Andrew Onyearu offers his perspective on Arsenal's loss to Manchester United.
The post-mortem probably commenced at the final whistle. What went wrong?
Players and coaches would have been asking. How did Arsenal lose this match? The big players – Ozil, Ramsey, and Carzola – performed well below their exceptionally high standards. Giroud struggled doggedly but had neither service nor support that usually typified the recognition of his one-man forays upfront.
Rooney bustled. Phil Jones was exceptional and United looked the busier. RvP did not have a kick and contributed as little as Arsenal’s big players. But when he did – and it was the one impression he made – it was costly and decisive, as he did not get a kick afterwards until he was substituted.
The second half performance was better. In the end, the two “holding” midfielders Flamini first and Arteta were sacrificed. Wilshere’s more direct, front running style unbalanced United. They hung on for long periods of the half until, happily, the whistle brought proceedings to an end.
At this point, United had conceded huge quantities of possession – usually unknown for EPL teams at Old Trafford – and were content with a manly rearguard action. The end justified the means and they departed with both bragging rights and all three points. So how really did this happen. There were, at least, X reasons why this happened.
Illness presented Wenger with selection problems. Just before the game, the news was released that Mertesecker and Rosicky were sent home with Flu. It is now known that Ozil was also under the weather. It is more than likely that Wenger would have selected the starting eleven that he had used against Dortmund and Liverpool.
It was a very important match and he may have given serious thought to this position for consistency. The rule in football – never change a winning team – has Wenger as one of its leading apostles. There is no question that Mertesecker would have played ahead of Vermalaen. It has been said that he would have played the more defensive pair of Flamini and Arteta that he eventually did but there is a significant difference in Arsenal’s approach when Rosicky plays.
He contributes defensively and moves the ball around with so much speed that the whole team plays just that bit quicker when he is in. It was really because of him – more than Ozil - that Moyes played Jones in the DM position. He is elusive, fast, direct and knows where the goal is. Their absence made the decision easier for Wenger to play Flamini and Arteta. Wilshere would never have started. It would have been too risky to play two players returning from injury in the engine room of the team, with Cazorla also having only returned.
This situation unbalanced the team and it was evident in the first half. Maybe, just maybe, Gnabry could have started. The balance of the team may have been better.
Flamini and Arteta, in my view, don’t work in the same team. I also hold the same view about Ozil and Wilshere. When this happens, with the former pair, there is a drop in the mobility and thus creativity.
This is particularly visible because Arsenal play Giroud upfront by himself. The 4-2-3-1 relies particularly on midfielders running beyond Giroud to take up shooting or scoring positions. When the mobility is limited, there are no runners in the manner envisaged. It means that attacks fizzle out much more quickly.
The goal! The much-discussed flaws of Zonal Marking were again evident. Reputedly, Arsenal’s defending has been exceptionally good this season. On set pieces like corners, this has, allegedly, been attributed to the adoption of zonal marking.
It is understood that the team’s marking is, sometimes, a hybrid of man-to-man and zonal marking. The marking for that corner was clearly zonal. Two men on the line; players taking up designated positions and Ramsey in or about the penalty spot. But RvP’s starting position made that goal. He had two advantages.
First, he could see the flight of the ball from a vantage position – behind its trajectory. Second, he sprinted and jumped unto it, two clear features that enabled better contact.
Had he been marked specifically, he may never have reached the ball never mind making contact. The contact was not even clean, as it appears to have bounced on his shoulder and back. No matter. He ran unto it unchecked and that underscored the weakness of zonal marking. Hitherto, Zonal Marking has worked quite well. Indeed, the “invincibles’ marked zonal in those heady times of great success. It seems, clearly, that there is a problem with it but complete abandonment would be crass and inappropriate. Answer? The hybrid.
The substitutions were spot on but for …Bendtner. Arsene Wenger had no choice. He is, clearly, a pale shadow of the talented footballer he used to be. Capable then of operating down the flanks and in the centre, Bendtner, for all that his critics say, was a sight to behold. He really had no business being on that pitch however short his stay was.
As was to happen, a half chance that came his way was so far from him and this told the whole story. His body language was completely wrong. This belies the much-discussed subject of the absence of a striking alternative. In my – and many Arsenal fans – view, Akpom would have been a livelier introduction. Besides, there is growing belief that the youngsters are hungrier with a keener desire to impress.
In all, it was a bad loss but, oddly, a necessary one. It means that the “champion designate” status that many were already beginning to ascribe to Arsenal is placed in proper, reality perspective. The team has been reminded of the quite significant heights that their performances will need to attain match day after match day for this level of success.
It seems, nevertheless, certain that Arsenal will be in for a much better return on its endeavours this season than in any of the last eight especially with the return of the injured players like Podoski, Walcott and Oxlade-Chamberlain.
If the quite unlucky Abou Diaby – easily one of the most talented players at the football club – and a striker were to arrive at the turn of Christmas, it may be difficult for the other teams to finish ahead of Arsenal.
image: © Ronnie Macdonald