Written by CarlitoII
They say familiarity breeds contempt. Yesterday’s game saw a familiar pattern reassert itself. Out of 3 competitions in quick succession and what looks like a season-ending injury to one of the main reasons for continued belief in what remains of the season. I feel contempt… but for who?
I certainly don’t feel contempt for our away fans, who could be heard loud and proud on ITV. I have not a smattering of loathing for our much derided goalkeeper, who saved a certain own goal in the second half and had a good game for being 3rd choice in his position. I can muster very little ire for Chris Foy, the referee, who despite failing to send Scholes off in the final 10 minutes, was even-handed and aimed to play the advantage wherever possible. He made errors, but I felt these were evenly distributed between the two teams and had no bearing on the overall result.
I could rage against Sagna, who was nowhere to be seen in the build up for the first goal as it was played out to his side and Djourou was left floundering trying to deal with Hernandez’s header, or for hospitalizing Djourou (accidentally). I could aim my anger at Gibbs for the error leading to the second goal. I could lay the blame at our manager’s door for selecting a player who has patently struggled with the defensive side of playing at left back this season and for leaving Clichy on the bench instead. I would love to blame the referee for letting Scholes stay on the pitch as he did his best impression of Norman Whiteside in the last ten minutes. I might feel inclined to decry the entire team for the way their self belief ebbed dramatically as soon as the second goal went against us.
I have a strong desire to play the blame game, but I cannot and must not. That very ebbing of self-belief is the reason why we must withhold our anger and support this team if we are to have any chance of keeping our one remaining iron in the fire. I won’t blame anyone else for venting their understandable frustration at this disastrous fortnight of football results but can only counsel a keep calm and carry on attitude until the dust settles at the end of the season.
So why did we lose?
The best players on the pitch were Van Der Sar and Chris Smalling- in the first half. In terms of desire, Rooney was in a class of his own on the pitch, playing in midfield, attack and even at left back at one point to ensure his team were the victors. Hernandez, in getting 2 assists showed that he will be a danger for many years to come. In short they were, to use one of Wenger’s favourite words “efficient”. Our best player was Jack Wilshere, heart on his sleeve heroics but unfortunately little end product.
The pre-match discussions I took part in were all about ManUre’s lack of wide options and Wenger set up his team accordingly to play down the wings. I have to hand it to our Auld Enemy for coming up with the perfect counter to this. In selecting 7 defenders, we could have been fooled into thinking they would defend and try to nick it on the counter- but Fabio and Raphael are versatile Brazilians (unlike our own) and proved adept and playing in a more attacking role. That each was instrumental in a goal apiece in a 2-0 win can only go down as a masterstroke by the man we love to hate and a depressing lack of plan B from our manager.
Before outlining the events of the match, I’d like to consider this: Was this game important? Compared to Barcelona it felt like a damp squib before it began and I only started to feel any nerves five minutes into the game. Compared to our still very real chances of winning the league, the cup comes a distant second. So the positive I take form this, is that we now have only one target to aim for, whilst having none of the fixture congestion of our rivals for the premier league.
The game itself followed a depressingly familiar narrative thread. Pressure, possession, over-elaboration at times, swift breaks being checked back allowing the opposition to regroup, shots on target, defensive errors leading to goals against the run of play and a subsequent lack of belief to get back into it. We’ve been here before too often in the last 5 years and the season ending injury to Djourou, our lynchpin defender just made the sense of déjà vu all the stronger.
It was a match of two halves from our point of view. In the first half, we had plenty of possession and played with our tails up. Raphael’s goal came against the run of play. Fabio received the ball in his own half and charged forward releasing his brother Raphael down our left side. At this stage Gibbs should have Raphael covered with Kozzer and JD in the centre marking Hernandez. As Fabio continued his run our right back was ambling slowly back leaving space at the far post which turned out to be fatal as Fabio joined Hernandez in the centre and the latter was able to peel behind Djourou to propel an powerful header that Almunia was only able to parry away to leave Fabio a simple tap in. Gibbs should not have been so far up the pitch but got back well- the same cannot be said of Sagna.
Throughout the first half, and even after the first breakaway goal we carried plenty of threat and had the lion’s share of possession forcing excellent saves from Van Persie and Nasri. But we never looked like troubling the 40-year-old Dutch stopper and that tells you what you need to know. In total we had 18 shots of which 11 were on target and 11 were saved.
