That was painful.
On the face of it, a 2-1 defeat at Old Trafford isn’t something to get you too bent out of shape – they win the vast majority of their home games and the scoreline suggests a tight match nicked by the odd goal. Sadly, the scoreline today bore no resemblance to the pattern of the match itself, in which the two United scored should have been a few more, and the one we mustered was with the last kick of the game, and barely celebrated.
The teamsheets made for worrying reading. Aside from the sideshow that always accompanies former players making their return, the thought of Santos trying to combat Valencia was not a prospect many were looking forward to, while Mannone’s continued presence in goal is an accident waiting to happen. Ironically, Mannone was good throughout, pulling off an excellent save from Rooney in the first half and van Persie in the second, and along with Mertesacker is the only player that can hold their head up and say they played well. Santos, on the other hand, was every bit the weak link United were hoping he would be.
Better full backs than the Brazilian will struggle with Valencia’s power, pace and trickery, but the winger found life embarrassingly easy at times today, and dominated the flank all day. Probably the only foot he put wrong was in the early moments of the second half, when he miskicked a tap in that would have put them two up long before they eventually put the game to bed. That stemmed from a bad mistake from Vermaelen, who will not look back fondly on this game, having started by presenting the returning van Persie with a golden chance that he was never likely to miss, in doing so casting aside our entire game plan. It would be fair to say that captaincy has not enhanced the Belgian as we hoped it would – instead he has been culpable on a number of occasions so far this season, and were it not for the armband his position in the starting eleven would surely be in question, an unthinkable suggestion a year ago.
Following the early goal, our response was disappointingly flat. United’s tactics were perfectly simple – they harried Arteta, denying him the space to pivot and supply his midfield colleagues, and as a result Cazorla dropped deeper to get involved, thus putting him in an area of the field from which it is more difficult to create. Then, when they won the ball back, the spread it wide to Valencia and charged into the box. None of that was unpredictable, or even a new approach in our recent meetings, but it worked worryingly easily.
Mannone’s saves and United’s wastefulness were keeping us in it, none more so than on the stroke of half time, when Rooney put a gift of a penalty well wide. But while we improved after the break, they still created the bulk of the chances, and when their second eventually came, no-one could be surprised, even though Evra winning a free header six yards out tells a story of its own about our defending. The closest we came was when Giroud smacked an effort against the outside of the post, before Cazorla gave an already flattering scoreline a bit of gloss with a superb effort in the final moments.
Before then, we were down to ten men, when Jack Wilshere ignored the last chance saloon he was in and went in late on Evra, a red card decision that I don’t think anyone can question. I would argue that Cleverley should have seen red earlier – his challenge didn’t warrant the final warning he was given – but so one-sided was the match that it surely would have made no difference. The gulf between the sides was far greater than the 2-1 scoreline suggests, and United looked like they had plenty of gears to go through had the situation required it. It never did.
All in all, it was a very bad day at the office, and isn’t the first since the international break ended. There is, however, a danger of criticism going too far, as it certainly did on Twitter during and after the match. Every staff member at the club was vilified as a moron, every player dismissed as hopeless, even those who actually performed adequately. Suggestions were made that no-one cared, that it was all the fault of people not even in the stadium, and much more. I understand the frustration, I really do, but I wish the post-mortem didn’t include so much mud-slinging. It really helps no-one, and creates a poisonous atmosphere from which it is difficult to recover.
But, at the same time, these are worrying times, and Wenger has some serious issues to sort out, and quickly. November is packed with hurdles, and we need to stop tripping over them if those at the front are going to stay in sight.
Like I said, a painful day.