30 August 2011

Arsenal’s Big Guns Spiked

As a lifelong Liverpool FC fan, I live a two-decade old pain of waiting for the title-drought to finally end. Not that there is ever a chance of my changing loyalties; but I will gladly accept more years of waiting rather than be an Arsenal fan of the present day.

Mind, I have been a Liverpool fan for more than forty years; and unless it happened in some obscure game played somewhere in the middle of the Antarctic, I do not recall that there was ever an occasion when any team slammed eight goals past a Liverpool goalkeeper in all these years that I followed the fortunes of the team.

If you are an Arsenal fan, perhaps you had better find something else to read or go turn on your EA Sports FIFA game where your beloved Gunners have not yet lost respectability. At Old Trafford last Sunday, this exactly was what Arsenal lost much more than the game itself.

Manchester United 8 Arsenal 2. That was what the electronic scoreboard said at the end of 90 minutes. It was not so much that United was good. Arsenal just laid down and died.

Often, you hear the Arsenal crowd singing – to the tune of the Village People’s hit song “Go West” – after the team opens scoring. If you cannot really make out what the faithful are singing, the words are “1-nil… to the Arsenal!” Never mind Arsene Wenger’s fluid passing philosophy, Arsenal’s pre-Arsene successes were built on practically unbreachable defences and swift counter-attacking football.

In fact, it was an Arsenal manager in the 1920s – Herbert Chapman – who is generally credited with modernizing football by introducing a third player into the backline. Yes, you read that right. In those days, the usual team formation was 2-3-5. By adding a third defensive player and pulling two forwards down to midfield, Chapman had his teams lining up in a 3-4-3 W-M formation.

Chants of “boring-boring Arsenal” reverberated in grounds around England; and Arsenal’s brand of football was regarded as negative. However, Chapman’s innovation gave Arsenal three consecutive titles in a row.

Down the years, Arsenal stuck to the philosophy of building atop a solid defence. “1-nil to the Arsenal,” therefore, sums up the Arsenal faithful’s appreciation of their team’s ability to defend a one goal lead.

Even Wenger’s earlier teams, flowing though the football might have been, won two league titles because of an uncompromising defence. The logic is simple and irrefutable: what was the point of scoring two goals when you leak three – or, in the case at Old Trafford last Sunday, eight.

Wenger has already apologized to Arsenal fans for that result at Old Trafford. However, one has to question Wenger himself for the way the team set out to play. Paul Merson, a former Arsenal player, went public by pointing out that “you have to have a plan B.” What he meant was that, in Manchester, the team started to play the “Arsenal way.” When it was not working, the players on the pitch had no other ideas.

This is, of course, a good time for other teams to play Arsenal. Eight first team players are out injured; and the recent transfers of high profile players Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri have been well-documented. That said, Arsenal is one of the wealthiest club in the Premiership. If the current squad looks thin, it is not from lack of money.

Simply put, Wenger did not want to make any purchases to strengthen his squad. His faith in the young players coming through is remarkable; and to be fair, he has had a knack for turning these youngsters into household names. It is always well and good if the kids rise up to the occasion; but it will take either a brave or a demented man to say that they did at Old Trafford.

To be fair, for most of the match the young Gunners matched United in a game that swept from one end to the other. Had Robin van Persie not missed a 27th minute penalty, who knows how the result could have gone? In fact, going into the last half hour, when United was 3-1 up, Arsenal was still trading blows with the hosts.

In fact, I thought the Gunners played better than they did the previous week against Liverpool. Whatever the pro-United press says, Liverpool did not win ugly at the Emirates. The Merseysiders, in fact, never allowed the Gunners to get into their stride while also being always on the ascendancy with their own passing game.

This, precisely, is the point. With only one point going into a match away to the defending champion, would it not have made more sense to have steadied the ship first by playing conservatively with a hit-on-the-break attitude? A respectable draw at Old Trafford can go a long way especially as there are still 35 more matches left and Arsenal’s sick bay is bound to ease up in the coming weeks.

The wide open spaces of the Old Trafford pitch are, in fact, favourable to Arsenal’s passing style; but wide open spaces are also difficult to plug. That was why it did not make sense for a team that was so short on players to play as expansively as Arsenal did. The defensive line was not an established one; and any other manager would have thought of protecting that backline by not having the midfielders venture too brazenly forward.

This brings us to Merson’s point: that Wenger’s team – or at least the eleven at Old Trafford – knew how to play the Arsenal game of pushing forward at every opportunity; but it did not know how to sit back in a conservative defensive game.

Ashley Young scored for United a minute after van Persie’s missed penalty. At that point, with two-thirds of the match still to play, it would have made sense to sit back and absorb United’s attack. Again, did this team know how? Four minutes before the break, United struck again so that the teams went into the dugouts with the hosts 3-1 ahead. Did it really make sense to go chasing the game? A 3-1 loss is also a loss of 3 points; an 8-2 loss damages players’ psyches.

In truth, the score flattered United. Arsenal might as well have placed a welcome mat and said “Come on in!” In the last half hour, in particular, the gap between Arsenal’s midfield and backline was so wide you could have built a mall right in there. In a 35 minute spell starting with Rooney’s freekick just top of the box, United scored no less than five goals.

Herbert Chapman must have been spinning in his grave. Wenger could not even cite his customary excuse of having young players – United’s team was actually younger. Who knows, though? A wounded animal is always dangerous. United and City fans be warned; Chelsea’s hot start to last season eventually fizzled out. Football stories can be stranger than fiction. What chances are there, therefore, that Wenger and Arsenal will have the last laugh next May?

Of course, if I had my way, it will be a team in red. All red…

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