MANCHESTER UNITED 8 – 2 ARSENAL
A couple of weeks ago, when Cesc Fabregas left for Barcelona and Samir Nasri seemed determined to follow him through the door, I told you that “the night is darkest just before the dawn”. It’s a turn of phrase I had heard the character of Harvey Dent use in Christopher Nolan’s Batman film, ‘The Dark Knight’. It’s supposed to engender comfort among troubled souls; to tell them that although things seem bad, they are almost certainly about to get better.
I conveniently forgot to mention that shortly afterwards Dent loses half his face in a fire and becomes a psychopathic killer. The night, for Gotham, just gets darker. And so it has proved for Arsenal’s start to the season, as yesterday we reached what we can only hope is our nadir, losing 8-2 to our supposed rivals Manchester United.
8-2. 8-2. It doesn’t look like a real result. I believe in the old days of teletext, eight is the point at which they’d spell out the number in letters (eg. Manchester United 8 (E I G H T)) to assure you it wasn’t a typo. It’s a shocking scoreline, in every sense.
The writing was on the wall as soon as the line-up was announced. Robbed of Vermaelen and Sagna to injury and illness respectively, the XI took on the look of a Carling Cup team, with Jenkinson, Traore, and Coquelin all involved from the start. The bench was even more distressing, with names like Chamberlain, Ozyakup, and Sunu all awaiting league debuts.
With such a weak line-up, the relatively experienced heads of Djourou, Koscielny, Rosicky and Arshavin had a duty and responsibility to hold things together and make sure the defence was not exposed.
That, as we all know, is not how it turned out. The defending was apocalyptically, comically bad. By the time goals five, six, seven and eight hit the net, I was laughing through the anguish. Here are our errors, catalogued:
Goal 1: The cracks began to show when Carl Jenkinson was caught way out of position, allowing Patrice Evra to charge in behind. Theo Walcott did brilliantly to get back and recover the situation, but was even quicker to let Jenkinson know what he thought of his defending, leading to a slanging match between the pair that carried on as we defended the resulting corner.
When the ball was cleared as far as Anderson, more horrors followed. His wedged pass over the defence should have been cleared, but for a combination of indecision and cowardice that allowed Danny Welbeck to steal in and score. First Johan Djourou inexplicably allowed the ball to bounce inside his own area, and then Koscielny ducked out of a challenge with the English forward. A Martin Keown or Sol Campbell would have put his body on the line to prevent a goal. Koscielny is not that man.
Goal 2: Again came from Wayne Rooney running in behind Jenkinson. Coquelin could’ve been quicker to close Ashley Young down too, but what a strike nonetheless.
Goal 3: Sorry Carl, but there was another basic positional error from the teenager here. Young was goal-side and Jenkinson had no choice but to bring him to ground, leading to a sensational free-kick from Wayne Rooney.
Goal 4: Wojciech Szczesny, who made several good saves on the day, made the classic mistake of edging across goal behind his wall and allowing Rooney the space to curl a terrific dead ball in to the far corner.
Goal 5: Goal five exhibited our most spectacularly bad defending. Andrey Arshavin, who found himself in the left-back position, stepped up alongside Johan Djourou, whilst Traore and Jenkinson were left behind. This left Nani onside and unmarked to score.
Goal 6: A couple of errors from Johan Djourou here, who dived in on Park, missed his tackle, and then failed to track the Korean when he broke free.
Goal 7: A penalty conceded by Theo Walcott. No complaints at all from the winger about the award – his trip on Evra seemed to be born as much out of frustration as any realistic attempt to defend.
Goal 8: Another sumptuous finish by young, but again Djourou found himself standing too far off in no-man’s land.
Amidst all the awfulness, there were a couple of goals for Van Persie and Walcott, a missed penalty by the Dutchman, a red card for Jenkinson after another positional error, and several instances in which Andrey Arshavin was lucky not to join him in receiving his marching orders. If you have lots of time and a similar amount of self-loathing then I suggest you read the match report linked at the top of the page.
I’ve touched on our weakened team. It’s no excuse. We had injuries? So did they. United were without their first-choice central defensive pairing of Ferdinand and Vidic, as well as key midfielders like Michael Carrick and Antonio Valencia. Our team was young? Well, on average, United’s was younger. What we witnessed yesterday was, plainly, inexcusable.
