Following hot on the heels of the Huddersfield match (https://football-nerd.org/2017/12/01/an-arsenal-nerds-diary-6-games-7-including-a-trip-to-orient-in-23-days-part-one/), a mere 3 days later, was the visit of our one time rival Manchester United.
Match 2 – Arsenal vs Manchester United Saturday 2nd December 2017. KO: 17:30
Once upon a time this was a game that leapt out of the calendar at you; it always seemed to be the case that the outcome of this fixture and the corresponding one at Old Trafford went a long way to determining the destination of the League title. However those days are long gone. First it was Arsenal that fell away, but in more recent times, since Fergie called it a day, United have failed to mount a creditable title challenge and actually have only finished in the top four just once in the four seasons. Despite this, Arsenal however have continued to struggle in these matches, winning only twice in eight games since the canny Scot departed the scene, the most recent of those being when United had prioritised the Europa League at the tail end of last season. So it was with the usual trepidation that I made my way up to the Emirates for this early evening kick off.
These Saturday evening kick-offs always feel strange, you have more time at home on the day itself and end up travelling when the normal programme of matches is underway, but at least it means you can spend the time before the match seeing the scores come in from around the country.
As increasingly seems to be the way of things at the Emirates the crowd was somewhat subdued in the build-up, understandable given Arsenal’s unpredictability in these matches against the top team in the Premier League. For every flash in the pan, mesmerising and completely unexpected destruction of the opposition, there is also the propensity for us to lie down and hand the game to our visitors by essentially beating ourselves. Unfortunately, but not unsurprisingly, this game was going to fall into the latter category.
To add to my discomfort United won the toss and opted to turn us round and make us play towards the North Bank, something that for no rational reason whatsoever I hate and view as a conspiracy by the opposition to wind me up.
Over recent weeks Arsène Wenger has highlighted his team’s improved solidity at the back, the Gunners having conceded just one goal at home in the league since the opening day free for all against Leicester City; so it was almost inevitable that our defence would implode in spectacular fashion in this game.
With only three minutes on the clock, and with sizeable numbers of the crowd still arriving as is the tradition at the Emirates, the normally dependable skipper Koscielny played an underhit pass straight to Valencia, who exchanged passes with Pogba and then fired calmly through the legs of both Monreal and Cech to give United a lead they hardly needed to work for.
Before the quarter hour mark the Gunners’ defence gifted United another opportunity, this time Mustafi dwelling too long on the ball looking for a pass out from the back but finding only Lukaku, and after some quick inter-passing Jesse Lingard was on hand to turn the ball home, a just reward for the pressure he had exerted on our back line. Both goals begged the question of whatever happened to a safety first approach at the back? The shock of being harassed on the ball was severe enough to see Mustafi depart the scene due to injury, his replacement Iwobi a clear statement of intention from our increasingly maligned manager.
Although I hadn’t been majorly optimistic going into the game, in truth I never am in these big matches given Arsenal’s continued decline, here I was with that familiar sinking realisation in the pit of my stomach that we had already blown the game. Curiously however, either because United sat deeper under instruction from their arch pragmatist of a manager or because Arsenal found a way to step up their game, the game changed completely. It was now our team that was on the front foot, seemingly able to carve out chances far too easily against a team that is supposed be highly drilled defensively. It was only a combination of excellent goalkeeping from De Gea, misfortune and wasteful finishing that was keeping the ball out of the net and preventing us from getting back into the game. As it was we went in at the break still trailing by those two early goals but at least encouraged that we might get something to give us hope in the second half.
Sure enough, four minutes after the interval Lacazette did what Lacazette does and slotted home after being set up by Ramsey. From our vantage point at the far end it seemed for all the world as if the pair of them were offside and I can’t have been alone in fixing my eyes pleadingly on the linesman. To my amazement the flag stayed down and, rightly as it turned out, the goal was allowed to stand.
Anyone who has ever witnessed Arsenal chasing an equalizer in person, will know just how capable this team are of throwing all caution to the wind and going completely gung-ho; committing more players forward and being seemingly oblivious to the threat of a counter attack. If you have seen it often enough you become skilled in spotting the starting point from even seemingly innocuous moments at the far end of the field. So it was when Jesse Lingard picked up the ball on halfway, played it out to Pogba who outmuscled his international colleague Koscielny and rolled the ball across goal for Lingard to easily claim his second. With that the little belief that had existed in the crowd evaporated completely as any hopes of a glorious comeback were extinguished.
United generously made life easier for their opponents with Pogba being removed as the result of a stamp on Bellerin, but you could see from their body language that the players had realised there was no way back.
Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose; once again Arsenal were found wanting when facing one of the big teams, having gained just one point out of twelve against the top four this season and five defeats out of our fifteen league games so far; you would have been hard-pushed to find anyone streaming out of the Emirates on Saturday evening with any great belief that we are truly a rival to the Manchester clubs or Chelsea. In all reality it looks like the best we can hope for is a fight with Liverpool and Spurs for fourth place. With the former coming to the Emirates at the end of this mini-run of games, the performance and result in that one may well tell us more about where we should focus our aspirations for the season.
Before then is the scintillating prospect of a Europa League dead rubber against the might of Belarus, in the form of BATE Borisov on Thursday night, I have a funny feeling I might be feeling slightly lonely given the number of season ticket holders likely to give this one a miss.