Arsenal’s fine unbeaten away form came to an end with a 1-0 defeat against Manchester United at Old Trafford. It was a cagey affair with few chances for either side, ultimately decided by a Robin van Persie header/shoulder off a corner half way through the first half and despite some late pressure, Arsenal couldn’t grab the equaliser we probably deserved and succumbed to only our second League defeat of the season.
Sickness affected Arsene Wenger’s selection as both Per Mertesacker and Tomas Rosicky fell victim to the illness, meaning starts for captain Thomas Vermaelen at centre back and Mathieu Flamini came back into centre midfield, with Aaron Ramsey shifting out to the wide right spot.
Both goalkeepers were rarely called to action as a grand total of four shots were registered on target throughout the game, but it was the home side that started the brighter and enjoyed lots of early possession. Arsenal’s defence didn’t appear to be suffering from the loss of Mertesacker though and were managing United’s offensive threat well, but the decisive goal came in the 24th minute from a familiar and horsey face.
Arsenal were set up to defend corners with the zonal marking system and it backfired as van Persie had plenty of time to pick his run and leap perfectly to meet Wayne Rooney’s corner, and the swine ridden Dutchman headed/shouldered the ball into the top corner despite the best efforts of Kieran Gibbs on the line.
It was a real kick in the teeth as we’d been containing the hosts well until then and meant we now had to up the ante ourselves and look to claw our way back into the game. We began to do so as the half went on, but it took until the 36th minute for our first attempt on goal as Olivier Giroud headed over a cross from the right.
Rooney had a claim for a penalty turned down after Giroud collided with him in the area (which could very easily have been given) and a couple of penalty area clashes resulted in head injuries for Wojciech Szczesny and Nemanja Vidic in separate cases, with the latter being forced off during the break.
Aside from this there was little of note in an incredibly flat first half, yet half time came at an ideal time for Arsenal to regroup and come out in the second period with plenty of work to do.
We looked much better after half time, Ramsey had a shot blocked early on in the half and Vermaelen was somehow allowed to take a free kick from 30 yards that sailed harmlessly over the bar, but the signs of improvement were clearly visible as we dominated possession.
Man United should’ve doubled their advantage on the hour mark though when Shinji Kagawa flicked the ball on towards van Persie, and the ball fell to Rooney who really should’ve buried it from inside the area but instead dragged his shot wide.
Wenger then brought on Jack Wilshere for Flamini in an attempt to increase our options going forward, as the midfield balance was far more defensively minded with both Mikel Arteta and Flamini starting. This change clicked Arsenal up another gear but we continued to struggle to penetrate the Man United defence.
Bacary Sagna twice sent in mouth-watering crosses from the right into the area but on both occasions we failed to have any one on hand to tap in, and these proved to be the closest we got to equalise. Gibbs also volleyed straight at David De Gea from distance to no avail, and on several occasions we had the ball in the Man United area but chose to lay it off rather than pull the trigger.
At the other end, Chris Smalling connected to a van Persie free kick at the back post but couldn’t steer his header on target in United’s last chance of the game. Nicklas Bendtner and Serge Gnabry were both thrown on late for Santi Cazorla and Arteta respectfully, but the game ran its course after only three minutes of stoppage time with Man United the victors.
There’s two ways of looking at a result like yesterday. Firstly in terms of the performance itself and it’s safe to say that both sides we were below par. Defensively we were sound though, and initial concerns about the absence of Mertesacker proved to be unnecessary as Vermaelen came in and performed very aptly. All the more impressive given it was his first start since April. Gibbs struggled a touch at left back and wasn’t his usual consistent self, and Sagna at right back was probably our best player and proved to be our most potent attacking threat too.
In midfield we seemed a bit laboured, and obviously missed the injection of pace and forward running that Rosicky brings to the side. Too often we were passing laterally and we struggled to find the killer penetrative ball in the final third.
None of Ozil, Cazorla or Ramsey looked at the races, probably feeling the effects of fatigue after an incredibly busy week, and it was only when Wilshere came on that we had a real attacking spark to our game; but still we failed to create the ultimate chance to give us a shot at scoring level.
United weren’t brilliant themselves but they were effective. Rooney worked incredibly hard and Phil Jones pested us in the middle and it’s likely he’d get away with murder if Michael Oliver was judging his case, no matter what the evidence was. The young referee was slightly dubious with more than one decision in the game, but as one of them was overlooking what was a probable penalty after Giroud clashed with Rooney, we shouldn’t really complain.
The second way of looking at it is with that fable word, “perspective”. Whilst in the moment a defeat against Man United at Old Trafford is nothing short of a miserable experience, in the grand scheme of things it isn’t a disaster as we still sit two points clear at the top of the table heading into another international break, so we’re exactly where we want to be.
Other results went in our favour too this weekend, with Sp*rs and Citeh both losing, and Chelsea relying on one of the biggest bottle jobs from a referee in recent years to rescue them a point at home against West Brom.
We have much needed players due back from injury after this Interlull too, with Theo Walcott reportedly in the running for a return against Cardiff City at the end of the month, and Lukas Podolski and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain hopefully not too far behind. Their presence in the squad will be much needed as we now have games coming thick and fast, at the weekend and midweek, in a busy 6 weeks leading up to Christmas and that starts with what’ll be a tough game against high-flying Southampton on the 23rd November and it’s important we bounce back from this result positively then.
Everyone was calling this past eight days our real “three game test”, and it’s safe to say, despite yesterday, it was one we passed as we ended it still top of the League and also top of our Champions League group, with four points from our final two European group games enough to see us through to the knockout stages.
It seems we just ran out of steam though after the fantastic victories against Liverpool and Dortmund and it’s still over six weeks until we can improve our squad again, so it’s fundamental that we get our injured players back to full health and keep them that way to see us through till the start of January where hopefully we’ll use our resources to improve the areas of the squad that need improving.
That starts with hoping (and praying, if you’re into that) that our International players come back from the break harm free, then the focus needs to immediately be placed on getting back to winning ways against Southampton.
See you then.