Some of the performances were dire. You’ll have noticed that Jenkinson’s name crops up repeatedly in the listed litany of mistakes. He looked very much like a player who has played a handful of games in the Conference and League One – unsurprising, because that’s exactly what he is. He managed to get through the game against Udinese on Wednesday, but here he was out of his depth, and drowning. The same could be said for Armand Traore who, with Premier League and Serie A experience on his CV, has less excuses than Jenkinson. Johan Djourou is going backwards faster than the DeLorean time machine, and on a couple of occasions Laurent Koscielny showed that whilst he is an able defender, he is not willing to get hurt for the sake of stopping a goal.
And yet, for the most part, I don’t really blame the players – especially not kids like Jenkinson. As I’ve said before: it’s not their fault they’re out there. It’s the fault of the manager (and quite possibly the board) for failing to strengthen a squad that has simultaneously been stripped of some of its most prized assets.
Bank balance aside, the numbers don’t look good for the manager – and I don’t just mean the glaring ‘8’ on the scoreboard; the first time we’ve conceded that many goals in a game since 1896.
It’s Arsene’s worst ever start to a Premier League season. Taking in to account our form at the back end of last season, it’s also our worst ever run under him. Since losing the Carling Cup Final to Birmingham, we’ve won just three league games. One was against Blackpool. And, to help matters, we’ve now had a player sent off in each of our three domestic matches this season. We have more red cards than points.
Yesterday it was made painfully clear how far away our squad is from being able to compete with United. With no Ferdinand or Vidic, they were still able to call on two centre-backs who both looked more capable than our own. How it will have stung Arsene to know that Phil Jones rejected his overtures to sign with the Red Devils this summer. To outsiders, Jones’ choice is easy enough to understand: wouldn’t you rather sign for the club where you can learn from good, experienced defenders, and play for a manager who actually seems to care about the art of keeping clean sheets?
As poor as our defending was, United showcased a real ruthless quality in front of goal. Much of our attacking talent remained available, but do we have players with the ability (or perhaps more importantly, the confidence) to score the kind of goal that Ashley Young and Wayne Rooney did yesterday? Just so we’re all clear, Young cost United £16m – £1m more than we’ll end up paying for Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who made an unmemorable debut as a substitute.
What sickened me more than anything was to watch this team perform without pride, and without belief. The players know the squad isn’t good enough to compete. It was written all over their performances – and some of them have even said as much. They were caught in a losing battle. When Van Persie and Walcott were withdrawn to fight another day, they sat down on the bench without so much as a glance at Wenger. Inside, they will have been fuming. You can bet that neither are in any mood to open contract negotiations anytime soon.
Meanwhile, the manager sat in the dugout, motionless. He didn’t even walk to the touchline to cajole his troops. He just sat there and watched his lambs slaughtered. You know Arsene is in trouble when he’s receiving pity from his supposed adversary. After the game, Alex Ferguson said, “we could’ve scored more, but you don’t want to score more against a weakened team like that”. It’s a comment almost as withering and humiliating as the scoreline.
As I watched at home, I briefly (and, I now realise, irrationally) wondered if Wenger might resign in the aftermath of the game. What changed my mind was our extraordinary fans, who for much of the second half drowned out the United supporters with a chorus of “We love you Arsenal”. They will have reminded Arsene of his commitment to this club. He won’t walk away now.
Nor should he. This is his mess, and he needs to fix it – a change of manager at this stage would benefit no-one. The obvious place to start is in the transfer market. A centre-half and a central midfielder are absolutely vital. We’d all like business to have been done earlier, but there’s no point moaning about that now: we’ve got three days to do the required repair work on this squad. Transfers can be done very quickly. Take the case of Park Chu-Young: Arsenal received news that Joel Campbell’s work permit appeal had been declined on Friday afternoon – by Saturday morning the Korean striker was on his way to London. That deal should have been completed last night, and will most likely be announced today, leaving Arsene and the board to concentrate on the other reinforcements we urgently require.
A particularly optimistic fan tweeted me last night to say that Feyenoord were once beaten 8-2 by Ajax but went on to lift the title in the same season. The performances of the two Manchester clubs yesterday, and by contrast our own, shambolic display, have shown us that winning the league is almost certainly impossible. However, we are perfectly capable of recovering from this to retain our Champions League spot, which has to be the realistic target for this campaign. Get the transfer business right, and our season could start against Swansea on September 10th.
Either that, or Arsene will lose half his face in a fire and become a psychopathic killer.