featureless mediocrity is exactly why we can’t win titles. Don’t win? Doesn’t matter. There’s a clean-cut image and a £140,000 wage packet to take home at the end of the week.

That’s not on Walcott though. He is what he is and we’ve known what he is for a long time now. A player who just once in 10 years at this club has hit double figures in goals, and who has had a handful of decent games up front when the manager had little choice but to use to him. A manager who is more and more, it seems, making it up as he goes along.

Coquelin is another example, again this was a desperation decision that turned out pretty well, not some master-plan. And as much as I like him and the way he took his chance, the Arsenal midfield is an area that requires some serious surgery this summer. It needs it now, in fairness, but there’s not a lot we can do at this point.

Is that performance and result yesterday one hewn from the image of Arsene Wenger? It looks more and more like it the more I think about it. Arsenal should have gone to Old Trafford yesterday and made a statement – but what they did was simply reinforce the doubts that even the most optimistic can’t fully shake off. They’re always there under the surface, this knowledge that somehow, some way, we’ll find a new way to make ourselves look like under-achievers, and that was exactly what happened yesterday.

It will now take something of a miracle to win this title. I can’t see it happening. Obviously, OBVIOUSLY, I hope it happens, but realistically I don’t believe it will. I don’t believe a team that plays like that yesterday can be champions, and I don’t think a manager who presides over a performance like that can guide this team to the top of the table at the end of May.

It then raises the question as to what happens if we don’t win this title. What should happen, I think, is that Arsenal Football Club look at this underachievement this season and make a decision that this inability to challenge – especially now that the financial shackles are off – is repetitive and chronic, and find a new man to take charge.

I say that, by the way, as somebody who likes and respects Arsene Wenger a great deal, and can’t abide the abuse, but if he can’t win the title this year, I don’t think he can win it again. Making that decision won’t be easy, in fact I think it could be the start of a hugely tumultuous period for the club, as we’ve seen elsewhere when the legacy manager finally makes way.

That’s what should happen, but what will happen is a very different thing. What will happen is nothing. The board will back the manager and he might spend big this summer and go again next season. Maybe that will be better, who knows at this point? But that’s the culture of the football club, and to an extent I think we saw that reflected in yesterday’s performance.

11 games to go. Arsenal and Arsene Wenger need a miracle. Or, to put it another way, they need to play better football, to score goals, and win games. But they needed to do that yesterday and came up short. What makes us think that it will be any different in the next game, or for the North London derby against a Sp*rs side who look more likely to win this title than we do?

Think on that. It’s unpleasant. As was that shambles yesterday. That’s where we are, and I don’t like it one bit.

James and I will be here later this morning with what’s sure to be a laugh a minute Arsecast Extra. Please join us, a problem shared and all that. If you have questions or topics for discussion, please send to @gunnerblog and @arseblog with the hashtag #arsecastextra.

We’ll have that for you before lunchtime. Until then.

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Fan of Arsenal, Robert Pires and most everything to do with rum and whiskey. Writer, podcaster, ace flintknapper, sluggish centre-half. Smiter of those that ought to be smote.