Arsenal 1 (Ramsey 56) Man United 0
If there is one phrase I have become sick of in the last few weeks, it is ‘mental strength’, primarily because it has been used by Arsene Wenger when that trait has plainly not been in sight. Ironically enough, he didn’t use the platitude today, which is a shame because, unlike some performances of late, this was one packed with belief, fight, determination and a complete refusal to allow United to take control in any part of the pitch.
Make no mistake about it, the scoreline flattered our opponents – from start to finish we were the better side, and not just in the possession stakes, where we are usually on top in these clashes, only for the statistic to be rendered irrelevant by impotent play in the final third and incisive counter attacking from our opponents. No, this was a performance of style and substance, and the champions elect could not cope. At half time, there was a fear that after dominating the opening 45 minutes without scoring, United would come back harder in the second half, but we continued to control the match, and picked up three richly deserved points.
The day had not started well, Cesc being ruled out with a thigh injury. I have to say I was dismayed by the reaction of many fans, who claimed it meant anything from Cesc’s head not being in the right place to evidence that he was leaving, and had played his last game for the club. There is another possibility folks – he might actually be injured. After all, he has been picking up niggles most of the season – it isn’t exactly unfathomable that he may have done so again. It is perhaps indicative of the current malaise around the club that so many are so instantaneously cynical.
Wenger made a big call in the captain’s absence, putting Ramsey in the middle ahead of the more obvious switching of Nasri’s role. It could have gone either way, but the Welshman was imperious, and fully deserved his winning goal. A tough game to start, no doubt about it, and he came out shining. Next up is Stoke away, which will be tough for entirely different reasons for him, but hope remains that Shawcross hasn’t had the same effect on his long-term career that Messrs Taylor and Smith had on Eduardo and Diaby’s. Time will tell, but today was hugely encouraging.
We started brightly, pinning United back almost immediately, and could have taken an early lead when Vidic’s poor clearance fell to Wilshere on the edge of the box but he hurried his shot and fired wide. After that, it was a case of the nearlys, with Walcott twice being inches from getting in before crucial interventions denied him.
On the half hour, the game should have changed. Walcott’s superb cross was dropping on to Van Persie’s head, ten yards out and central. Vidic knew he was beaten, stuck out an arm and tipped the ball over his head and away for a corner. Remarkably, Chris Foy and his assistant missed it, which is made all the more ridiculous by their perfect views and the fact they gave a corner. There was nothing else it could have hit except his hand. Not only should the penalty have been given, but Vidic should have walked. It wasn’t to be Foy’s last clanger.
At the time, the frustration was huge because you just felt United were beginning to weather the storm – we struggled to create much more for the remainder of the half and went in level. But any fears of a second half dip were unfounded – the pattern continued and aside from Rooney’s free kick that Szczesny tipped away, the visitors were still struggling to break us down. All we needed was the goal, and it finally arrived when Van Persie timed a pass from the right to perfection, allowing Ramsey to coolly sidefoot home past Van der Sar. After everything he has been through over the past year, it was a special moment.
There were nervy moments after that. Djourou was forced off with Squillaci coming on, and when Eboue replaced Walcott many feared the worst. But he was calm this week, and we hung on for the win. The only real scary moment was with a few minutes left when Clichy felled Owen in the box – it was a clear penalty, but I have to admit that in realtime it looked like a dive. It wasn’t – Clichy clearly fouled him, but I wonder if Owen’s spectacular swan flop counted against him. Or perhaps Foy had been made aware of his first half howler and was looking to even things up. Or perhaps (and this is the one I’d plump for), he simply had a shocker of a match.
For a while now I’ve gotten frustrated at referees but have shied away from lambasting them here because I knew I’d be accused of sour grapes. But we won today, so for once I can give his both barrels. He was absolutely abysmal, and not just with the two penalties, both of which should have been given.
On three separate occasions in the first half, he managed to physically get in our way during promising attacks, twice intercepting the ball and once knocking Van Persie to the ground. On all three occasions it was his positioning at fault. In fairness, it is a rare occurrence, which goes to show how good they usually are at staying out of the way, but Foy completely lost it in the first half and, coupled with the refusal to give the penalty, he had us monumentally wound up.
But what irritated me even more was his continued acceptance of dissent. Everyone bangs on about the Respect campaign and frankly I’m all for it – I think there should be an enormous clampdown on dissent and the general baiting and pressuring of officials. What is so infuriating is that they have the relevant powers at their disposal but don’t use them. I lost count of the number of times Rooney demanded cards for our players in the second half, and quite how Fabio escaped a second yellow for his histrionic hissy fit is beyond me. And on the other side, Van Persie should have been carded for sprinting up to the linesman after the penalty incident. He was justified in being angry, but not in being so aggressive towards the officials.
It annoys me that they take it. A harsher referee would have booked Van Persie in the first half, sent off Rooney (who was already on a yellow) for any of his second half acts of dissent, and certainly banished Fabio to the dressing room. And that is without the Vidic red. But they don’t, and by refusing to punish the players they invite more – it is entirely self-perpetuating.
I don’t buy the bollocks that if refs starting flashing cards, we’d have seven against seven, just like I don’t believe the nonsense that if shirt pulling when defending set pieces actually resulted in penalties, we’d have ten spot kicks a game. We wouldn’t – as soon as players see the punishments, they’d stop committing the crime. It isn’t rocket science.
But enough about Foy. I’m not even going to focus much on Fergie’s ‘we never get the big decisions in these games‘ garbage – frankly it was as one-eyed and myopic as anything Wenger has been lambasted for recently. Instead, I’d rather focus on the superb performances that made the win possible. I’ve already mentioned Ramsey, and he will rightly earn the plaudits, but Koscielny was magnificent in defence, and even surged out on a couple of Sammer-esque runs. He has come in for some stick this season, but I’ve been delighted with his opening year – he will get better.
Elsewhere, Arshavin had one of his best games of the season despite only featuring for the second half. He created, but more surprisingly tackled like a demon and played a full part in the team pressing. This isn’t entirely new – over the past few weeks his work rate has noticeably improved when he hasn’t had the ball. Sagna was terrific, Wilshere countered claims he was tiring with an energetic display, and Van Persie led the line well.
We were certainly helped by a strangely subdued United side, but we also forced them back, and had to take advantage of their dip. With the youngest first eleven of the Premiership season so far (thanks to Orbinho on Twitter for that stat), it was a tough ask, but we did it.
Now is not the time for what might have beens. We’ve just beaten United, and we haven’t done that for a while. Enjoy it.