“We’ll be punished if we play like this on Saturday.” It’s not often the crowd at the Emirates grumbles in agreement, but that was the general sentiment in N5 just before 9pm last Wednesday.
Having strolled to an early one-goal advantage against Huddersfield, Arsenal were doing their utmost to gift the visitors an equaliser. Time and time again we casually ceded possession in dangerous parts of the pitch triggering counter attacks that left our defence brutally exposed. For 20 minutes either side of the break, Petr Cech’s goal led a charmed life.
Then, in the blink of an eye, Wenger’s jazzers, led by Mesut Ozil, found their rhythm again. Three goals in four minutes settled the nerves and a further strike, with three minutes remaining, added a gloss to a typically Jekyll and Hyde performance.
It’s churlish to suggest that it wasn’t enjoyable to watch. All the more so given it was our 15th consecutive home win. Many however, Arsene Wenger included, left the stadium concerned about the lack of focus and loss of urgency in the meat of the match.
Within 15 minutes of kick-off against Manchester United, those concerns were laid bare. It was so predictable, so horribly predictable.
On a checklist of things not to do against Jose Mourinho sides, conceding an early goal probably makes up the first 20 pages of any manager’s scribbled notes. So naturally, we gave them two. And just for good measure, we laid them on a silver platter.
Koscielny’s wafted cross-field pass to Valencia in the build-up to United’s first goal was Xhaka-esque in its sloppiness. Seven touches of the ball later, the net rippled. Should the ball be going through Cech’s legs like that? Probably not. He faced a similar situation on Wednesday and made the save.
As for the second, I’m still at a loss as to why Mustafi was dallying on the ball under pressure from Lingard. It was particularly galling because the German has been in excellent form in recent weeks. I wanted to slap him with a wet fish. Perhaps he sensed that, because he immediately asked to be substituted.
We’ll never know, but I’m almost certain if the ball hadn’t ended up in the back of the net he might have stayed on the pitch. His departure smacked more of hurt pride than injury. “I don’t know what’s wrong with him at all,” was Wenger’s take on the issue after the game. Make of that what you will…
With the game gone, we decided to make a fist of it. Our passing was fluid, our movement off the ball was dynamic, we crunched into tackles, won second balls, created chances and really should have scored at least once before half-time. I liked Iwobi’s energy and Ramsey’s lung-bursting runs, Ozil was talismanic and Lacazette showed a new-found physicality on and off the ball. The only under-performer was Alexis and even he played the delicious pass that helped Ramsey set up Lacazette to make it 2-1.
We played very well. I can’t go so far as to say that we were excellent, you need to convert more than one of your 33 shots on goal for that, but the action was certainly riveting and the crowd stayed supportive even after the away side’s third.
We craved a miracle, but the miraculous was reserved for the unbelievable David de Gea. 14 saves! I can’t recall seeing a better goalkeeping performance.
In the end, the way the game panned out, the fact we went down so early, then gamely attempted to claw our way back before ultimately coming up short…well, it was just very Arsenal. Wenger sides in the post-Invincibles era are excellent at heroic defeats and this was up there with the best of them. Does that make it any less frustrating? Absolutely not.
Upcoming fixtures with Southampton, West Ham and Newcastle present us with immediate opportunities to repair some of the damage – we might have been one point behind United and instead we’re seven – but the real hope is that we learn from yesterday’s mistakes. We can’t afford not to.
I fully believe this team can finish in the top four this season but it won’t if it soils the sheets against Liverpool and Chelsea in the coming weeks.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved