On a knife edge

Even in Arsenal’s salad days at the turn of the century (doesn’t it feel weird that we’re far enough into the 21st century now to deploy that phrase?), I don’t ever really recall Arsenal going to Old Trafford and carving out many chances. When Arsenal and United were equals, games between the two at Old Trafford were affairs that straddled the knife edge but were decided by paper cuts. That said, an Arsenal side featuring Vieira, Henry, Pires, Wiltord and Ashley Cole did once lose there 6-1.

In May 2002, when we dethroned United with a bloody coup in their own palace, Arsenal won 1-0 but it was a performance more about control than offensive verve. We registered two shots on target that night, both of which happened within three seconds of one another. Perhaps the most complete performance a Wenger side has managed at Old Trafford came in February 2003 in the 5th Round of the F.A. Cup. A 2-0 win which was thoroughly merited.

Yet even on that day, Arsenal scored with their only two shots on target. Ryan Giggs of course, hilariously missed an open goal at 0-0, whilst Arsenal’s opener was a very generously deflected free kick. These are razor thin margins which memory has a habit of editing out. I probably don’t need to recount what happened in September 2003 when the sides met. Our last two meetings in this fixture prior to Sunday made much more depressing viewing for Arsenal fans. Both were unpalatable variations on the theme of defeat.

A team, nay a club, in disarray featuring a rag tag starting XI was turned over 8-2 in August 2011. In many ways, that could be written off as a kind of freak occurrence, meeting the best when you are at your worst. Like having to give a PowerPoint on macronomics to the senior management board when you’ve got food poisoning and your bum’s going off like a fire hose. I actually found last November’s 2-1 defeat much more depressing.

That day, United swatted us aside like we were a common Fulham or Norwich City. It was totally routine, a fact reflected by a passive, expectant United crowd who were just watching their team keep another swinging midget at arm’s length. It felt like a true diminishing of status. The atmosphere was different at Old Trafford on Sunday. The home crowd in the second half was louder than I’d heard them for many a year. On Sunday, we were back to the knife edge.

I’ve seen doubts emerge about the validity of our title bid based on Sunday’s result. To an extent that’s understandable, but it’s hasty in my opinion. If a narrow loss at Old Trafford represents the first notes of the requiem on Arsenal’s challenge, City and Chelsea’s results over the same weekend must be regarded as an axe wound to the face. It’s true that numbers don’t tell the whole story, but I think @7amkickoff’s By the numbers piece is revealing.

Few would deny that the home side had the better of the first half and that was the story in Dortmund too. Yet United’s effectiveness in that period lay in their destructiveness. They were only allowed two shots on goal in their period of dominance. It was a similar story in Dortmund when the home side enjoyed territorial supremacy in the first half, yet still only created one clear cut opportunity. In Germany Arsenal won a tight game of few chances with a scrappy header. In Manchester, Arsenal lost a tight game with a premium of chances to a scrappy header.

Arsene Wenger always talks about the first goal being crucial in such games and he’s right, both teams effectively play for the right to sit back, soak up pressure and play on the counter. That said, United didn’t really do much counter attacking in the second half, even if we can hardly say we carved them open ourselves. This explains why David Moyes was willing to sacrifice Robin van Persie for another midfielder in the final minutes.

Wayne Rooney was lauded, understandably, for his energy on Sunday. Anyone that has had the conversation with me knows I would take Rooney at Arsenal in a heartbeat. But for all of his huff and puff (and he closed down Arsenal’s back four very effectively) his performance wasn’t one that sliced Arsenal open. I’ve seen it said that the quality available to United upfront made the difference. I don’t disagree that they are stronger than Arsenal here, but I don’t think that won them the game on Sunday.

Van Persie’s goal could just as easily have been scored by Nemanja Vidic in the way that it arrived. Indeed it would have been much more palatable had it been the Serb that met Rooney’s corner. Our main worry was that we created little ourselves. I think some of this was a consequence of already being a goal behind when we did manage to get on top of possession. In fairness, I’m not sure Walcott and Podolski would have made much of a difference to us on Sunday as I’ve seen suggested. Though it’s fair to say an out of sorts Bendtner coming on, his hair in bunches and his lungs full of Hamlet smoke, wasn’t the most potent of options from the bench.

Theo and Podolski are good at finding space, but neither create it for themselves especially. They need a through ball and there just wasn’t the space for one. Gnabry made an impact when he came on and I fancy Chamberlain might have done for the same reason, because they are players that are direct with the ball and commit defenders into deserting their shape. We can and probably should lament our lack of creativity, but United and Dortmund have hardly left us in the shade in that respect.

My central point is, I guess, that Arsenal have nobody to fear in the Premier League and need not feel inferior in the title race. The race has the potential to be very intriguing this year. The league looks like it might be quite contracted. In Crystal Palace, we have a team for whom relegation is already an inevitability. Sunderland maybe have the wherewithal to make a fight of it, but they could be doomed too. The top 7 places look sewn up, with the usual suspects in the top 4 plus Liverpool, Spurs and Everton looking better than anything below them. (I’m making the admittedly premature assumption that Southampton will peter out ever so slightly).

It’s looking like there will be a large of cabal of clubs with little or nothing to play for come February and March with only one, maximum two relegation spots and a faint whiff of a Europa League place to motivate them. There is the possibility of a lot of points being up for grabs for the top sides with so many likely to be in beach mode from March. Arsenal play Tottenham, Chelsea and Manchester City consecutively in that month and that spell of games is probably where our prospects will be decided.

In my heart of hearts, I don’t think we will win the league. I just have a feeling Mourinho’s Chelsea or Pellegrini’s City will grind out 5 or 6 low key wins in the spring when the schedule swells with decisive games on various fronts. Arsenal probably need another summer of stability and the team another year together to make that intangible leap from contender to victor. I do however think we’ll be in the race, which would represent progress. I certainly wouldn’t write us off on the basis of Sunday. LD.

Follow me on Twitter @LittleDutchVA

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