Thursday, March 23, 2023

Man Utd 1-0 Arsenal : disappointing but not unexpected

It’s hard to know where to begin. Another big game, another poor performance and another trip home with 0 points.

It was not by any standards a feast of football. United were set up to deny Arsenal time and space and they did it ruthlessly well. The only answer to that kind of system is serious hard work and I can’t avoid the feeling this morning that we didn’t do enough of that.

Arsene Wenger Old Trafford
The pitch lacked a little bit the grassness meh meh meh ...

The only goal of the game came a few minutes before half-time. Ji Sung Park really does love scoring against us and when he twisted to loop a header over Wojscez©® and in off the post it was hard to argue that United didn’t deserve the lead – even if I didn’t necessarily think they deserved to score. If you get me. There was an element of luck in that Nani’s cross deflected off Clichy but I thought the finish was excellent and the Arsenal defending poor to leave him so free for the header.

Their only real chance before that was a Nani shot, after a poor Squillaci header, which flew inches wide. Which is a lot better than anything we created in the first half. We had a couple of efforts from outside the box which barely troubled the ball-boys, let alone van der Sar. In the second half we were a bit better, especially in terms of possession, but again posed little threat to their goal. Our only real opportunity of the game came when Nasri finally found some space, fired in a left footed shot which van der Sar could only parry to his left and into the path of Chamakh. Whether the Moroccan was caught on his heels or just wasn’t quick enough to react I can’t quite remember but Vidic got back to block his effort on goal.

And that, in 90 minutes, was Arsenal’s best chance. The introductions of Cesc, van Persie and then Walcott made little or no difference. I would have preferred to see Bendtner than Walcott. It was clear our passing game wasn’t right and a little more directness and Nick’s aerial ability might have caused them more problems at the back. But United defended very well, we lacked the nous and spark to break them down.

At the other end Rooney missed a penalty, a ridiculously harsh penalty too so justice was probably served there, while Wojscez©® made excellent saves from Anderson and a Rooney chip. When Theo blasted a volley over the bar in injury time it summed up our night, wasteful, lacking in quality and the big question marks about this team’s ability to get results in big games remain.

As a team we played badly and there were some extremely poor individual performances as well. I thought Gael Clichy had a nightmare, to be honest, you can’t win a tackle against a player like Nani then dilly-dally and give it back to him. We might have punished on more than one occassion, but in his defence he was given no protection from midfield and certainly none from Arshavin in front of him. Nani was given far too much time and space and it was shocking that just minutes into the second half, when surely this had been brought up, Clichy found himself with Nani and an overlapping United player (might have been Fletcher) to deal with.

He didn’t play well at all but he needed help and didn’t get it. United’s tactic of pressing the full backs high up the pitch was obvious and when you look at the unsuccessful passes (Sagna 28 out of 81, Clichy 20 out of 56) it meant we were under pressure a lot in our own half and with the usual outlets denied to us.

We conceded plenty of free kicks so it’s hard to suggest we lacked bite but more effective tackling might have helped us out more. Jack Wilshere won 2 of his 2 tackles while Alex Song, the supposed defensive midfield lynchpin, made one successful tackle in 90 minutes. He attempted a grand total of three. Compare to our centre-forward, Chamakh, who attempted 13 and won 5. Song the ball winner? Please.

And elsewhere we had hoped for and expected better from experienced quality players like Arshavin and Tomas Rosicky. The latter looked like a man who hasn’t scored since 1986, or whatever it is, while once again in a big game the Russian disappointed from an attacking point of view (he made four more tackles than Song though!). In-form Samir Nasri was quiet but he’s done plenty this season. This is why you need others to take responsibility and nobody did.

As I said pre-game this result was never going to be decisive regardless of who won but you just wonder what a win would have done for us psychologically. Our record against United and Chelsea is so poor and with the latter coming up in just a couple of weeks it won’t do confidence any good. Last night was a big chance – instead we didn’t stand up long enough to be counted.

Afterwards Arsene said:

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.

He also made some comments about the Old Trafford pitch which, frankly, he should have kept to himself. It was the same for both teams. I agree it looked poor with both teams slipping about at times but it’s not like they had magic slippers to deal with it better. Trying to deflect focus from his team, I know how it works, but sometimes things just aren’t worth mentioning. Bottom line for me is that United worked harder, wanted it more and that’s what made the difference.

So here we are in a position where we’ve lost 5 league games by mid-December and still, somehow, we’re not out of a title race in which the league leaders have yet to lose a game. It’s very odd but unless we can find some consistency to both our performances and results I don’t think that situation will last too long. You can’t lose that many games and not suffer for it – not unless you can pick yourself up and go on a long, unbeaten run.

So far this season the longest we’ve gone without defeat is five games, that was at the start of the season. Since then the sequence is L-L-W-W-W-L-W-W-L-W-W-L. Until we find show some mettle and manage to scrape something out of games like last night I retain serious doubts as to this team’s ability to last the campaign as league challengers.

However, as I said it’s not the end of the world in terms of where we are in the league. If United win their game in hand they’ll have a 5 point advantage. We’ve seen in the past that 5 points can be very quickly hauled in and we’ve got to just regroup and get on with things. The upcoming fixtures are tough. Stoke at home this weekend will be a massive physical test, then there’s Chelsea a couple of days after Christmas, you’d hope a trip to Wigan wouldn’t be as horrible as last season and then it’s Man City at home.

After that comes a run of very winnable games, on paper at least, so there’s no time for the team to feel sorry for themselves. We’ve got to work on getting important players like Cesc and van Persie up to speed in terms of their fitness because clearly they’re both not right at all. And I know I’ve been banging this drum a lot recently but we need to be better defensively. Not just the defenders but the whole team and midfield in particular. I think the incident I mentioned earlier about Nani early in the second half was another illustration of how we’re paying scant attention to our opponent’s strengths.

It’s all well and good saying we’re going to focus on our own game but you can’t just ignore them either. I agree with Arsene when he says we can do more from an offensive point of view but being more solid at the back will enable us to do more up front. I genuinely believe Alex Song needs some competition too.

To end on a positive note though I have to give mention to Wojscez©® who made his Premier League debut last night and despite some iffy distribution early on really looked the part. The save from Anderson was fantastic, reminiscent of a certain United keeper, and his handling was first rate throughout. Whether he was there simply because Fabianski was injured I don’t know but he’s definitely given the manager something to think about.

So, as I said, we’ve got to pick ourselves up and get on with things. Last night was a failure of performance but it needn’t be fatal. The margin for error, already small, is shrinking though.

Till tomorrow.

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