Man Utd 2 – 1 Arsenal: Why Fergie is like Captain Hook

The scoreline was entirely misleading…
If you missed the game and saw only the score, you might think that this was a close affair.  In fact, as an Arsenal supporter, you’d most probably be quietly relieved at the small disparity between the two teams – it’s a hell of an improvement upon 8-2, for one thing.  In reality, however, the gulf looked as wide as it ever has.  United missed a penalty and mustered a further seven shots on target.  Arsenal managed just three, all of which came during stoppage time at the end of a dead rubber of a second half.

There was a poignant sadness about Fergie…
Although Alex Ferguson was quick to state that his side “should have scored fix or six or maybe even more”, he didn’t seem to take too much pleasure in it.  In an interview with the BBC, he added:

“It was a strange game, nothing like the Arsenal – United games of the past.  It didn’t live up to his billing.”

He was disappointed.   Not just at his own side’s lack of efficiency, but at the sheer lack of competition.  Fergie loves a fight, and Arsenal simply didn’t give him one.

I don’t know if you’ve ever seen the film Hook, but it is one of Hollywood’s great cinematic masterpieces.  It features an astonishing turn from Dustin Hoffman as Captain Hook.  He kidnaps the grown-up Peter Pan’s children, and uses them as bait to lure Pan to NeverNeverLand for one great last duel.   However, when Pan does show up, Hook realises he is now just a fat, flabby, middle-aged man.  He’s no longer the great warrior Hook loved to do battle with.  The war is over, and the eternally combative Hook is devastated.  That’s how Fergie looked in the post-game press conference: no smug self-satisfaction; just genuinely gutted that we can longer proffer a credible challenge.

In the film, encouraged by the Lost Boys and a preposterously named vagrant called ‘Rufio’, Pan rediscovers his former glories, learns to fly, fight and crow once more, and returns for one final titanic clash.  At the moment Arsenal look a long way from such a resurrection.  And Rufio is dead, so that’s out the window.

Not everything is Ivan Gazidis’ fault…
Last season Arsene Wenger took a lot of flak from supporters.  This season it seems to be Gazidis’ turn.  I do have a degree of understanding with some fans’ frustration at what they perceive as the poor running of the club.  But here’s the thing: an almost identical XI performed far better at the City of Manchester Stadium, in a game which finished 1-1 but in which Arsenal really ought to have won by a goal or two.  City and United are about as good as each other.  The disparity between those two Arsenal performances is nothing to do with Ivan Gazidis, and the responsibility for the downturn in form must be laid squarely at the door of the manager and the players.

Theo Walcott was never likely to start…
There are three reasons.  The first is that is contract situation has undoubtedly seen him slip down the pecking order.  The second is that he played 120 minutes in midweek.  The third is that Arsene was always likely to pick Aaron Ramsey on the right in the hope of replicating the aforementioned City performance.  Of those reasons, I genuinely believe that on this occasion the second and third were more influential than the first.  In future, however, I hope Arsene doesn’t cut off his nose to spite his face by leaving Theo out at a time when we plainly need him.

Thomas Vermaelen does not look like captain material…
When Robin van Persie took on the armband, he seemed to grow as a man and a player.  Since Thomas Vermaelen inherited it, he has shrivelled like a slug in a Bloody Mary.  His mistake for the opening goal was absolutely criminal, and it was an error which compounded several weeks of poor form.  Perhaps it’s unfortunate timing that this dip in his performances has coincided with becoming skipper, or perhaps the broadened responsibility has led his own game to suffer.  Either way, he needs to improve quickly.  At the moment the armband is the one thing keeping him in the team.

Give Santos a break…
You don’t have to know him to see that Andre Santos is a nice guy.  He’s always got a smile on his face, is clearly popular with the squad, and is basically a cheeky cuddly good sort of bloke.  Now, I will grant you this: he’s a bit slow, a bit positionally naive, and probably not good enough to be a long-term option for Arsenal at left-back.  He had a very poor game against QPR and quite a poor one against United.  And yes, he swapped shirts with Robin van Persie at half-time.  But none of that is enough to justify the abuse this guy is getting from his own ‘fans’ on twitter.

You may not know this, but pros swap shirts at half-time all the time.  It’s a regular thing.  It usually happens in the tunnel, rather than on the pitch, but it’s no biggie.  Especially between friends, and that’s what these players are.  Just like you might be friends with your former colleagues.  You all saw Van Persie hugging Arsene at half-time, just minutes after scoring the goal that separated the teams at that point, and yet Arsene seems to have escaped censure.

