Arsenal 1 (Van Persie 71) Man United 2 (Valencia 45, Welbeck 81)
The bare facts make for grim reading. Defeat to United leaves us fifteen points behind them, and eighteen off the pace set by their city rivals. Our own neighbours remain ten points above us despite their loss earlier in the day, and that critical fourth spot is still an elusive five points away. Perhaps more damaging than the numbers is the psychological aspect – a new low between fans and manager erupted in the wake of Oxlade-Chamberlain’s substitution moments after he had set up Van Persie’s equaliser, and the inevitability of their winner made many stop and reassess our own expectations. Anticipating a home defeat is not a happy place to be. Watching it unfold wasn’t much fun either.
I have no doubt that by the morning, or perhaps even by the time you read this, the story will be centred around a couple of flashpoints, and I will get to them in due course. But while Arshavin will be the inevitable fall guy for many, he wasn’t on the pitch in the first half, a forty-five minute period in which we were largely outplayed by a United side that saw our weakness at full back, and attacked it time and time again. The returning Vermaelen was a boost at left back, and as such less targeted by the opposition, but even so he isn’t as dominating there as when he marshals the centre of defence. The other flank was the main issue – poor Djourou was forced to deal with Nani and the overlapping Evra almost single handedly, a job even Sagna would have found difficult. For a reserve centre back, it was too much.
United were uncomplicated in the opening period – they spread the ball wide, overlapped, and swung in whipped crosses time and time again. Largely, Koscielny and Mertesacker dealt with them well, although there was a last ditch nature to some of the defending. But the more often Nani got into crossing positions uninhibited, the more you felt he would pick out a decent delivery in time. Szczesny pulled off a good near post save from the winger, and saw another cross flash past his far post. But on the stroke of half time, the inevitable occurred – Djourou stood off Giggs, allowing him all the time in the world to pick out Valencia at the back post, who stole in ahead of Vermaelen to put the visitors in front. It had been coming.
There were murmurs of dissent at half time, which at the time I didn’t consider to be particularly helpful – it was clear that the team was nervous early on, and booing was hardly conducive to giving them the boost they needed to come out in the second half and take the game by the scruff of the neck. Of course people are entitled to voice their opinions, and it was hardly a majority – the trouble was that the crowd were so oddly quiet at times that even a smattering of boos became the dominant noise.
At half time, Wenger made a brave switch, introducing young Yennaris at right back for the ailing Djourou, and by and large it was vindicated – he wasn’t overawed by his Premiership debut, and handled the occasion well. At the same time, Oxlade-Chamberlain switched wings with Walcott, allowing the more senior of the pair to help his young colleague. While Theo frustrates many with his inconsistent performances going forward, he did show a measure of responsibility in protecting Yennaris, which should not go unnoticed.
We should have been gifted an equaliser early in the second half, when Smalling slipped, allowing Rosicky to burst past him. Perhaps aware of his recent goalscoring record, Rosicky chose not to take the chance himself, squaring instead to Van Persie, who danced inside his man to slam into the barely guarded net. Except, remarkably, he fired wide. Minutes later, the Ox set up Ramsey for a rising drive that flew inches over the bar.
Despite being in the ascendancy, we still had cause for alarm. Welbeck could have gone down under pressure from Mertesacker, but instead ran through to clip past Szczesny, only for the big German to reach out his long legs and clear off the line. Koscielny then brilliantly dispossessed Welbeck before starting the move that would lead to the equaliser – eventually the Ox would cut inside, before finding Van Persie with a clever reverse pass. One swing of his left foot and the match was all square.
And then came the moment that many will remember the game for. With the crowd in full voice, the momentum in our favour, and a spring in our step, Wenger withdrew Oxlade-Chamberlain and put Arshavin on his place. Boos immediately rang out, followed by cheers for the Ox and renewed jeers for Arshavin on his entry. Hardly the sort of reaction that makes a player eager to perform.
Wenger has since said that the Ox had been ill, and was beginning to feel his calf, so was withdrawn as a precaution before he did himself an injury, which seems perfectly reasonable, and backs up something I said on Twitter at the time:
“You know when you’re playing Football Manager, and you take a player off because his energy has dropped, even if playing well? I’m pretty certain we can track these things.”
Having said that, and having accepted that the move had basis in logic, the timing was questionable at best. A young player, who has just set up a goal against United, can run on adrenaline alone for at least five more minutes, a period of time in which we could push home our advantage. Instead, it stopped the game mid-flow, and allowed the opposition to regroup. It also took away the elation in the stands, replacing it with something far more poisonous, an atmosphere that could only give United a lift. A decision based on scientific reasoning backfired because of pure emotion.
Our captain didn’t like it either, although despite the inevitability of his ‘No!!‘ reaction being a huge story in the papers tomorrow, that is something that will surely die down quickly enough within the club – Van Persie will have asked Wenger why he took the Ox off, and the manager will have told him. I suspect that, away from the heat of the moment, it will have been accepted. I highly doubt that will stop a new flurry of ‘Disillusioned Van Persie to leave‘ stories over the next week, however.
It certainly didn’t help that, aside from offering nothing going forward, Arshavin was badly at fault for the eventual winner, turning his back on Valencia as he jinked into the box, and then failing to put in any sort of challenge as he laid it back for Welbeck to bury. The game was up in that moment, and we knew it.
And so to the reaction. Wenger is getting a pasting in some quarters, and while I (and everyone else, to my knowledge) have no problem with a bit of healthy criticism, there are too many out there who are using this as another opportunity to divide the fanbase. You are either for the manager, or against him – there is no middle ground.
Which is frankly ridiculous. Of course there is middle ground. While that substitution can be questioned, along with our first half display, he should be credited with two brave decisions – starting the Ox in the first place, and making the half time switch to bring Yennaris on. For me, there was some good, some bad – as ever, all is not black and white.
What is killing us at the moment is our lack of full backs. Often an undervalued position, it is only now that we are completely devoid of options thanks to an extraordinary sequence of injuries that we realise how crucial they are. They nullify wingers, break forward and allow us to counter at pace and with options, and add to our midfield when in possession, giving us the ability to get through well drilled defences at speed. Without them, we aren’t stopping crosses, and the midfielders are having to drop further back to collect the ball, isolating Van Persie up front. It doesn’t work.
I don’t expect any signings in January – Wenger has already said that we’ll have a couple of players back in ten days, which coincides with our next league game, at the Reebok. But playing four centre backs isn’t the answer either, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see Yennaris follow up today’s debut with a few more appearances. If he doesn’t get crocked in the meantime, of course.
If there is a small crumb of comfort to take, it is that the other results spectacularly went our way. Chelsea drew, while Liverpool, Spurs and Newcastle all lost. In the race for fourth, nothing has really changed, which is something we should all be relieved about – it could have been so much worse. I suspect many would have taken the status quo at the start of the weekend.
We now have a week before our next game, a cup tie against Aston Villa, before February brings our next league fixtures. Three defeats on the spin have been damaging, and we need to put a run together to claim that Champions League spot we so crave. It is very much up for grabs – the teams we are up against look pretty woeful, and a run of four or five wins would surely lift us back up there.
The question is – can we? Come back Bacary.