Sunday, February 28, 2016

Arsenal Insipid in 3-2 Defeat at Old Trafford

Much has already been written about Arsenal’s failure at Old Trafford today, going down 3-2 to a makeshift Manchester United team full of junior players filling in during the continuing injury crisis. And while it was a valiant effort by the United youngsters, led by 18-year-old Marcus Rashford (who now has four goals and an assist in two appearances), it was equally an epic failure by the Gunners, who look increasingly likely to miss out on the title that looked possible a mere seven days ago.

Arsenal played flat almost from the opening whistle and, after missing out on an early chance when Monreal shot right into a charging De Gea in the 7th minute, looked off their best. With the score at 0-0, though, there was a sense they might just be able to improve in the second half and take all three points. In a three-minute spell that started in the 29th minute, the match changed. First Walcott gave the ball away carelessly in his own half, United sent the ball to the right, after Gabriel failed to clear the cross (possibly affected by a slight touch from Koscielny), Rashford was first to the ball and pounded it in. Before the 32nd minute had passed it was two, as Lingard sent a cross to the head of Rashford, sandwiched between Kos and Gabriel, with the youngster steering the ball across goal and past Cech. Arsenal did wake up a little from their shellshock, with an Ozil cross met by Welbeck for a headed goal at the near post (40’). Right before the halftime whistle, United’s hero Rashford appeared to move his hand to stop a corner from sneaking in at the near post. It could easily have been a penalty and a red card, but instead United took their 2-1 lead into the break.

Arsenal began to grow into the game a little in the second half, without cultivating any clear chances, until the 64th minute, when a Manchester United counter was cutback by Rashford to Herrera. He sent a shot toward the far corner that Cech seemed to have covered, but Koscielny couldn’t get out of the way of the shot and actually chested it into the goal behind his keeper. Suddenly it was 3-1 and the match seemed lost. Five minutes later, Ozil gave the Gunners life with a rebounded shot in to make it 3-2. But from there, United seemed first to every ball, Arsenal lacked the requisite passion or drive to get the equalizer and actually make the Red Devils look like the more talented side in running out the clock. And so another disappointing loss in over a decade of disappointing results that derails their title dreams. Three quick thoughts on the game:

1. Wenger Gets It Wrong Again: it appears increasingly clear as the years past that it is highly unlikely Arsenal will win another title with the Frenchman in charge. They might win another trophy or two, but one wonders if the board is finally growing weary of fourth place finishes and Round of 16 exits in the Champions League. I think I speak for most Gooners when I say I am. The reality is that even if Wenger has become more tactically flexible, his inability to win enough of the big games has marred his career ever since the Invincibles success. That was not true the first eight years of his career with the club, but the same complaints continue to be relevant. Just to run through them again: a) Poor record against rivals (except Tottenham) including United, whomever is in charge, Chelsea (six dropped points and two reds this season even as they still reside in the bottom half), Barcelona (2006, 2010, 2011 and now, with all likelihood 2016), Bayern Munich, etc. b) Not buying the necessary players: everyone argued Arsenal needed two things this year – a striker and a DM. When Coquelin went out, Arsenal suffered and he is just getting back into the team now, and Arsenal has the fewest goals (41) of any team in the Top 4 (and also the worst goal difference). Giroud has gone cold, failing to score in his last 9, and Sanchez is even worse, c) Poor selection and subs: no Gooner can forget pulling Ox a few years back against United while he was playing his best game with the team, but today one wonders if bringing Gabriel back in was really such a great idea, or relying on Walcott up front in one of the coldest scoring runs of his career (forgoing the goal last week), and why Campbell, who was starting to really shine in January, suddenly can’t get any time on the pitch, and d) Strength to Weakness: one thing Wenger has always been hailed for is developing young talent, but looking around Arsenal at the moment, it appears Walcott has moved backwards, Ramsey is a shell of his former self, Bellerin had his worst game in some time and the youngsters like Iwobi don’t have the talent to even be impact subs at the moment.

2. Gunners Poor Across the Board Minus Two: to continue on the development theme, Ramsey has been among the worst performers over the past couple of months, losing the ball with troubling frequency, missing relatively easy passes and failing to convert chances. Walcott has been worse, seemingly far below the player he was before his latest injury (but poor even when playing this season). As mentioned above, it was his error that led to the first goal and Ramsey’s poor play from the back that disabled Arsenal’s once deadly counterattacking. Giroud is also in yet another funk, unable to have any impact in the game upon entering for the invisible Walcott. And Sanchez has been poor for so long, it’s hard to even remember the brief hot streak before he was injured. Really, looking across the pitch, the only credible performances were by Welbeck (taken off for no apparent reason late for the completely inept Iwobi, who lost the ball every time he touched it) and Ozil, who now has 18 assists and a credible 5 league goals (along with the two in the UCL). One wonders if Arsenal should finally part with Wenger and splash that cash sitting in the bank, building the team around Ozil, Sanchez and Koscielny, though the latter had one of his worst days in years.
3. Manchester United Statement Win: It was less than two weeks ago that United lost to minnows no one ever heard of in the Europa League and the calls for Van Gaal’s rather sizable head were rising to Robespierre level. Since then, they have gone on a three-game winning streak, advancing in Europe, in the FA Cup and winning at home against Arsenal for the ninth time in a row at Old Trafford (not counting the FA Cup last season). They now stand three points from fourth place (though City have a game in hand) and one wonders if this could be the year that Arsenal fall all the way out of the top four, handing United a lifeline. While two of the three opponents were several levels below the best of the EPL, today they looked like a different team, with several players covering in positions they are not accustomed to playing in. They pressed high, took their chances and made it extremely difficult for the Gunners to get into any rhythm on the offensive end. The youngsters performed at a peak level and even the maligned Depay had one of his best showings as a United player. With a relatively kind run of fixtures until the Manchester Derby on March 20, United could build some momentum heading into the money end of the season while Arsenal could well spiral out of control yet again.

Next up for the Gunners is a must-win game at the Emirates Wednesday against Swansea, who had a 1-0 lead against Tottenham heading into the final 20 minutes today before the other team from North London finished their comeback, and then a matchup against those same Spurs next Saturday that could well decide the Gunners’ fate. United host Watford, travel to West Brom, head to Anfield for the the first leg of their Europa league tie with Liverpool then return home to play Crystal Palace. It appears Arsenal are fading just as United find a new lifeline.

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