Santos is the latest in a long-line of scape goats.  The likes of Bendtner, Eboue and Arshavin have all been down that path before him, and it doesn’t end well.  Personally, I think it stinks, and I hate what I see a section of the fanbase dishing out to a guy who is still our player.  Get a grip, people.

We’re going backwards fast…
That’s the truth.  I’m not worried about shirt-swapping or referee decisions or anything else: I’m worried about this team.  The decline in recent weeks has been alarming.  Leaving aside that anomalous League Cup game, the first team have lost three of the last four.  On Tuesday night we face an intimidating trip to Schalke, and we’re only a couple of weeks away from a massive North London Derby.

We need to stop the rot.  At the moment we have slim trophy hopes and bleating fans.  We’re dangerously close to turning in to Liverpool.

RVP to United is painful but unsurprising

Arsenal fans know more than most that, in football, loyalty is a lie.  Putting your lips to the badge is almost always a Judas kiss; a horrible precursor to an inevitable betrayal.  All that said, there is something particularly painful about losing Robin van Persie to Manchester United.

It’s partly to do with the individual in question.  Here’s a guy who claimed to have grown up an Arsenal fan, admiring the exploits of his idol Dennis Bergkamp.  In his eight years at the club, Van Persie seemed as dedicated as anyone to Arsene Wenger’s policy of sustainable success.  Arsenal, in turn, were good to him, showing tremendous patience throughout years of injury problems, resulting in the rewards of last season and a 36 goal haul.  I will confess that as the season drew to a close, I firmly believed the dutchman would sign a new deal.  It turns out that what we were witnessing was not a glorious blossoming, but a bittersweet swansong.

What makes this divorce particularly painful is the third party: Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United.  Over the years, Fergie has tried to snare several Arsenal players – most infamously, Patrick Vieira.  In the past, such moves seemed improbably.  United and Arsenal were simply too close in their rivalry and their status.  Now, for the first time, one of our assets has been prised away to Old Trafford, and it stings.  Arsenal fans will claim Van Persie left for the money.  They’ll chuckle at the fact he’s ended up at a team that probably wasn’t his first choice.  But the uncomfortable truth remains that he’s joined a club where he stands a better chance of winning the trophies that have eluded him for so long.

I’m disappointed that the self-professed ‘Gooner’ would so readily join a rival, but I’m not surprised.  Footballers are just doing a job.  Never allow yourself to believe it means any more to them than that – you’ll only get hurt.

Considering that his departure has been inevitable for some time, I feel Arsenal have handled it well on several counts: they have kept it relatively quiet in the media; they have got the deal done before the start of the season; and at £24m they have secured a very reasonable fee for a 29-year old with brittle legs and a year remaining on his deal.

Van Persie’s replacements, Lukas Podolski and Olivier Giroud, are already in place.  Whilst Nicklas Bendtner and Park aree both certain to depart, it’s looking increasingly like Marouane Chamakh will remain at the club to play second fiddle to Giroud as a target man.  It’s possible another forward will come in, but it’s by no means a certainty, or a necessity.  We have been preparing for life without Robin for some time now.

Preparations are going well.  We have a stronger squad than last season, even without the Dutchman, and can look forward to watching an exciting new team take shape.  As for Van Persie?  Well, he’s about to destroy whatever legacy he might have had at Arsenal.  From talisman to traitor, so swiftly.  That’s footballers for you.  Disappointing, but no surprise.

Still keen to show your loyalty? Click here for Arsenal’s new kit.

Arsenal 1 – 2 Man U: Mutiny at the Emirates

Yesterday, Arsenal lost 2-1 to Manchester United, which is no great disaster. It’s certainly an improvement on the 8-2. However, yesterday Arsene Wenger lost a lot more than a football match. In one moment, he seemed to lose the trust of the Arsenal faithful.

The discontent surrounded the substitution of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. Chamberlain had been Arsenal’s most promising attacking player, and had just created an equalising goal for Robin van Persie. However, Arsene decided to replace him with Andrey Arshavin, who is currently as far from being a fan favourite as he is from his hometown of St. Petersburg.

The decision was met with huge boos. Even Robin van Persie visibly declared his disbelief at his manager’s choice. As Oxlade-Chamberlain trotted off, there was some brief respite as the fans praised his contribution. But when Arshavin subsequently took to the field, the booing returned – louder and longer than it had been before. To be honest, it was unclear if the jeers were for Arshavin, for Arsene, or both.

Let me start with the decision to bring Chamberlain off.  Sources in the Arsenal camp indicated he was physically tiring, and that doesn’t surprise me in the least. An 18-year old on his first Premier League start was never likely to complete ninety minutes, however well he was doing. The explanation that he was suffering from fatigue seems to me to be entirely credible.

