Before kick off I wasn’t alone in expecting that this match between Manchester United and Arsenal would be feisty One could reasonably assume Arsenal would be looking for revenge after Man U spanked them 8-2 last season and then rubbed salt into the wound by taking their captain and best player during the summer transfer window. At the very least, even if Arsenal didn’t want to get caught up in the revenge game, they should have been looking to back up their words about how they are a title challenger and actually challenge a Man U team who have been perennially tipped for the title since 1992. But instead of the fireworks many expected, we were treated to a blaise affair as Man U traipsed to a win and Arsenal submissively let them.
If you watched the game then you don’t even need stats to back up my assertion that Arsenal put in the most gutless performance I have ever seen. You could have literally just watched the first 45 minutes of the game and seen that Arsenal were not up for the challenge. Before kick off, the tunnel cam was trained on the two lines of players and I was curious to see how van Persie would be treated by his former teammates as the two teams walked out. The Dutchman was last in line and no one looked at him. Then Podolski came bursting out of the Arsenal dressing room and ran up to van Persie, slapped him on the back, and the two had a laugh and a hug as they went out onto the pitch. It was a moment of foreshadowing as it seemed like for 90 minutes all but one player went out of their way to make Robin van Persie feel comfortable.
Two minutes later, current Arsenal captain Thomas Vermaelen made a hash of a clearance and gifted the ball to the former Arsenal captain who did what he does best, score goals off the slightest of chances. The contrast between the two Arsenal captains couldn’t have been sharper: one hung his head in shame and the other wore Wayne Rooney like a crown.
For the rest of the half, Arsenal made a half-hearted effort to stay in touch with United. Wayne Rooney man marked Mikel Arteta and forced Arsenal to pass the ball between Mertesacker, Vermaelen, and Sagna. On one occasion the Gunners did get the ball forward and Santos took Arsenal’s only shot of the half, a right-footed effort that threatened the corner flag more than the goal. As the half ended, Mike Dean called handball on Santi Cazorla for protecting his face from a yard away and gave United their customary penalty, but Wayne Rooney’s subsequent shot hit the post to give Arsenal the slightest hope going into the locker room.
As they were walking toward the dressing rooms, Andre Santos went over to Robin van Persie and asked him for his shirt and the Dutchman obliged. Like everything else about Arsenal it’s a moment that deeply divides opinion but I saw this not as some shameful event in Arsenal history, but rather just another example of the gulf between the players and the fans.
I suspect that the average Arsenal fan would never shake Robin’s hand, ask him for a signature, a shirt, or want anything of value from him. Just the opposite, the average fan wants our players to tackle him harder than other United players, to refuse him a hand up when he’s down, and would applaud loudly any player who refused to shake his hand during the pre-match lineup. That’s why the average fan is livid when they see Andre Santos exchanging shirts with Robin van Persie.
But the disconnect between the players and the fans runs so deep now that it’s almost beyond repair. What you saw when van Persie gave Santos his shirt wasn’t “Man U v. Arsenal” but two multi-millionaire co-workers punching in at the clock and exchanging formalities. Santos asking van Persie for a shirt and Robin agreeing smacked of the old Looney Tunes cartoon Sam Sheep Dog and Ralph Wolf. They aren’t mortal enemies or fiery combatants, like the fans wish they would be, they are probably roommates, best friends off the field, and co-workers on it. Multi-millionaires who will earn a lifetime’s worth of the average fan’s pay in just one month.
Donning a clean shirt the second half wasn’t any better from an Arsenal point of view. Man United always play the second half harder against Arsenal and this was no different: the Red Devils came out of the tunnel and had 6 shots to Arsenal’s one, eventually getting a goal off a set piece header by Patrice Evra in the 67th minute.
The biggest concern for the Arsenal faithful has to be how simply Manchester United dominated the game for 91 minutes and how the Gunners couldn’t change tactics to counter the United game plan. Sir Alex Ferguson has had a number of creative ways that he’s beaten Arsenal and this time was no different. The plan was simple: Rooney, man mark Arteta.
You could almost understand if no one noticed the man marking for the first 15 minutes, there were a lot of emotions going into the game. But Wenger never made a change against Fergie’s simplistic tactic. The Frenchman never moved Arteta forward, never changed shape, and persisted with Ramsey on the wings until the Welshman started hobbling with what looked like a hamstring injury in the 50th minute.
Walcott came on for Ramsey but received almost no service as Arsenal kept possession deep in their own half, incapable of getting the ball out to Arteta and unwilling to rotate someone else back to overload the zone or to rotate Arteta forward. In the last 10 minutes of the game, United dropped deep to defend and finally gave Arteta some room to breathe. But it was a case of too little, too late. Arsenal’s first shot on goal came in the 92d minute and if it had gone in and Cazorla had scored in the 95th we might have been talking about a lucky escape for the Arsenal. But as it were, they got exactly the result they tried for.
In the best of circumstances playing a team like Man U requires 100% concentration and 100% effort. There’s no room in there for switching off or a dip in effort. How much was Denilson slaughtered for not paying attention to the threat of Rooney as the Englishman bombed forward through midfield and the Brazilian jogged back? That performance by Denilson effectively ended his Arsenal career. I wonder which Arsenal player’s career ended after yesterday’s game? I mentioned at the start of the season that I wanted Sagna to be Arsenal captain and I stand by that. Vermaelen is a disaster as captain but is this the end of his career? I highly doubt it.
That said, I would venture that none of the Arsenal team showed the requisite fight demanded by the Arsenal faithful save Mannone and perhaps Jack Wilshere. I predicted before the match that United would disgrace themselves by kicking Arsenal up and down the pitch and that Mike Dean would give them the freedom to do so. But what I failed to take into account in my calculations is that United wouldn’t need to kick Arsenal all over the pitch, because you can’t kick a ghost.
The Man U players had it in them to kick Arsenal all over the pitch, you saw that when Robin van Persie went in two-footed on Bacary Sagna’s standing leg.
I suppose those two won’t be swapping shirts any time soon.