Arsenal 0 Blackburn 0
I mentioned after the last round of Premiership fixtures that it felt like a day which would be seen as pivotal come the end of the season. United had pinched a late winner against Bolton despite being a man down, meaning our comeback at West Brom wasn’t enough to avoid us losing ground.
If that could be seen as a big day in deciding the destiny of the title, this one was massive. At half time in the lunchtime kickoff, United were 2-0 down at West Ham and struggling. Meanwhile, we had a host of returning stars available for the Blackburn game, and all of a sudden, our spread out fixtures looked a massive advantage.
How a few hours changes things. United turned it around with a performance of defiance in the second half, and we followed it up with an unfathomably limp display against a Blackburn side short of form and confidence. Say what you like about the soft decisions that aided United in their second half, the point is that they fought for their win – somehow it never felt that way with us.
I’ve seen it said that the players lacked effort, but I don’t believe that to be the case, or at least I think the wording is wrong. There wasn’t any lack of effort, or indeed a lack of desire to win (how many players got up from crunching challenges to carry on?), it was more a lack of passion. You can put in 100%, but without the fire driving you forward even that can appear somewhat weak. Effort and drive are two very different things, and for me the latter was woefully absent on Saturday.
It is very difficult to explain why. Mental fatigue could certainly be used as an excuse prior to the international break – we as fans felt drained so the players must have too – but the time to recharge has passed now. Ironic that Wilshere, who started two internationals during the layoff, is the one consistently showing the passion others lack. Too much rests on his young shoulders.
The result leaves us seven points behind United with a game in hand, which in itself isn’t massive – they look so unconvincing and have so many fixtures that I’m convinced they will drop plenty more points between now and the end of the season. The trouble is that we surely will too – we’ve won one in seven now, and that was against Leyton Orient. Not exactly title challenging form.
It was strange to see Wenger so perplexed after the game, talking about the flat display with a look in his eyes that said he couldn’t explain it either. We are on the finishing straight, we do not have the string of injuries we normally have by this stage, and we have no cup distractions. To see that not reflected on the pitch was odd.
And it was reflected in the stands. I’m torn on this issue slightly – I can understand the frustration because I feel it too, but the atmosphere in the final 15 minutes was nothing short of poisonous. We do seem to have a unique take on the role of supporters – ironically cheering Almunia’s every successful catch strikes me as mindlessly stupid – he is our only fit keeper and relies so much on confidence that having a go at him is massively counterproductive. Whether you think he should be at the club or not is irrelevant – he is, and that will not change until the summer. Make your feelings heard then – for now, we need him.
By the end, there was fighting in the stands, whistling of every poor touch, and it worries me. I know it works both ways – the fans react to the players, the players react to the fans, but it seems somewhat hypocritical of us to have a go at them for letting one defeat send them on a tailspin, when we react to every defeat with vitriol and jeers.
Ultimately, however, it was a poor display against a side unable to keep clean sheets away from home. We are making a habit of breaking our opponent’s bad runs – the only point Sunderland have got in ages was against us. These are games we need to be winning.
Right now, it is United’s title to lose. They are likely to give us the opportunity, but current evidence suggests we will not seize it.