I have deliberately stayed away from every football website and blog in the aftermath of last night’s 1-0 defeat to Manchester United with the hope of providing an uninfluenced account of the game.
First things first I don’t believe we deserved to win the game and given the statistics and the quality of United’s defensive performance I have to admit they did enough to warrant a victory. Just like at Old Trafford last season our opponents played relatively poorly but unlike that game, we did not play anywhere near the top of our game in an attacking sense.
So on this night when I expected our boys to make their defining statement to the rest of the Premier League, what went wrong?
For starters, we failed to create many decent chances. Perhaps only one, when Samir Nasri’s effort was parried by Edwin van der Sar and Marouane Chamakh’s follow-up was blocked, could be considered a genuine opportunity. United created very little as well: their rather fortunate goal was from one of two decent chances they created in the first half while I can only remember another couple, including Wayne Rooney’s missed penalty in the second.
We were not torn apart on the counter-attack as in previous matches against United and Chelsea as I believe Arsene Wenger was extremely aware of this happening and adjusted his side to protect against it. Rarely did any of the midfield trio — Tomas Rosicky, Jack Wilshere or Alex Song — take any real risks to push forward and create an extra man in attack, such was the fear that United would simply nick the ball and race down to the other end.
In short, in an attacking sense, to accommodate for United’s strength on the counter attack I felt we played without courage. We set up a solid base in defence — in my mind Laurent Koscielny and Sebastien Squillaci were superb, on par with Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic — but our passing in the midfield lacked fluidity and our willingness to get forward was extremely stunted in the first half.
In a defensive sense I felt our balance on the flanks was wrong and it gave Nani, the player with the most assists in the Premier League, far too much space to go at Gael Clichy. The Frenchman is hardly the best one-on-one defender and to his credit he put in absolutely everything to stop Nani, but the fact is that the space afforded to him on right lead to most of their attacking opportunities, including the goal.
Andrey Arshavin had a poor game in an attacking sense, which was frustrating, but the real disappointment was Wenger’s inability to create a defensive system that focused on stopping Nani play. Should Nasri, a player who is in great attacking form but has far better defensive awareness than Arshavin, have been switched over to the left to help Clichy out? Alternatively, should Wenger have instructed Song, who was quite frankly poor in this game, to focus his attention on the right side of Manchester United’s attack to create less space for Nani? I think so.
There is a real gulf in quality between our two flanks at the moment. The most damning indication of that is that the flank that we looked more defensively-secure, the right, was also the one that we created most of our chances from.
One of the disappointments of the game was the lack of influence that Nasri, a player in the form of his life, had on the game. Although it is impossible to confirm from watching the game on TV, my thought was that he was getting man-marked tightly by Patrice Evra and often covered by an extra midfielder to nullify his influence on the game. Some may criticise his peripheral role in the game but by maintaining his width on the right and occupying two players for most of the game, he created space in the middle of the pitch for other players to work with. Unfortunately, as I already indicated, none of our midfielders were able to capitalise on this.
For a 15-minute period of the second half we raised the level of our attack to something closer to our best as Nasri and Arshavin began to drift, Chamakh continued to work hard up front and Wilshere began to move into more dangerous positions. Amazingly, just as we started to buzz in the midfield Wenger removed two fleet-footed players in Wilshere and Rosicky, replaced them with the less fluid, more technical Cesc Fabregas and Robin van Persie and changed our system to 4-4-2.
I thought this was a bad move at the time and when a clearly unfit Fabregas began to hit wayward balls and van Persie drifted far too deep to get involved in the play, my negative feelings were justified. Neither player added anything to the game and I thought it was a poor decision by the manager, born out of hope that our two players with the biggest reputation could provide a match-saving intervention.
In the end Manchester United managed to stifle our attacking play and did just enough to win this game. We were punished for playing a system that sacrificed our attacking creativity to nullify their counter-attacking threat, but even more so for getting the balance wrong on the wings and leaving Nani to run riot against an unfortunate Clichy.
The bright spots from this performance was the competent Premier League debut of Wojciech Sczcesny in goals, Koscielny’s superb man-marking effort on Rooney in the centre, Sagna’s flawless performance on the right-hand side of defence and Chamakh’s tireless movement and workrate up front. All four were standout performers in a scrappy, muddled game that favoured both defences and never saw us reach our creative potential.
I said before the game that this game was not about the points, it was about belief. In that regard it was extremely disappointing to watch our team fail to play to their potential and take the significant step forward that we all hoped they would. We will get another chance in a fortnight’s time at home against Chelsea and before then, our victorious opponents from last night also play the struggling league champions.
There’s a long way to go in this topsy-turvy season but this was another opportunity to make a statement missed.
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