Arsenal succumbs meekly to United
Sir Alex Ferguson opted yet again to pack the midfield against Arsenal
Arsene Wenger surprisingly opted to use Samir Nasri on the wing and not centrally
Arsenal never threatened and at times appeared to be lacking passion
Past performance might not be a guarantee of future results, but it is a pretty good guide to how Arsenal will get on. Since the beginning of 2009, it has played 11 games against Manchester United and Chelsea, losing 10 and drawing one, and even that was in a game United needed only to draw to seal the title. That narrative of Arsenal's failure merged on Monday (in a 1-0 loss to United) with the narrative of United's season so far: Sir Alex Ferguson's side has now gone a club record 16 games unbeaten from the start of the season, and once again it got the result without playing especially well.
As ever against Arsenal, Ferguson's policy was to pack midfield. The partnership between Dimitar Berbatov and Wayne Rooney has clicked anew in recent weeks, but the Bulgarian -- for the sixth game in a row against Arsenal -- was left out as Sir Alex Ferguson switched from 4-4-2 to a 4-3-3-cum-4-5-1, with Michael Carrick sitting at the back of midfield and Darren Fletcher and Anderson used as attack-dogs to close down the Arsenal midfield. Anderson was the more forward-minded of the two and, in keeping with his radically improved recent form, had an excellent game, only a fine save from Wojciech Szczesny denying him a goal nine minutes into the second half.
The one goal came from Ji-Sung Park five minutes before halftime, and was typical of the difference between the sides. Brian Clough was obsessive in his belief that however good a goal, there would always be a mistake at the heart of it, even if it was a weak pass or a missed tackle a minute or two earlier. In the case of United's opener the initial mistake was Jack Wilshere's. As the United goalkeeper Edwin Van der Sar cleared, he allowed Fletcher to drift behind him, which in turn drew Laurent Koscielny out of the back four. Fletcher won the header, and flicked on for Rooney who laid it out to Nani. He cut inside Gael Clichy, who recovered sufficiently to get half a block on the cross, but Park -- to whom Sebastien Squillaci was not sufficiently tight -- was able to twist his neck to loop a superbly improvised header over Szczesny.
Squillaci, perhaps, was distracted by the need to readjust position as Koscielny raced back, while there must be questions as well about why Bacary Sagna didn't track Park's run. Every defense will have its own way of passing on responsibility for dealing with an opponent to his teammates as he tracks across marking zones; only Arsenal will know who was at fault, but the point is that three Arsenal defenders, plus the backtracking Alex Song, failed to get tight enough to a single opponent.
Slightly surprisingly, Arsenal began with Nasri wide on the right, away from the central areas in which he has been so effective this season. Perhaps Arsene Wenger that Arsenal would be bullied in midfield, as has happened so often in the past when the sides have met, and so opted for Song and Wilshere as two more muscular presences providing a platform for Tomas Rosicky. That, though, meant Nasri was barely involved because Arsenal never had sufficient control of possession to work the ball wide to him. Even in the second half, when Arsenal took its percentage of possession up to 55 percent, it was never able to generate the rhythm of the long skeins of passes that so often overwhelm opponents. It didn't help in that regard that Andrey Arshavin had such an ineffectual night, which meant United's midfield could leave him to Rafael without being overly concerned about providing additional cover. By the second half, in fact, the fullback was so dominant in that battle that he was surging forward to join United's attack.
Meeting United's midfield three with a (relatively) rugged three was as close to a negative move as Arsenal come. In a sense, it achieved its goal in that the first half was scruffy and unattractive, almost devoid of creative endeavor. In fact before half time 53 passes were misplaced in the final third -- 33 of them by Arsenal -- although that was at least as much to do with sloppiness as with particularly aggressive pressing. Arsene Wenger blamed the pitch and, given both sides struggled, he perhaps had a point.
That said, there is a carelessness that is consistently undermining Arsenal: laxity in possession, laxity in picking up opponents, laxity of thought. Perhaps it is simply lack of confidence, but irrespective of physique or tactics, too many players are not performing tasks that are well within their ability; at Old Trafford there was almost a resignation about their performance. That was typified after 56 minutes as Marouane Chamakh seemed diffident in attempting to reach the rebound as Van der Sar saved from Nasri, allowing Nemanja Vidic back to clear. Perhaps he slipped, perhaps the surface was to blame, but the Moroccan didn't exactly hurl himself at the loose ball. Is it appetite, desire, self-belief? It's hard to know, but it fitted the general pattern of Arsenal not quite doing enough.
Chamakh was quiet all night, snuffed out by Vidic and Rio Ferdinand, who in recent weeks, with both back to form and fitness, have been outstanding. The contrast with Arsenal's center-back pairing of Squillaci and Koscielny, who seem perpetually only a second from a gaffe, is striking, as was the relative effectiveness of Rooney, whose strength caused perpetual problems, even if he is still short of top form. There are those who would argue he is better playing alongside another striker, but since the 4-0 FA Cup win in 2008, when he destroyed William Gallas, he has made a habit of excelling as a lone striker against Arsenal.
Even after Cesc Fabregas and Robin van Persie had arrived in the second half to add extra attacking thrust, Arsenal rarely looked like breaking through, and the switch to a midfield three of Song, Fabregas and Nasri demonstrated why Wenger had preferred the extra power of Wilshere. Chasing the game opened Arsenal up, of course, but still it was alarming just how often Nani and Anderson found themselves with space to advance into. Gael Clichy, much criticized this season, did a decent job of stopping Nani given how frequently he was isolated against him, and was unlucky to concede the penalty when the ball hit his arm after he had fallen.
Most worryingly for Arsenal, it not only didn't matter that Rooney blazed it over, but even with 18 minutes still to play, it never seemed like it would matter. They were extremely flat, and United was competent enough to take advantage.
Jonathan Wilson is the author of Inverting the Pyramid; Behind the Curtain; Sunderland: A Club Transformed; and The Anatomy of England.