Fear and loathing in Islington
Like walking into a hall of mirrors, football matches can sometimes look better or worse depending on perspective. On one hand, a draw against the current champions of England which keeps you within touching distance of the top of the league after a hammering your previous match can be seen as a good thing. Your mirror image is tall, handsome and barrel-chested. On the other hand, if you are facing a team five positions and fourteen points behind you, on your own turf and cannot manage better than a drab 0-0 draw then you have every right to feel disappointed at the short ,fat ugly reflection staring back at you.
Manchester United's failings this season have been well documented but as a way of a reminder, David Moyes' side have lost to the likes of West Brom, Sunderland, Stoke and most recently, suffered that late setback against a Fulham side who will more than likely be playing Championship football next season. United were undoubtedly there for the taking and Arsenal missed out on a opportunity both to get back on track and to prolong their suffering. Granted, while a draw helps neither side, given the circumstances, they should have been more grateful to simply avoid another defeat than we were.
Both teams seemed to play with a sense of fear but while you can see it from their point of view, I'm struggling to get my head around why this fear seems to overwhelm Arsenal in this fixture regardless of the where the two clubs are. The fact that this was a United team at their lowest ebb since the early nineties presented a chance rid ourselves of that fear but sadly, it was a chance we failed to take.
Ol over the place
On the point of failing to take chances, the biggest culprit on the night from an Arsenal perspective was Olivier Giroud. All season long the narrative surrounding our French centre forward has been all about giving him the credit he deserves for effort, but at the same time lambasting him for his all too inconsistent showings in red and white. Sometimes this criticism can be over the top but against United he seemed to go out of his way to reinforce the view held by many that he is simply not good enough to lead the line for a top side. Presented with numerous opportunities to be Arsenal's match winner, he fluffed chance after chance with each effort almost looking more inept than the previous one.
It was an infuriating performance and unfortunately not one that can be written off as a bad day at the office for him. 3 goals in 8 appearances since the turn of the year isn't an acceptable return for a centre forward in a supposed title-challenging team. Even more concerning is his ability to perform in these vital games against the “bigger” sides. Since his winner against Spurs in September, Giroud failed to hit the back of the net in the subsequent 7 matches against the other teams currently occupying the top eight positions in the division. To say he's not good enough for Arsenal would be a tad unfair but the argument that he shouldn't be our number one option gathers more pace with every misfiring display.
The failure to address our need for an alternative front man is coming back to bite us in a big way. As poorly as Giroud performs, he is the only decent option right now cannot be taken out of the side due to no alternatives. Similarly, by fielding him every week risks burning him out. It didn't go unnoticed towards the end of this match that he was stood around with his hands of his knees due to exhaustion. With no time to miss games to recuperate, can you realistically expect him to play, let alone perform for 90 minutes every week between now and May?
Giroud of course wasn't the only reason Arsenal didn't get a result on the night. Right from the earliest exchanges, Arsenal fell into the web of perpetual motion that was sterile possession. Slow starts to matches have been well documented all season long but there seems to be neither the desire nor the ability to change things. The way United set up, there has to be more than simply sideways passing over and over again before attempting and often failing to play a through ball. I'm certainly not sure what the aim is when, from an attacking corner, you end up passing the ball back to your furthest defender just for the sake of retaining possession. At the most amateur level of football you know you can let the opposition play the ball amongst themselves if they do nothing with it. Yet, in the modern game, everyone still wanks themselves into a frenzy over 'triangles'. Put simply, deploying a tactic that solely requires keeping hold of the ball or “Tiki Taka” is utterly pointless unless it leads to end product or you have something to protect, otherwise it's all rather boring and predictable.
Powerless of 10
That predictability is born from the number of similar personalities in the side. In Ozil, Cazorla, Rosicky and Wilshere, Wenger basically deployed four 'number 10s' who were trying to play the same passing game with no outlet for their attempts to be creative, nor anyone truly prepared to take responsibility. Unless they were trying to bore the United defence to death, Vidic et al were content to sit and watch the Arsenal midfield play 1-2s for the majority of the match. The failing of this tactic becomes quite telling when you realise Arsenal's best opportunities actually came from wide areas. Two from corners and once when Giroud failed to connect with an inviting ball across the six yard box.
Oxlade-Chamberlain was eventually introduced when it was too late to have any meaningful impact while another potential game changer in Lukas Podolski was once again ignored by the manager. I'm not sure i'm in a minority when I say that I think the treatment of the German international has been scandalous since his return from injury. For a player of his undoubted ability, he deserves far more than fleeting appearances, often only as a substitute. If the team were consistently playing scintillating football and winning matches comfortably each week, one would understand why he would struggle to force his way back into the starting XI. However, with the indifferent team performances of recent weeks, there must surely be a place for him somewhere in this side, right?
Given the regular clamour for big name signings and proven quality, it boggles the mind one of the genuine stars in the team is being shunted in this way. If this continues, you imagine the writing is on the wall and he wont be an Arsenal player for too much longer. It is very difficult to understand why the manager feels he cannot accommodate him.
Van Stopped by Pole
The main positive to take from the game was that it was that the team was able to keep another clean sheet. After the shambles last weekend, however, things could have taken a similar turn after Mikel Arteta inexplicably gave the ball away on the edge of his own his box inside two minutes. Thankfully, Woijech Szczesny was equal to Robin van Persie's scuffed shot. The pole in goal was then called upon to deny the former Arsenal hero once again in the second half as he was able to push the Dutchman's powerful header against the crossbar.
Aside from those two scares, the back four were largely untroubled. If there was nothing else to take from the game (there wasn't!), a shut-out on home soil should help to rebuild confidence after the mauling at Anfield.
That said, you are left to wonder how fragile confidence is within the camp given the manager's potentially worrying post match comments referring to 'nervousness' and 'making sure we didn't lose'. There was much talk before the game about how people expected United to be 'fired up' for this but very rarely are Arsenal spoken of in such terms. Instead, mental fragility is more often the mind state that is attributed to the team. The manager's comments seem to highlight this. Arsenal, rather than looking to make up for what happened at Liverpool seemed more concerned with the idea that it might happen again. To approach a match in such a way is as negative as anything some fans often criticise rivals for.
Wenger's post match comments almost seem like those of relieved man. For all that has been said, his team could have gone back to the top of the table and with an attitude not governed by a fear of defeat, could well have done so against a mediocre Manchester United team whose name alone seems to petrify us to our very core. In the face of that, we've now dropped 5 points both against them this campaign and, more importantly, 5 points in the last two league fixtures. As a result, where we were in a three-way title race not long ago, we are now perilously looking over our shoulders as the above mentioned Liverpool and also Spurs close the gap. Arsenal need to start believing they can win games again otherwise this could turn out to be a very, very awkward final third of the season.
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