Goals: Van Persie (3), Evra (67), Santi Cazorla (90+5)
Arsenal were dealt their third league defeat of the season at Old Trafford after a depressingly poor performance which was not fully reflected in the scoreline.
Arsenal had a 4-4-1-1 formation with the same line-up that started againt QPR last weekend. Vito Mannone started at the goal. Vermaalen was paired with Mertesacker at the center of the defence. Bacary Sagna started at right back, and Andre Santos continued to replace the injured Kieran Gibbs at left back. In central midfield, Jack Wilshere was paired with Mikel Arteta. Podolski was on the left, and Ramsey was on the right. Cazorla was behind Giroud who started as the central striker.
Arsenal started the game by gifting a goal to Robin Van Persie. Valencia’s flick released Rafael on the right hand side and before Santos could close him down, the right back sent in a low cross. For a defender as experienced as Vermaalen, this should have been the easiest of clearances, yet the Belgian somehow managed to put the ball right in front of Van Persie who finished with a one-time right footed shot to the bottom far corner.
The goal seemed to diminish whatever self confidence Arsenal had before they could settle at all into the game. As it has become customary since the Norwich game a few weeks earlier, Arsenal were not able to pose the slightest offensive threat in the first half. Despite the monumentally visible fact that it is not working, Wenger’s stubbornness to play Ramsey at the wide right position, coupled with Podolski’s naturally narrow game on the left flank again made each and every Arsenal offensive move utterly predictable and easy to defend against. Furthermore, just like Chelsea did with Oscar, Norwich with Hoolahan and Schalke with Holtby, Manchester United disrupted Arsenal’s ball circulation from deeper areas through Rooney dropping on Arteta, which required Cazorla to drop much deeper than usual, and Giroud got isolated up front as a result. Arsenal again lacked pace, width, movement, penetration, quick ball circulation, basically all attributes that made watching Arsenal a joy (albeit a rewardless one) over the last seasons. Manchester United were not even playing a particularly good game themselves, yet it was clear that they could up their game when they needed to.
After an appalling opening 20 minute period during which both sides displayed their skills in losing the ball in midfield, Ramsey lost the ball to Evra who combined with Rooney on the left channel. When Rooney’s quick ball found Van Persie in the area, Mannone denied the Dutch striker. The first time Arsenal were seen around the Manchester United box was in the 23rd minute when Ramsey broke forward from the right, but delayed his cross although Giroud had gotten in front of Ferdinand. When the Welshman did finally cross the ball into the six yard box, De Gea did well to parry it away. Minutes later, Valencia skinned Santos on United’s right flank, and after Arsenal failed to clear the winger’s cross, Rooney fired a shot straight at Mannone. In the follow-up, Van Persie’s header was again saved by the Italian goalie.
As the first half wore on, what was surprising was the fact that Manchester United were too lethargic to extend their lead against a dismal Arsenal side. One minute before half time, they made this point even more clear when Rooney missed a penalty after Cazorla handled the ball in the box following a short United corner. A curious scene at the half time break was Andre Santos asking for Van Persie’s shirt: either his nephew wanted a red pyjama or the fat and cuddly Santos intends to trade that shirt for cookies and ice-cream.
Despite their depressingly toothless first half performance, Arsenal started the second half with no changes. Amusingly, it was again Vermaalen who did his best to gift another goal to United shortly after the second half kicked off. The Arsenal captain inexplicably lost the ball to Van Persie in his own half. The “ambitious” striker raced forward down the right and sent in a low cross to Valencia in the six yard box with the outside of his left foot, yet the Ecuadorian somehow missed a sitter. For a moment, it looked like Manchester United had finally decided to finish Arsenal off as they poured forward again with Ashley Young crossing from the left and Rafael firing a shot from outside the box, which was blocked, and Carrick placed his curler wide.
The change that Arsenal fans have been asking for during the first half came when Ramsey was replaced by Walcott. The substitution seemed to fire up Arsenal a bit. After the first good Arsenal move of the game, Santos linked up with Cazorla on the left, and the Spaniard’s cross was controlled by Giroud at the near post, but the Frenchman’s shot on the turn hit the outside of the post. Minutes later, Walcott held the ball well and found Cazorla in a dangerous central position, the playmaker released Santos on the left, yet the Brazilian’s cross was comical to say the least.
As Arsenal showed the slightest intention to force the issue, Manchester United immediately upped their game. A delicious over the top ball by Ashley Young found Van Persie unmarked in the box, but Mannone made yet another save. However, the young Italian goalie had no answer when Evra headed the ball inside the box after Young and Rooney worked a short corner on the left and Rooney whipped in a brilliant cross. To make matters worse for Arsenal, shortly after the second United goal, Wilshere received his marching orders as a rash challenge on Evra earned him a second yellow card.
In the last 20 minutes, the 10-man Arsenal side looked completely beaten, and Manchester United again slowed their tempo. The game slowly died away except sporadic United chances on the break. As has been customary in recent weeks, Arsenal were again able to register their first shot on target in the extra time, when Walcott was released clear on the right by the substitute Arshavin and Giroud directed Walcot’s low cross straight at De Gea. In the very last minute of extra time, Cazorla controlled a loose ball in the box, dropped a shoulder and a curled a beauty to the far corner, yet it was too little, too late for Arsenal.
Arsenal continued to look like a spent force in yet another extremely poor performance. They are tactically clueless, lacking desire and urgency, and irritatingly prone to individual mistakes at the back. Manchester United should have won this game with a much wider margin. Having watched Manchester United’s home games against Galatasaray and Braga in the Champions League, and Spurs and Stoke City in the Premiere League, I believe it is by no means an exeggeration to say that they had one of their easiest home victories and did beat a dismal Arsenal side without even breaking sweat.