Arsenal 1 (Vermaelen 80) Man Utd 3 (Almunia og 33, Rooney 37, Park 52)
It was billed as a game we did not have to win, but could not lose. After being comprehensively and deservedly blown away by United, the title is not inconceivable, but now highly unlikely. It would take a dramatic improvement against Chelsea next weekend to get the result we need to stay in contention.
We had our moments – Arshavin was a man on a mission early on, fashioning two chances for himself that he put wide, and then miskicking a third opportunity, probably the best of the lot. Song also came close on a couple of occasions. But as threatening as we looked at one end, we were shaky at the other, only desperate interventions from Gallas preventing the visitors taking the lead.
Nani was causing Clichy no end of trouble, so it was little surprise that when the breakthrough came, it was from the winger. Sometimes you have to hold your hands up and credit a great piece of skill, and Nani certainly produced some with a mesmerising turn, but once he’d skipped into the box, there was no meaningful challenge, and he was able to chip a cross towards Park at the back post. Almunia desperately tried to reach it, but only succeeded in diverting it into his own net.
Minutes later, it was 2-0, and I hope Wenger makes the players study the video in detail. Rooney, on the edge of his own area, gave the ball to Nani, and then sprinted towards our goal, overtaking several of our players on the way. When Nani returned the pass at the other end of the pitch, he gleefully thumped it home.
How was Rooney not picked up? Most culpable was Denilson, who ambled back, completely unaware of the striker running past him. Rooney showed desire, Denilson did not, and that was the difference.
I have no issue with Denilson not being a star player. He looks a little lost in our midfield, not as good offensively as Cesc (or arguably, Rosicky, Diaby or Ramsey), he also doesn’t bring the defensive stability of Song. In short, he is a reserve. But that isn’t his fault – I’m sure he is trying to be the best player he can be. What is unforgivable is the total lack of drive on the pitch at crucial moments, and it isn’t the first time. The only meaningful thing I can remember him doing in the entire match was nearly scoring an own goal in the opening minutes.
When the third goal arrived, it was a real dagger to the heart. Not only did it kill the game, but it was so embarrassingly simple that it made our title aspirations seem laughable. A simple ball over the top found Park bearing down on goal, with Rooney and Nani making runs to the right of him. Clichy was our only defender, but covered the passing options instead of challenging the player with the ball, and Park took advantage with a simple finish. Again, a United player had run unchallenged through our defence.
Clichy’s defending in that instance was schoolboy – you have to make the ball carrier make a decision. And his performance overall was dreadful. A couple of years ago he was at the top of his game, and it is really difficult to work out why he appears to have gone so far backwards. Sure, he doesn’t get a lot of help from those in front of him, notably Arshavin, but some of his mistakes are so basic that you find yourself wishing that Gibbs was fit and available. Not only would there be serious competition for the left back position, but you feel that the young Englishman is probably the better long term option.
United could have had more, but to the credit of our players, and notably Cesc, who drove them forward, they never gave up. Vermaelen pulled one back late on, but we were unable to capitalise on a succession of late corners, and a golden chance for Gallas. In truth, the damage had already been done.
At the end of the day, we were painfully naive. When chances came, we missed them, and then over committed, failed to watch runners, and got caught time and time again by an excellent counter attacking team.
I’ve already covered Denilson and Clichy, but they weren’t alone – Rosicky didn’t have the spark we usually see from him, although to his credit he did track back all day. Almunia can’t be faulted for the goals, even the own goal, but he had his now customary wobbles in the second half that could have led to the scoreline resembling a rout.
There were, however, positive performances, notably from the centre backs – Gallas and Vermaelen had excellent games, which seems a bizarre thing to say after a 3-1 defeat, and makes you wonder what would have been if the Belgian hadn’t been fit enough to start. Cesc tried everything, and never let the team drop their heads while Song was good on his return despite being handicapped by a harsh yellow in the opening ten minutes.
And while some will get on his back for his misses, I thought Arshavin was superb. Jamie Redknapp said after the game that he was anonymous, which just goes to prove what a brainless idiot Redknapp is. He belied his diminutive size to give Wes Brown a torrid day, and put a couple of efforts just wide with Van der Sar beaten. He gave it his all, and cannot be faulted.
So where does that leave us? Some will say a win at Stamford Bridge could reignite our charge, while others go the opposite way and say we’re in danger of dropping out of the top four. The former is a possibility, but can only happen with the bravest of defensive performances, while the latter is laughable.
I suspect, when all is said and done, that we’ll be third. United and Chelsea seem to have a special something that we currently lack, but we are head and shoulders above the rest of the league. It is not impossible to recover from this, as we did following the Chelsea defeat, but we will be relying on a lot of dropped points from two experienced squads, and I’m not sure they will continue to be as generous as they have up to now. Looking the other way, I don’t say any of the teams below us challenging us for third.
It is tough not to be downhearted after a display like that, but there is still much to play for this season. Give up the thought that Wenger might splash the cash tomorrow – he won’t – and focus instead on a critical February. Our run of tough fixtures continues, and the Champions League resumes. We cannot afford to let this defeat derail what has been an impressive season.
And remember that this has been, and continues to be, an impressive season. We came into it being predicted to drop out of the top four, and even optimistic fans struggled to believe we could challenge for the title. I thought Chelsea would run away with it. But despite a plethora of injuries (imagine the effect of losing Drogba and Rooney for the season), we’re still up there. It defies logic, it defies the pundits, and it vindicates Wenger. Don’t forget that.
Tomorrow is transfer deadline day. I won’t be watching.