The margin was really thin between Arsenal and Manchester United on Sunday. However, clinical finishing gave the Red Devils a 1-0 victory at Old Trafford. Van Persie converted his only chance of the match while Giroud failed to test De Gea despite some favorable situations. The Gunners still have a two-point lead atop the Premier League while Manchester is back in the title race by narrowing the gap to five points.
In a tactical match, the Red Devils denied space by keeping a compact shape in midfield with Kagawa and Valencia often drifting inside. Rooney and Van Persie pressed high up the pitch to prevent Arsenal from developing plays and their defensive contribution paid off as Arteta, Ramsey, Ozil and Giroud made some sloppy passes. Manchester’s only weakness on Sunday was on the flanks. But whenever the Gunners had the ball, the passing options were limited since they played with no established winger.
Arsenal produced a good defensive performance despite Mertesacker’s absence because of illness. Vermaelen was the only question mark in the starting lineup. His average positional play has turned Vermaelen into a second choice. But on Sunday, Vermaelen showed no sign of his lack of complementarity with Koscielny. The Franco-Belgian duo conceded only one clear-cut chance to the Red Devils. When Kagawa won a header in the 60th minute, Vermaelen’s interception fell into the path of Van Persie, forcing Koscielny to make an awkward clearance. Rooney got hold of the ball and skipped past Sagna but dragged his shot wide.
Manchester started the match with more energy than the Gunners. Rooney capitalized on a short spell of domination in the 10th to fire a speculative low drive that took a deflection off Arteta, but Szczesny made the save. The Red Devils lacked inspiration in open play, so they did the damage on a set piece. Van Persie took advantage of Arsenal’s zonal marking to head home a corner from Rooney in the 27th. Ironically, Bould and Wenger introduced zonal marking because of the team’s poor defensive display on set pieces in the past seasons. But Manchester’s goal showed one obvious flaw in that tactic.
An unmarked Van Persie made his run from the 18-yard line and beat Giroud and Vermaelen to the ball because his speed gave him a better jump while Giroud and Vermaelen were static. You can’t give 10 yards to a world-class player like Van Persie. A better approach would have been to mix zonal marking with man-marking. Leave Giroud on the six-yard line but put Vermaelen in front of Van Persie so that he can slow down the Dutch striker’s run. The Red Devils nearly doubled the lead from another set piece in the 81st. Smalling was left unmarked at the far post by Bendtner but could only head wide a free kick from Van Persie.
Manchester won the match but it was less threatening than Liverpool the previous weekend. In fact, Arsenal overcame a poor start to create more chances than the hosts. A Giroud header over the bar was the only goal attempt from the Gunners in the first half. But in the second half, Arsenal had enough room for an equalizer. Flamini released Ozil down the right flank in the 47th and the Germany playmaker set up Ramsey, who controlled the ball before having his shot blocked.
Arsenal’s best play came in the 51st when Ozil and Giroud swapped passes in the heart of the Manchester defense. It was almost reminiscent of Wilshere’s goal against Norwich. Ozil played Giroud in, but for whatever reason the Frenchman stopped running. The Germany playmaker escaped marking in the 58th to control a cross from Sagna but could only fire into the side-netting from 10 yards. Ozil’s goalscoring record is not good enough for such a talented player. It may take him some time to fit in, but he must at least catch the frame in that kind of situation.
The Gunners created their best chances from the right wing as Evra and Kagawa started tiring. Sagna whipped a pinpoint cross in the 73rd, but neither Gibbs nor Giroud could head the ball from close range. Wenger shifted to a 4-4-2 system by replacing Cazorla with Bendtner in the 78th and Arteta with Gnabry in the 82nd to put more pressure on the Manchester defense. Gnabry slipped the ball to Giroud in the 83rd. The France striker created some space with a dummy but lacked pace to prevent Smalling from clearing the danger. The following minute, Giroud fired a spinning shot that deflected off Jones to sail wide. In stoppage time, Sagna made another good cross but Bendtner was too slow at the far post to put a foot on the ball. You can’t help but think that Walcott would have tortured an aging Evra with his pace. Unfortunately, the England winger was still recovering from an abdominal strain on Sunday.
Arsenal had to deal with a tough run of fixtures in a 13-day span. It lost to Chelsea and Manchester United but defeated Liverpool and Borussia Dortmund. That’s a decent record given our depleted squad. Manchester had a slight advantage going into the match as it got one more day of rest than the Gunners. Arsenal spent a lot of energy to beat Dortmund on Nov. 6 while the Red Devils split the points with a weaker side, Real Sociedad, on Nov. 5. That can help explain the Gunners’ poor first half at Old Trafford.
The main conclusion we can draw from this loss is that Arsenal needs more striking options to seriously contend for the title. The Gunners have not scored in the Premier League for the first time since April against Everton, then managed by Moyes. Giroud’s fitness, Ramsey’s form and outstanding team play have helped conceal that weakness. But I’m sure the manager will be relieved to have Walcott and Podolski back in the squad after the international break since Arsenal needs freshness in the final third and therefore rotation to score.
Photo credit: Associated Press