And even if the switch was purely tactical, it did not merit the howls of derision it received. I thought the behaviour of the fans in the stadium yesterday (and before anyone labels me an ‘armchair’ fan, I was there myself) was pretty pathetic. It was the sort of stuff I’m more accustomed to seeing from Blackburn fans. After a first-half in which the Emirates lived up to its ‘library’ reputation, swathes of the crowd managed to wake up to boo the team off at halftime. And then to follow that up by greeting a substitute with boos? Ridiculous.

Having this debate last night on twitter, many fans felt inclined to point out that the substitution “ruined our positive momentum”. Yeah, well thanks for levelling things up with all the booing. That sure helped restore the positive vibe.
Truth be told, folks can say what they like on twitter. Or here. Pretty much anywhere.  But when you’re in the stadium, you get behind your team. Let’s not forget, at this point in the game we were drawing 1-1 with the Champions, and the fans were chanting “you don’t know what you’re doing” at the manager.

This is the same manager who took the bold decision to start Oxlade-Chamberlain in the first place. The same manager who made an intelligent and effective change at half-time, introducing natural fullback Nico Yennaris for the struggling Johan Djourou.  This, lest we forget, was Arsene Wenger.

I suppose the vitriol on display is a symptom of a relationship under strain. The reaction yesterday was about more than one substitution – it’s about 6 trophless years, a baffling transfer policy, and most recently a run of three consecutive defeats. Patience with Arsene has been thinning and yesterday, for many, it gave way.

I do understand how those fans feel. I occasionally feel exactly the same. I merely don’t  agree with how they chose to express it. We are in a very sticky situation now. To be without a league point in January is not good. We’re in a poor run of form that, in the battle for fourth place, we can ill-afford.

Truth be told, I think our record is simply levelling out to something approaching an accurate reflection of our ability. Robin van Persie carried us to a long unbeaten run pre-Christmas, but I think in that spell we did disproportionately well.  Expectations may have been raised higher than was appropriate, and that seems to have led to complacency in the transfer market.

Despite the disparity in scoreline, the feeling among Arsenal fans is very much as it was after the Old Trafford hammering. We’re staring down the barrel of catastrophe with a few days to dust off the chequebook and sort it out. This time, however, I’ve no confidence that we’ll get any reinforcements, let alone half a dozen.

I opened the blog up by saying that losing to United is not, in itself, a disaster. I stand by that. However, finishing outside the top four, for both financial and footballistic reasons, would be. And at the moment, that feels increasingly probable. If there are any steps Arsene and the board can take over the next week to avoid that fate, they simply must. The natives are increasingly restless.
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I’ve typed this rather hurriedly on an iPad, so don’t have the usual fancy links and stuff. Forgive me.

United Preview: Points required; Pride essential

Arsene is not really the sort of manager to deliver a rousing team-talk before a big game.  Fortunately, today, he doesn’t need to.

All he need do is print out the following, and tack it to the dressing room wall.

I’m sorry to have made you look at that again.  But it’s important we do.  It’s important the players do.  And it’s important Arsene does.  On that day, Arsenal let down themselves and their supporters.  That simply cannot happen today.

I don’t necessarily expect a victory.  Arsenal come in to this game in the familiar position of being out-of-form and embattled with injuries and African absentees.  What I do expect, however, is that Arsenal play with passion and a desire to avenge the humiliation suffered in August.

In the aftermath of the Old Trafford game, I said:

“What sickened me more than anything was to watch this team perform without pride, and without belief.”

The last few months have seen a steady process of recuperation, interrupted by a recent blip.  Arsenal need to fight, to battle, and to allow the fans to banish the memory of that shameful day from their minds.

Our team is dependent on two fitness tests: one for Thomas Vermaelen, and one for Thierry Henry.  If fit, both could start.  Vermaelen is reportedly the more likely to make it, and would come in at left-back for Ignasi Miquel.  That could be vital – United’s main threat comes from their wingers in Nani and Valencia, so our makeshift full-backs will have to be at the top of their game to cope.

If he’s ready to go, Henry could start ahead of the out of sorts Andrey Arshavin.  Suggestions two hours before kick-off, however, are that Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain could be handed a first Premier League start.  Chamberlain actually made an inauspicious debut as a substitute in the 8-2, and after a relatively impressive cameo at Swansea could be thrown in to the fray today.

At least if he is, we know he’ll play with courage, and with fire.  His team-mates had better do the same.  They owe us that.

 

8 – 2 : A Post-Mortem

arsene-wengerOTwide

MANCHESTER UNITED 8  – 2 ARSENAL

Arsene's lowest ebb?

Match Report | Highlights Video | Arsene’s reaction

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.