Monday, December 13, 2010

Same old story for sorry Gunners

Same old story for sorry Gunners

December 13, 2010

This was deja vu all over again. It was Manchester United's 3-1 win at Emirates Stadium in January. It was both legs of the 2009 Champions League semi-final. It was many a match over recent seasons. It was the latest in a list of occasions when the blueprint that is stored in Sir Alex Ferguson's mental filing cabinet was brought out and deployed again.

Arsenal's players look dejected after going a goal down
PA PhotosArsenal have become worryingly accustomed to losing to their title rivals in recent seasons

It involves flooding the midfield and breaking quickly to support Wayne Rooney, who scurries around in attack. It is 4-3-2-1, matching up and closing down in the centre of the pitch, looking to expose Arsenal's full backs with swift surges on their flanks. With uncanny regularity, it entails starring roles for the same men.

For the third successive season, Park Ji-Sung has scored against Arsenal which, given his six-season United career has only included 22 goals, suggests they are his bunnies. Nani, who emerged from a cold of seemingly Siberian proportions to excel at the Emirates ten months earlier, dominated his duel with Gael Clichy. Anderson and Darren Fletcher lent a tigerish aggression to their activities in the midfield. Even Michael Carrick played his part. Each must loom large in Arsenal imaginations because, however they fare against others, they out-gun the Gunners.

And while there was a time when the division's two most distinguished managers were barely on speaking terms, now it seems Ferguson has Arsene Wenger's number. In reclaiming the lead of the Premier League, his side reasserted their authority.

"In these major games, you have to perform," Ferguson said, "and I think we did tonight, particularly in the first half, we played very, very well." Wenger didn't quite concur. "Man United played a very simple game but very efficient," he said. "On both sides you have seen technical mistakes because of the pitch."

The Frenchman shied away from more sweeping conclusions, saying "I am here only to analyse one game", but the fear for Arsenal must be that it is Groundhog Year. Improving against others, they nonetheless hit a brick wall when they encounter Chelsea or United, seeming to lack the brawn to halt Didier Drogba, their other nemesis, and the brain to plot a path over, around or through Ferguson's team.

It is those failings, as much as questions of personnel, that threaten to derail another title bid. The selection of a novice in goal, 20-year-old Wojciech Szczesny, went from risk to minor detail. The Premier League debutant, preferred to his compatriot Lukasz Fabianski, was blameless in a switch that showcased Wenger's faith in youth.

Indeed, the more significant choice was Ferguson's. The outcome showed that omitting the man who had scored five goals in his last league game, Dimitar Berbatov, was no miscarriage of justice. It was bold, but merely the application of a tried-and-trusted formula that entailed three central midfielders and a solitary striker.

In the absence of the division's top scorer, Park proved the goal. "He likes scoring against Arsenal," Rio Ferdinand noted. "His record against Arsenal is very good," added Ferguson, for whom previous ranks as a factor when he picks the team. It improved, too. When Nani's cross was deflected off Gael Clichy, the South Korean's response was almost a reflex reaction, but beautifully controlled nonetheless. Leaning backwards, he looped his header over the stranded Szczesny.

The newcomer then made a terrific stop to thwart Anderson; Nani, narrowly wide with a half-volley in the first half, was wastefully over with a better chance in the second.

Wayne Rooney sends his penalty over the bar following a handball from Gael Clichy
PA PhotosWayne Rooney sends his penalty over the bar following a handball from Gael Clichy

Another was more profligate. When Gael Clichy was rather harshly penalised for handball ("that's still a mystery," Wenger said), Rooney walloped his spot kick into the Stretford End. "It was an unusual penalty," said Ferguson diplomatically. His best-paid player almost succeeded in audacious attempt to lob the young Pole thereafter, but Luke Varney still has five times as many Premier League goals as him.

There was a tameness to Arsenal's attacks, with one notable exception. Nemanja Vidic executed an outstanding block from Marouane Chamakh's shot, though it may have missed the target anyway, after Edwin van der Sar had parried Samir Nasri's effort into the Moroccan's path.

"We didn't create enough chances, our passing was not quick and sharp enough to get them out of position," Wenger added. "They were highly focused tonight not to make a defensive mistake."

No error materialised in another defiant display. "The back four were magnificent," Ferguson added. Plus ca change, as Wenger might say.

MAN OF THE MATCH: Anderson. A stop-start United career appears back on track. The Brazilian hassled and harried with energy and supported Rooney enthusiastically. Arsenal seem to bring out the best in him.

MANCHESTER UNITED VERDICT: They were impressive in most departments. The one exception was Van der Sar, who didn't need to excel. It will be interesting if Ferguson adopts the same approach, and keeps Berbatov in reserve again, for Sunday's trip to Chelsea. He, Ryan Giggs and, if fit, Paul Scholes may struggle to displace anyone.

ARSENAL VERDICT: The disappointment may be that, for all their attacking talent, they only managed one chance of note. Perhaps the game came too soon for Cesc Fabregas, who made his comeback as a substitute, and Robin van Persie, who has not been fully reintegrated into the team after his long lay-off but, of those selected ahead of them, Tomas Rosicky was ineffectual and Andrei Arshavin below his best. The recurring question - do they need another centre-back? - remains after an evening when Vidic and Ferdinand appeared a class above Laurent Koscielny and Sebastien Squillaci.