Arsene Wenger hasn’t just clambered up to the moral high ground — he’s having a picnic there.
A day after Jose Mourinho and Chelsea imploded at Upton Park, revealing all the game’s ugliest parts, Arsenal’s biggest title rivals, Manchester City and Manchester United, played out a turgid, uninspiring goalless draw at Old Trafford, leaving the Gunners looking rosy.
Manchester City replace Arsenal at the top of the league, on goal difference, and there’s no doubt Manuel Pellegrini will be happier with the result, even though United edged it in terms of performance. But this last seven days — described by Wenger as a ‘perfect week’ — have belonged to the north London club.
You would place Arsenal top of the table right now, in terms of momentum, in terms of their development as a team, in terms of playing the most attractive, entertaining football and even — if you can overlook two miserable performances in the Champions League — in terms of consistency. So if Wenger, who regularly tells us his team have accumulated more points in the whole of 2015 than anyone else, is feeling a little smug, then you could understand why.
Neither City nor United were hugely disappointed with a clean sheet and a point — not as disappointed as the millions watching across the world on television — but in the longer term they may look at it as an opportunity missed. That is particularly so for United, who are still trying to define their style under Louis van Gaal, and who have not yet convinced us that they are ready for a title challenge. This was an opportunity to prove a point; but they didn’t, despite winning one.
There were chances to snatch victory at the death — in particular for young Jesse Lingard, one of United’s brighter sparks on the day — but it still feels like there’s something missing at Old Trafford; that little bit of creative magic to win the very biggest games; that self-belief that used to make them so dangerous in ‘Fergie time’, but which has deserted them.
On this occasion, United fans got honesty and endeavour from their heroes — as personified by Wayne Rooney’s determined defending in his own box in the last 10 minutes — but not the attacking verve and ruthless finishing they have been so used to in the past. Not even, in truth, the progressive, pacy passing that has been United’s calling card for years.
Even the arrival of Marouane Fellaini, for van Gaal’s infamous Plan B, in the final moments, wasn’t enough to spark victory against a City team who also showed a different side to their normal psyche. This was a solid, organised display, with some defensive highlights — Vincent Kompany and Joe Hart, as usual, were crucial — but they lacked ambition, especially in the second-half.
That’s strange, because a City victory might have pushed United out of the title race, delivering the kind of psychological blow that a new, fragile team may find it difficult to recover from. But there was no real desire or determination to deliver it.
Both teams set up to cancel out each other, rather than to take the bull — and the title race — by the horns. The first-half was so poor — with little space to work and many misplaced passes — that all there was to enjoy was the attritional atmosphere in the stands. But not even that translated into passionate action on the pitch. As BBC pundit, Mark Lawrenson, rather cutely pointed out, the game was more thud and blunder than blood and thunder.
Even City captain, Kompany, recalled to the team, admitted it wasn’t a thriller, as he settled for a point: “I don’t know how it looked from the outside, but it didn’t feel like a dynamic derby. Both teams looked defensively solid.” They did, but you need more than that to win a title – and in United’s case to convince everyone you are in the race in the first place. For both teams this was an opportunity missed; and, despite the table, Arsenal may well feel they have the upper ground.
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