It was a decade in the making, yet another chance to wash away memories of all the could and should have beens. In the pregame, as if taunting us, they kept showing the famous 1999 Ryan Giggs run and blazing shot to claim an unlikely FA Cup Semifinal win after being down to 10 men and having a Dennis Bergkamp penalty miss the target as regulation time ranout. That game was the foundation for the treble United would win that year and Wenger admits he still thinks about that game 16 years later. Maybe this one can supplant that memory going forward. It was not a vintage Arsenal display, but even a weakened United team has been having their way with the Gunners the last three times they played.
Not today, though it certainly didn’t look like it early on. United started brightly and were getting the ball forward regularly, while Arsenal were having trouble stringing together more than a few passes at a time, with Welbeck in particular fueling the flame of those who believe he just doesn’t score enough or have the quality first touch necessary to warrant being the center of the offense. The game started to flow back and forth as the first half went on and, after a couple of half chances for United, Oxlade Chamberlain used some fancy footwork only moments after an attempted chip over De Gea failed to set Monreal in on goal. The Spaniard showed incredible poise in waiting for his compatriot to react before lifting the ball past him sharply into the near corner (25’). Arsenal were up 1-0 and the fans were going wild.
But that joy was, not surprisingly, short lived. Di Maria, the most expensive player in the history of the league, has been getting bad press lately, struggling to replicate the form he showed early in the campaign. He was sending balls into Fellaini, who is one of the best holdup players I’ve ever seen, but beyond a layoff to Ashley Young, not much was coming of any of them. Then Arsenal allowed him a little too much room on the right wing, he sent in a pitch perfect cross to Rooney who made no mistake from close range, only four minutes after Monreal’s heroics. The mistake, it appears, was made by our current backup keeper, Szczesny, who may well have played his last game for the Gunners. He stood pat as the ball flew toward the middle when he should have come out, and then simply watched as it flew past him, putting up a lame hand only after it had passed him as if swatting at an invisible fly. The game was square and Arsenal fans who know the long history of heartache in this rivalry felt their hearts sink into despair (at least mine did). After a Rooney pass to Di Maria that nightmare almost came true, though the Argentinian shot lamely with a strong chance to take the lead. And so the teams headed to the locker room at 1-1.
The second half saw United looking more threatening, with Herrera and Shaw replaced by Carrick and Jones. Fellaini, in particular, was causing problems with his impressive hold up play and runs through the middle while the Gunners struggled to contain Di Maria’s pace, even as his finishing again left something to be desired. And then a gift emerged, as if Valencia saw his old teammate Welbeck and suffered a momentary lapse of reason. What he was actually doing is something United have been guilty of far too often in recent weeks, passing the ball backwards to their excellent keeper. There wasn’t enough pace on that pass and Welbeck got a touch on it just in time before rounding De Gea and passing the ball into the gaping net. He considered holding back his celebration, for but a moment, before realizing he had just put a stake into the hearts of his old team.
The Gunners were up 2-1, but any fan of the club knows that they have been blowing leads and conceding late goals all season. United were pushing forward for the equalizer, though not with the resolve or industry of those Ferguson teams of the past. Cazorla almost put the game away but for a fine palmed save from De Gea and United players started diving to the ground like soldiers under siege, trying to elicit free kicks and penalties. Oliver would have none of it and in an argument with Di Maria after one of those attempts, sent the Argentine packing in the 77th minute. Even down a man, United still had the lion’s share of possession, though they weren’t doing much with it. The clock struck 90 minutes, but as Wenger looked to his left, he must have been frustrated to see five more to play. Arsenal held firm and left Old Trafford with that rarest of prizes in the past decade, a win. Some thoughts on the game:
1. Manchester United Woes Worsen: Louis Van Gaal is clearly a great coach who has succeeded everywhere he has worked and this will actually be the first time he won’t win a trophy in his first year with a club. He was impressive with Holland over the past few years as well and their third place at the World Cup seemed like just reward for a quality tournament. But one thing I noticed about that team after they blew out Spain in the opening group game was a more measured style of play that was not always pleasing on the eye (forgoing the magic and pace of Robbin running down the right channel over and over again). Questions have been asked of LVG since his arrival, first of their summer business then of their early defensive shakiness and, once he addressed that, of their unappealing, non-United style of play. Today they did attack more often, but it felt as if the team still lacks the style of the past, where slick passing, streaking runs and late goals meant no game was beyond their reach. He has put them back in fourth place for the moment, but one wonders if they might fall out, particularly with Liverpool breathing down their neck as the in form team in the entire league over the past three months.
2. Sayonara Szczesny: I have intermittently been a fan of our Polish goalkeeper, who looked, at least for a short time, like he was moving toward world class. But I’ve never fully forgiven him for the mistake that cost us that Capital One Cup Final back in 2011. That started a bad streak that saw us lose our first leg lead to Barcelona in the UCL, bow out of the FA Cup to United and topple, for a short time, below Tottenham in the table. In any case, he started to play with more resolve and settled into marshaling a defense that was arguably the best in the league for a time (though it was a calendar year, not the more important season variety). The failure to react to the dipping cross that Rooney finished powerfully past him should be the last straw for Wenger. It is almost impossible to win trophies with a keeper who makes as many mistakes as Sz and Ospina appears to me to be a quality replacement, at least until the summer.
3. Welbeck’s Moment: Danny Welbeck was having, at least in my humble opinion, a rather bad night of it before he became an instant Arsenal hero. His first touch was below par, his passing average and he wasn’t moving through the channels with the effectiveness Giroud has shown in recent weeks. That all changed with a gift from his old teammate Valencia. But he still had to collect that ball, round the keeper and finish the chance. And he did just that. Arsenal now have a strong chance of getting back to the final and repeating their feat from last year (though it will probably require beating Liverpool this time around). Hopefully this will increase Welbeck’s confidence and we can begin to see his boundless talent translate to more regular scoring.
4. The Start of Something Big: Arsenal had a tough start to the season, all but falling out of the title race far too early. But since the turn of the year and a disappointing loss to Southampton, the Gunners have been on the up and are starting to play with a resolve that reminds of the first eight years of Wenger’s reign. The Monaco performance was disappointing, but the win today affirms the sense this team has turned a corner. They still need to finish out the year strongly, hopefully win two more games to give them their 12th FA Cup, and bring in reinforcements at DM, GK and CB. Yet the future is looking brighter than it has in a long time and they have a strong foundation to challenge for the title next year. Wenger has built a strong core and it is time for that core to rise again to the summit of the premier league.
Arsenal host West Ham this weekend before the return leg against Monaco, a big ask but not beyond them if they happen to get an early goal. Then they head to Newcastle before a key matchup with the in form team in the league (Liverpool) at the Emirates. United head into the a tougher patch, playing Tottenham at home, Liverpool at Anfield, Aston Villa back at Old Trafford and then consecutive games against City (H) and Chelsea (A). They have been finding ways to win in recent months, but will have to improve dramatically if they are to maintain that lucrative fourth place finish. If they falter, one wonders if a second coach in two years is looking for a new job.