I remember it so clearly – as if it were yesterday – it had a personal dynamic for me as I, an Arsenal fan, had been broken up with by a Manchester United fan that same week. It was a painful personal loss but nowhere near as painful as 8-2. That’s right, 8-2. Dark, dark days.
In the words of Jegsy Dodd, only football can truly break your heart. As an Arsenal fan, I was devastated, humiliated, lost, scared and confused. Crushed. I couldn’t understand back then. Why? How?...could this have happened. But now I understand. Time heals.
Arsenal had just lost captain and talisman Cesc Fabregas, Samir Nasri, Emmanuel Eboue and Gael Clichy. The starting XI at Old Trafford on that fateful Sunday was:
Henri Lansbury, Marouane Chamakh and 17-year-old debutante Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain came on as second-half substitutes.
Of the fourteen players involved, only eight remain Arsenal players – six of those fourteen and five of the starting eleven were sold or loaned out in the following transfer windows.
In the days that followed the 8-2 defeat, Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger went out and bought Mikel Arteta and Per Mertesacker (amongst others) and the Gunners recovered from 17th place in the Premier League to finish third ahead of Tottenham to qualify for the Champions League.
In the summer of 2012, Arsenal sold Robin van Persie to Manchester United and brought in Santi Cazorla, Lukas Podolski and Olivier Giroud with Nacho Monreal arriving in January of this year.
Those four, along with Arteta and Mertesacker have become key players in Arsenal’s team and were all key components of the Gunners’ campaign last term. Arsenal finished fourth ahead of Spurs again and qualified for the Champions League, finishing out a disappointing start to the season with a 10-game unbeaten run in the Premier League.
Of those eight players involved at Old Trafford, most if not all of them have improved, developed, grown and matured since that defeat.
Oxlade-Chamberlain was making his debut and, although he’s injured at present, his form and confidence as well as technical level, physical presence and tactical understanding has improved greatly for both club and country.
Carl Jenkinson had only just arrived from Charlton and was vastly inexperienced, completely outclassed and thoroughly and comprehensively overwhelmed by the occasion but he has also improved in the months and years that followed.
He still has far to go before he reaches the quality and consistency of Bacary Sagna but he has developed his tackling, his positioning, his tactical awareness, his physical presence, his crossing, his passing, he was undoubtedly the most vulnerable player on the pitch that afternoon and, overall, he has probably made the greatest leaps and spurts in his growth since.
Another complete turn-around in form and confidence and fortune is Aaron Ramsey – this season they’re comparing him to Zinadine Zidane and hailing him as the best performer in the league at present. He’s scored 10 goals and made 5 assists in all competitions this term. His energy and work-rate is second to none.
His ability, technical level and finishing quality have come on leaps and bound – he really looks like a completely different player than he was then. Then he was 20-year-old just returned from that horror injury suffered at Stoke the previous season. His first touch was off, his confidence was non-existent and his style of play was immature. Now, even at just 22, pundits are calling him a complete midfielder.
Laurent Koscielny was something of an accident waiting to happen back then but his development and progress as a centre-back made him one of the most solid, resilient and reliable in the league last term. His partnership with Mertesacker who is something of a calming presence in Wenger’s backline was a huge component of that unbeaten run at the back end of last season.
He had only been in the Premier League one season prior to the defeat Old Trafford and he’s just come into his fourth season in England now and my how it shows. They say bad judgement comes from inexperience and experience comes from bad judgement and I think this is apt for Koscielny. All the mistakes, the poor decisions, the red cards, the penalties, and the back passes were him learning and it’s paying dividends for Arsenal now.
Meanwhile, when Arsenal sold Van Persie, it was a disaster at the time but in a way it forced Wenger to change his system, even just slightly. Back then with Van Persie who finished out the season PFA and PWA Player of the Year and top scorer in the league, Arsenal were over-reliant on the Dutchman. Nowadays the goals are spread around the team.
The system Wenger played back then was more often than not a 4-3-3 with the two widemen pushing forward, leaving the Gunners completely exposed at the back when they lost possession. Wenger came in for huge criticism that, even at 3-0 down before half-time, the boss wouldn’t shut up shop at the back. Arsenal’s only plan back then was to outscore the opposition but they were so depleted in quality from the departures (and injuries) that they simply could not reply to United.
Theo Walcott got one back in first-half stoppage time to pull it back to 3-1 but Arsenal came out and gifted Wayne Rooney a second ten minutes into the first half and they completely fell to pieces. Three minutes later Nani scored and three minutes after that Park scored – Arsenal were just gluttons for punishment and United were only too happy to oblige them. It was 6-1 with 20 minutes still on the clock.
Van Persie’s 75th minute goal wasn’t even consolation by that point and then Jenkinson got set off a minute later and 10-man Arsenal lost another two goals in the remaining quarter of an hour. United were just picking them off.
These days Wenger deploys a 4-2-3-1 which makes Arsenal much more resilient and protected defensively – they usually control the midfield areas and Giroud provides a great outlet up front. He’s a striker who can bring in other players, especially the attacking midfielders who fly forward and bust a gut to get in the box and help relieve the goal burden on the Frenchman.
Arsenal currently sit top of the Premier League, five points clear of Chelsea after a 9-game unbeaten run in the league and the signing of record transfer Mesut Ozil. United sit uncomfortably in 8th following the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson and a disappointing start to the season under David Moyes.
A lot has changed since the 28th August 2011 but this Sunday is Arsenal’s chance to demonstrate just how far they’ve come. 8-2 was painful but the Gunners’ character has been defined in those dark moments when they picked themselves back up, dusted themselves off, looked themselves in the mirror and kept on keeping on. It’s true what they say, that which does not kill you, makes you stronger.
image: © Paolo Camera