As ticket prices and wildly inconsistent performances show, Arsenal rarely exhibit much concern for the lowest common denominator that is their fanbase. On a ground where Wenger has previously triumphed in the most decisive of encounters – Ljungberg bustling and crashing his way past challenges, getting the shot away, and Wiltord ghosting through to slide in the rebound – his current team showed a shocking lack of composure, hunger, and invention to throw away a title advantage that had been gained only two weeks back with a last-gasp win over Leicester.
Losing to United at home is rarely a reason for outrage. However, in addition to the high-stakes nature of this game, further context is provided by the stop-start nature of their opponent’s season and the makeshift nature of their squad which faced Arsenal on Sunday. Marcus Rashford, a sprightly teen with a two-goal wind in his back from the Midtjylland game, was making his league debut. The centre back pairing comprised Michael Carrick and Daley Blind. The full backs were Varela, hardly first choice, and Rojo, who had to go off injured during the game. For Arsenal to face a side shorn of their spine and display such staggering ineptitude across the park is a damning indictment on the mental strength that Wenger often lauds and detractors frequently question.
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Marcus Ashford making his Premier League debut
While it is easy to say that Wenger should have bought more players in the summer (and he should have), it is also a touch facetious. Arsenal’s starting line-up yesterday was replete with quality and smacked of a clear game-plan– Gabriel and Koscielny in defense to handle the pace of the United attack, Coquelin as the defensive shield and Ramsey as the Duracell bunny in the midfield. Alexis, Welbeck, and Theo were in turn expected to lead the attack with energy and vigour. It was therefore not surprising to see the away side start the game on top as they enjoyed most of the possession of the ball while forcing De Gea into making a point-blank save from Monreal. But things soon went belly up for Arsene Wenger.
Walcott, who has been exasperatingly poor ever since returning from his injury, dribbled into trouble in his own half as United exchanged a series of quick passes in the midfield to launch a decisive counter-attack. The cross into the box was shabbily cleared by Gabriel and an unmarked Rashford swept the ball home. Two minutes later, Arsenal’s misery was compounded as Marcus Rashford found himself unmarked in the box again, heading home confidently past Cech’s flailing arm.
However, Manchester United’s youth product Danny Welbeck, who came to Arsenal’s rescue against Leicester, came good again as the he headed in from a quality dead ball delivered by Mesut Ozil.
Even with all the naiveté displayed in the first half, Arsenal started the second half with a 2-1 deficit and a real chance to claw things back. But coy and one dimensional in their attack, they sank more than stamped. When United broke after a failed Arsenal attack, Coquelin tracked back too deep and failed to mark the run of an oncoming Ander Herrera who deflected home United’s third goal in the afternoon.
Even though Mesut Ozil mishit a rebound into the net shortly afterwards to reduce the deficit again, Arsenal continued to remain ineffective against Louis van Gaal’s kids. With roughly 30 minutes left to draw the scores level and a title challenge on the line, Arsenal recorded just 2 shots on target, neither of them threatening. Too many players looked to others for inspiration, as too many players gave up, while too many players lost their heads. And too many times has this happened.
Bookies had pegged Arsenal as the favourites to win the title because Leicester and Tottenham hadn’t experienced a title chase before. There was an expectation that the two would eventually crack under pressure somewhere down the season. What is important to note is that, over the last decade, Arsenal have had only negative experiences with title run-ins. In some ways, a fresh title chase with a blank slate is preferable to a title chase while lugging suitcases filled with ghosts and skeletons of past failure. And so it is proving to be this season.
Looking at the points tally, Arsenal are still in with a mathematical whiff of a chance. If they beat Swansea and somehow turn over Spurs at White Hart Lane, then they will be right back in contention. So are the obituaries being penned a little premature? Well, there is ample precedence for it. Arsenal have followed a well-woven narrative over the seasons, and the knitting patterns currently manifesting themselves seem depressingly familiar. It’s a good sweater, but just not good enough.