Following embarrassing early season defeats for Spurs at home to Man City and Arsenal at Old Trafford, Sky Sports decided that not only was this ‘Super Sunday’, this was Revenge day. Tossers.
I’m sure that almost anyone that follows football closely would have predicted tough win for the Manchester sides in both fixtures, given form and resources.
In the end, Man City won with a last minute penalty against a fluid but slightly lightweight spurs side, conceded by the usually excellent Ledley King (about as obvious a penalty as you’ll ever see). Neither team was convincing at the back, and both relied on individual errors or skill to score. In the end it was City’s superior attacking resources that settled it, being able to bring the never dull Balotelli off the bench. Indeed Spurs’ best striker was unable to play, being on loan from the Oil-fueled player stockpile at City. An exciting game, with a generally high quality, but one can’t help comparing both sides unfavourably to Mourinho’s Chelsea, Ferguson’s great Utd sides or Wenger’s title winning teams.
That said, Chelsea yesterday became the first team not to score against Norwich this season, despite their oligarch funded line-up, and Utd and Arsenal played out a fixture that illustrated how both teams have declined (sadly for me the North Londoners more than the Mancunians).
Ultimately it was the superior pace, confidence and squad depth of Utd that settle the game. Both teams have been cruelly hit by injuries in different positions this year, and the major difference in the match was the quality of Utd’s wingers against Arsenal’s 6th and 7th choice full-backs. A feature of all Ferguson’s successful teams has been quality wingers supported by attacking full-backs, and at present Arsenal’s greatest weaknesses are out wide, with injuries exacerbated by Gervinho being in Equatorial Guinea for the African Cup of Nations (Drogba got the winner in their opener against Sudan), Walcott’s complete loss of early season form, and Arshavin’s dramatic decline. It’s very frustrating for Arsenal fans, as having finally got his team a decent spine after 4 years, Wenger suddenly finds himself with a lack of quality wide attacking players.
A reflection of this was the rare start afforded to Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, the comparative vibrancy of his contribution (a good assist for another quality Van Persie goal), the crowd and team mate reactions at his substitution, and the immediately negative outcome of his departure (though credit must go to Ferguson for taking Rafael off in favour of moving Valencia to wing-back).
The young Englishman’s work-rate, fearlessness and general link play were the primary bright spots in the game for Arsenal, along with the general excellence of the ever improving Laurent Koscielny and vastly superior second half showing. The fact that our attacking play was immediately blunted by ‘The Ox’s’ withdrawal, and that Manchester Utd’s winner came as a direct result of positional disorganisation and his replacement, Arshavin’s comparative lack of pace and strength hardly helped the Manager’s unpopular decision. Though Wenger reacted spikily to criticism, he was forced to admit the winning goal was due to a ‘tactical error’.
The concept of a tactical error by Le Prof is hardly news to Arsenal fans…to quote an online acquaintance after the game “Wenger’s genius was always in the transfer market, especially in raiding the French market and other more obscure leagues which weren’t heavily scouted by others in his early years, but now that advantage has gone he’s unable to cherrypick the best talent at cheap prices and is left with a squad devoid of enough quality to paper over the tactical and organisational inadequacies that have always been part of his managerial make-up.”
We’ve all known tactics and drilling discipline are his weakness for over 10 years, so the wailing and gnashing of teeth of the fan base on this one is bit after the horse has bolted. I suppose its a bit like my complaining about Premier League refs. They’ve always been largely northern and indulgent towards more agricultural football, and in awe of Liverpool and Utd, so the being ‘cheated’ out of 6-12 points a season (see previous post) is old news.
The fact is, since the last great Arsenal side, the manager made some gambles using the breathing space success afforded him, which made sense at the time looking long-term, but have been undermined by his illogical faith in those players who hadn’t shown enough to merit it, his natural inclination for parsimony and the unforseeable emergence of the oligarchs. Now anyone he goes for of top quality will also be tracked by Utd, City, Chelsea, Spurs, Madrid, Barca, PSG, Inter, Milan and maybe Juve, not to mention Mayern and Dortmund. It very nearly worked for him in 2008, where Arsenal were walking the league until injuries hit the entire front line, not only ruining the season for the gunners, but also ultimately the prime of the careers of Thomas Rosicky and Eduardo, not to mention the overt tapping up of Hleb and Flamini pouring petrol on the disharmony in the squad ignited by the exacting standards of William Gallas.
So while Utd and City fight it out, and Spurs attempt to maintain their form to hold onto third place, where does this leave Arsenal, apart from falling behind in the race for fourth?
As has so often been the case in recent years, Arsenal have a nucleus of 15 or so top quality players, but the rest are unproven or are not earning their pay packet. If they can get their injured players (Wilshere, Sagna, Gibbs, Arteta etc) back, another good run like that from mid-September to early December is entirely possible, assuming there are no other major injuries. If they do not, the already likely departure of Van Persie will become a certainty, and the club may struggle to retain Song given his short contract, and even the over-rated Walcott. If that were the case, it may seem a logical time for the manager to fall on his sword and allow the task of creating another largely new team to a younger and less philosophically entrenched man. Personally, I hope he manages to keep the team in the top 4, and has one last crack before his contract expires in 2014, as I believe he has over the last 9 months seen the need to cull and renew the stale and under-powered squad he created between 2008 and 2011. If he has any sense he will try to bring in an attacking player over the next 9 days, to re-invigorate the squad if nothing else. Either that or bite the bullet and throw the likes of Oxlade-Chamberlain and Miyaichi into the fray more often, and hope their fearlessness gives the older players a lift.
On a final thought, I am very disappointed by the lack of coverage of any of the African Cup of Nations on terestial television. Once again the BBC goes backwards.