This is precisely what I was forced to ask myself as soon as the full-time whistle was blown at Old Trafford last night. Actually, scratch that. The fact is that I was asking myself this question throughout the 90 minutes of football that witnessed the Gunners get outplayed thoroughly by Manchester United.
No, it’s not that Arsenal’s performance was downright terrible. It was actually passable. Unfortunately, passable is not going to cut it in this league anymore, particularly when the opponent happens to be the most powerful force in English football.
Therefore, the fact that Manchester United won 1-0 after executing an excellent game plan to perfection came as no surprise. They are unbeaten in the Premier League this season and at home, they have gotten into a habit of dominating from start to finish.
However, United’s discipline does not absolve Arsenal of their fair share of blame. Neither does it mean that the North Londoners can dismiss the defeat as dropping merely three points. The fact is that on Monday night, the problem lied with Arsenal’s approach, which is clearly something that is poised to come back and haunt them for the rest of the season.
The last time the Gunners won against the Red Devils – or even played with the required level of confidence – seems like ages ago and United full-back Patrice Evra even sent them this harsh reminder by openly taunting them about it. Essentially, Evra did everything that was needed to motivate Arsenal to go all-out for a win as soon as they arrived in Manchester.
The visitors’ reaction, to say the least, was shockingly below par. In-form play-maker Samir Nasri looked out of his element and his supporting cast was also shut down convincingly by United’s airtight back four. To make matters worse, Arsenal’s offensive energy was almost non-existent, which is a major cause for concern when seeking three points on the road.
By starting Jack Wilshere and Andrey Arshavin over Theo Walcott and Robin van Persie, Wenger made a tactical mistake that became too late to repair in the second half. That is not to say that a one-goal deficit was impossible for Arsenal’s quality substitutes to overturn.
At the same time, though, it is difficult to argue that it was too late for them to cause any real problems for a United defense that had settled into a perfect rhythm. Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand once again formed a partnership that proved to be too formidable to break.
The only chance Arsenal’s attack ever had to threaten them was to apply some pressure early on. And van Persie could have made a big difference had he started along with Marouane Chamakh up front. The latter was struggling in his first outing at the Theatre of Dreams and the support of a seasoned partner was exactly what he needed.
Instead, all he had to work with was the inexperience of Wilshere and the ineffectiveness of Arshavin. For all his buckets of talent, Wilshere just did not belong in this game as a starter. This is the kind of game he needs to watch from the bench, particularly since the Gunners were away from home at a very a difficult venue.
The atmosphere clearly overwhelmed the young England international midfielder and he never quite managed to impact the game. I am aware that Monsieur Wenger has invested an incredible amount of faith in his youth and the way he values the contribution of all his talent is exemplary for the likes of Newcastle and Manchester City.
But by benching a fully fit van Persie and starting an extra midfielder who has so little experience playing at the highest level, Wenger proved Evra’s claim about Arsenal being akin to a training center absolutely right.
Excluding Walcott from the starting line-up proved to be equally costly. The skill-set of Arshavin and Tomas Rosicky is quite similar, and yet, both were inserted into the line-up. Walcott, who brings a different dimension to the table, offers a superior alternative to Arshavin’s inconsistency at the moment.
The Russian is clearly a more complete player but he is barely a shadow of what he was last season as fatigue continues to hold him back. Therefore, bringing him off the bench would have been a more appropriate move as far as I am concerned.
Nevertheless, it is too late to ponder over the potential of strategic decisions that cannot be overturned now. If it helps Arsenal feel any better, at least two pieces of good news came out of the fixture. For starters, skipper Cesc Fabregas returned to action and more importantly, young goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny turned out to be mighty impressive between the sticks in the absence of the injured Lukasz Fabianski.
For more good news – the kind that lives in trophy cabinets, to be exact – the Gunners will have to search deeper. They have now lost five games en route to surrendering their lead atop the Barclays Premier League table and during this stretch, they have lost three out of four against their direct title rivals.
It’s still better late than never to digest this bitter truth and confront it with aggression. As Frank Lampard stated after Chelsea’s 1-1 draw against the Spurs, one point was not the most important take-away from White Hart Lane on Sunday. Instead, the biggest reason for the Blues to feel confident moving forward is the relentless aggression with which they played under immense pressure.
So, there you have it. Losing a massive fixture against a direct rival is not just about giving up three points because in such ultra-competitive times, the psychological edge counts for a lot.
Arsenal’s failure to deliver against Chelsea, Tottenham, and United has therefore left them with a huge psychological disadvantage, particularly considering that they could be drawn against the likes of Barcelona or Real Madrid in Friday’s draw for the knock-out stages of the UEFA Champions League.