MANCHESTER UNITED 1 ARSENAL 0
It was a sadly familiar story on Sunday as The Arsenal went down 1-0 at Old Trafford, bringing an end to our impressive unbeaten run away from home.
Before the game I’d mentioned how my heart said we could get a result, but that my head expected defeat. Sadly my head was right. Since clinching the league title at Old Trafford in 2002 our record there in the Premier League now reads: P12 W1 D2 L9. In the Premier League overall (22 games) we’ve had only 3 wins (all 1-0) and have only scored 11 goals. Our record there is miserable.
However, as mentioned, my heart thought (or at least hoped) that this year might be different. Our form and results have been excellent, our performances (on the whole) impressive, and confidence amongst the squad seems high. But unfortunately, after high energy displays against Liverpool and Dortmund, it was just one big game in a row too far, especially with injuries preventing rotation and a virus leaving the BFG and Rosicky in London and others to play feeling unwell.
It meant our first half display we below par; we never really got going. That said, United didn’t really threaten either and so it was disappointing to go 1-0 down when a certain Dutch traitor headed in unmarked from a corner. For some it’s an excuse to re-open the zonal vs. man-marking debate, but given this was the first goal conceded from a set-piece all season I won’t be one of them.
The first goal is always important, especially for us (as mentioned by Tim Stillman recently) and always in the big games, none more so than games against United (and Chelsea). Over recent years we’ve gifted them the first goal and then watched on as they’ve happily sat back, ten men in defence, knowing full well we’d struggle to break them down. It was the same story on Sunday. Despite an improved performance in the second half, and a few close moments from Sagna crosses, we huffed and puffed but never really looked like equalising.
I’m trying not to be too down beat or negative. Whilst defeat is always disappointing, particularly against United, this isn’t a fixture that will determine where we finish. Home fixtures against fellow title rivals may well have a bigger say in whether or not we can win the title, but away from home less so. Furthermore, our good start to the season has given us a little leeway. United away is done for the season and despite defeat we’re still 2 points clear. Everyone else (bar Chelsea) still has to go there. So as upsetting as defeat was it’s not the end of the world.
We now have to endure another international break as the World Cup Play-offs take place. When we return to Premier League action on Saturday 23rd November it will be at home to high-flying Southampton. A win will be much-needed. Until then let’s just enjoy being top of the league.
One positive from Sunday was Thomas Vermaelen. Since being dropped last season our Belgian captain has watched on as the BFG and Koscielny have formed a first-rate partnership at the heart of our defence.
But with the BFG absent through sickness our club captain got his chance and I thought he was excellent. It’s never easy being thrown in for the odd game here and there and in such a hostile environment against two top class strikers too. But he was aggressive in the tackle, dominant in the air, and led calmly from the back. Overall a very positive display.
Our German wizard has come in for some criticism since Sunday; with some saying he was quiet and disappointing.
For me I think there are a couple of factors for this. The first is fatigue having appeared in all but one fixture since arriving, starting all but one of them. The Premier League is a fast and physical league and like many before him Özil will struggle from time to time. The second factor is the fact he is often double or triple marked. Mesut is sacrificing himself for the team, taking defenders to create space for others. But when we dominate or take the lead in games then space starts to open up, he’s no longer double or triple marked, and that’s when his quality and match control really shines. And the final factor is the continued absence of Walcott. Theo’s pace concerns defences and gives them another dimension of our play to worry about. This helps to reduce the frequency of double marking that Özil faces, meaning our German playmaker has a little more freedom. Evidence of this was Özil’s debut, when he often found pockets of space, playing some devastating passes in behind for Theo to run onto (chances Theo sadly couldn’t take on the day, but will over time). The sooner Walcott returns the better, both for the team and for Özil.