Apr 212008
 

It is ironic that the famous old chant is still often sung when Arsenal score first at the Emirates. Ironic not just because it was the hallmark of Graham’s dull but efficient side, contrasting completely with Wenger’s vibrant but more fragile outfit, but because if there’s anything you can guarantee, it is that the score will not be 1-0 to the Arsenal by the time the final whistle blows.

Can you remember the last time we won 1-0? Clue – there hasn’t been one in 2008. You have to go all the way back to December 16 and that fantastic victory over Chelsea, 29 games ago. And there is no way that match should’ve ended 1-0, with both sides spurning gilt edged chances.

The lack of resilience and the inability to hold on to a lead in the manner of Graham’s team has been jumped on by the media as the main reason for the club going trophyless again this season, and at first glance it seems a decent argument – the clean sheet against Reading at the weekend was the first in eight games, dating back to the goalless draw with Wigan. In contrast, United have nine clean sheets in their last twelve games, Chelsea eight in their last thirteen.

So is that the reason? Do Arsenal simply not keep clean sheets?

Well, no, it isn’t as simple as that. Almunia and co have actually managed 25 shutouts this season in 55 games, close to one every other game, which is not a bad record. United, with their lauded defence, have only three more, with 28. Chelsea have 31 but score considerably fewer.

But the difference between United and Arsenal has been when they’ve conceded. United have let their guard slip when in cruise control – they’ve won 4-1 three times, 5-1 and 4-2, but when they haven’t been at their best going forward, they’ve managed to keep it tight at the back. They have won 1-0 nine times this season.

And remember the start of the season, when their title challenge was faltering almost before it had begun? Two points from the opening three games put them in early trouble, and their next set of performances were also poor. But instead of dropping more points, they scraped four consecutive 1-0 victories and hauled themselves towards the top. That is why they are going to be champions again.

As for us, we have a terrible habit of conceding crucial goals at exactly the wrong moment. There are the obvious ones – ahead against Chelsea, United and Liverpool and letting them all slip with soft goals, but it has happened a lot this season. Our two big wins also included clean sheets that barely mattered – 5-0 against Derby and 7-0 against Slavia, a match in which Almunia made a couple of stunning saves.

But when clean sheets have been required, they haven’t materialised. It is the nine 1-1 draws that have cost us so badly, especially the five in which we scored first. That adds up to a lot of dropped points, and the advantage conceded in that critical tie with Liverpool. United held on to those leads, winning 1-0 over and over again. We’ve managed only four 1-0 wins all season, and none this year. It is such a slim margin, but that has been the difference.

It all seems so simple on paper, but what causes this? What causes a talented side to let a few 1-0 wins turn into 1-1 draws, only to see that dismantle an entire season’s work? Is it experience, age, mentality?

Or is it just football?

What is important is to note the improvements. We lost eight games 1-0 last season. How many do you think we’ve lost 1-0 this season?

Here’s the answer – a big fat zero. That’s right, not once have we lost by the same score that was the scourge of last season. In fact, we’ve only lost and failed to score once in any competition all season, that 4-0 defeat in the FA Cup.

So last season’s lesson was to stop losing 1-0. That has been heeded – those results have now turned into 1-1 draws.

Halfway there. Next season, cut out the sloppy goals, and we’ll be exactly where United are.

The margins are small. Very very small. Keep the faith.

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