Man Utd 1 (Park 41) Arsenal 0
Every time we’ve played United or Chelsea over the past few years, we’ve gone into the game optimistic, or perhaps just hoping, that this would be the day we would start to turn around our results against the big clubs. Sadly, every time we’ve ended up frustrated and disappointed.
Largely, the reasons for those defeats have been similar – lack of penetration against an organised defence coupled with defensive naivety on the counter attack. By and large, the latter was not on display last night – despite Nani’s form and Rooney’s propensity for scoring against us, we restricted them to only a handful of chances, an impressive feat at Old Trafford. But the former problem remained.
Our toothlessness last night was even more extreme than in recent meetings between the sides, when we could at least point to decent chances missed that could have made the result so different. This time, it is difficult to pinpoint any clear cut opportunities spurned – Chamakh’s first half diving header was perhaps the best, but was straight at Van der Sar, who had a quieter game than he could ever have hoped for.
At the other end, it was a busier league debut for Szczesny, in for the injured Fabianski, who curiously still made the bench. The young Pole look assured in everything he did (bar his kicking, which was poor), and it was a relief to see him come through unscathed, with no howlers to his name in the manner of our recent custodians.
In the early stages, United appeared to have a shoot on sight policy to test him, but he fielded every effort without fuss, communicating effectively with his defence and looking assured from crosses. When the goal came, there was nothing he could do – Park’s excellent header looping over him into the corner. In the second half, he kept us in it, forcing Nani to fire over by making himself a big target, saving well from Anderson and then clawing away an excellent Rooney lob attempt.
He would expect himself to make every one of those saves, but what was more important was that he looked assured, confident and every bit a first team contender. The next few weeks will be very interesting.
Unfortunately, he was one of the few positives to take from the game. Koscielny has come in for a considerable amount of flak, but I actually thought he was much improved, while Clichy had the sort of up and down game we are coming to expect from him – impressively nipping the ball away from Nani time after time only to dally on the ball moments later and hand possession back in dangerous areas.
Further forward, Wilshere and Song toiled in their efforts to control midfield, but the real disappointment was the ineffectiveness of each of the forward players. Arshavin, Rosicky, Nasri and Chamakh were all anonymous, which is perhaps a compliment to the way United defended, but is also an indication of the mental block we still have when facing our biggest rivals – we talk the talk, but somehow it still feels like the players don’t believe they can win the match.
At the end of the day, both sides were poor, and both sides created little. But United definitely shaded the game, created the best chances, and deserved a single goal victory that they duly got, even after Rooney blasted over from one of the more dubious penalty awards you’ll see all season.
As far as the league goes, they now displace us at the top, with their game in hand at Blackpool still to come. For all the doom and gloom surrounding us, we’re still second, having played United, Chelsea, Liverpool and City away from home (not to mention Villa and Everton). The second half of the season sees all the big guns come to the Emirates.
If we have a chance of lifting the trophy, we need to make our ground a fortress again. And that means believing we can beat the best. Right now, it still feels as if we’re running scared, which is strange given how unimpressive our rivals have been this campaign.
It is a popular myth that you have to be perfect to win the league. You constantly hear how ‘Arsenal can’t win the league without a keeper’, ‘United can’t win the league without Rooney firing’, etc. But that is complete nonsense – no team is even close to perfect at the moment and whoever papers over their deficiencies most effectively will lift the trophy in May.
For us, that means avoiding costly defeats against our rivals – our record against the rest of the league is once again better then theirs, but another pair of defeats to United and Chelsea would leave us relying on yet more dropped points. Time to break the habit of a lifetime.
And with Chelsea arriving soon, what better time? As poor as we were last night, they are in truly dreadful form and are there for the taking. Ultimately, it will be down to whether the players go into that game afraid of the opposition – if they do, we’ve got no chance – fear restricts every positive aspect of our electric football, and amplifies the defensive frailties. Confidence is key, a timid approach will be punished.
If we want to rest of the world to believe we’re good enough, then we have to believe we’re good enough. Right now, for all the rhetoric, that appears not to be the case.