In the second half, Fergusson made an attacking change bringing on Valencia for Fabio. We started brightly again, and the game still felt very open when Koscielny drove forward over the half way line, fed Wilshere and after some neat, quick build up play on the edge of the box involving Van Persie and Arshavin found Koscielny again inside the area who had a deflected shot palmed back to RVP who fed him again to draw a fantastic save from Van Der Sar. Great play- real intent- top save by their goalkeeper. The resulting corner also had a shot from a tight angle from Arshavin that drew a save.
At that stage a comeback looked likely but another breakaway occurred straightaway with the ball carried down our left flank and passed to Raphael who went past Gibbs who looked like he had completely lost his bearings. Raphael was in the box and played the ball to Hernandez who was tackled by Djourou. The ball bobbled up out of the challenge and Rooney reacted twice as quickly as Sagna and Gibbs to head it smartly past Almunia. Thereafter, the confidence visibly drained. Poor Arshavin started misplacing passes, Diaby’s invisible wall returned to the pitch and possession became much more equal.
Wenger made changes, but Denilson was unlucky to be the first off, having had one of his better games. Chamakh coming on was invisible as we struggled to make our passes tell and clearly wasn’t the impact sub Wenger had hoped for. A double substitution followed with 20 minutes left to play and Diaby and Arshavin both coming off, rightly in my opinion, to be replaced by Rosicky and Ramsey. How good was it to see Ramsey back on the pitch? Well, at 2-0 down it was a crumb of comfort but it wasn’t long until the horrible collision between Sagna and Djourou left the big man on the ground needing a long break in play to get treatment and be carried off. Having played all 3 substitutions we were down to 10 men for the second time in a week. With 12 minutes left and down to ten men through injury with Ramsey deputizing at Centre Back, the match was gone. Paul Scholes launched some nasty challenges in this final period, but even if he had been sent off for the 3 awful tackles he made, I doubt the result would have changed. Despite more of the huffing and puffing that had been much in evidence throughout the game, there was a very palpable feeling throughout the second half that the players didn’t believe they would win.
Can our players recover the belief that clearly drained away in the second half at Old Trafford? This time we have no convenient Busacca scapegoat figure to blame. Playing the blame game against our players and manager at this stage of the season will only add to the recurring sense of a season imploding that this loss will have added to. We lost this game ourselves, and if the players can accept that, work on their failings and man up for the league run in, we could still be celebrating in May. The players and manager will need our support if we are to entertain that hope. Can they recover their belief? Can we?
Almunia: Idenitfied as a weakness before the game, he looked shaky on crosses and I feel the defence of panics at times with him behind them, but I can’t fault him for the goals and he pulled off some good stops in the game, not least the potential own-goal. 7
Sagna: At fault for not tracking back and leaving space on the right for the build up to the second goal. But in trying to get back into it, Bac man was the main source of danger to the team in red and apart from the error was one of the best players on the pitch. 7
Koscielny: Had an incredible moment up the pitch where he nearly scored and showed great comfort on the ball. Good enough in defence but missed the shield normally provided by Song. 7
Djourou: Once again a man with great reading of the game in front of him and some excellent tackles. Some of those tackles backfired in this game. He was lucky not to score an own goal and he was the nearest player when both goals were scored although there was little he could do about either of them. Hope the injury is not as bad as it looked. If he’s out for the rest of the season, our chances will be greatly diminished. 6
Gibbs: What can I say? Taken apart again and again defensively, especially for the second goal where he stood and watched as his man went past him. I feel for him, but he had a nightmare. 3
Arshavin: For the first 30 minutes, looked like a great threat and potential match winner. Faded in the last 5 minutes of the first half as his passes went astray and he appeared to run out of breath. All his recently recovered confidence seemed to dissolve in the second half and he was replaced too late in my opinion. 5
Nasri: Very similar to the Barcelona game, had a lot of the ball but doesn’t seem to have the cutting edge he displayed two months ago. Clearly not yet ready to be our Cesc replacement. 6
Diaby: The way he started the game, I had high hopes that we would finally get a “good day” out of him and the first half was ok. He missed the opportunity for a first time shot in the first half and was too slow to play players in or take advantage of the split second chances that change games. Faded to be replaced by Ramsey. 5
Denilson: Amazed me by playing the ball forward with some regularity! He also won some crucial tackles. Offered nothing incisive however. Very much a journeyman performance from a journeyman player. Replaced early by Chamakh in a positive move from the manager. 5
Wilshere: An all action performance, as we are getting used to. Sweated blood but still didn’t have a great influence on the game, despite his best efforts to “do a Gerrard” and drive us forward single-handed. 6.5
Van Persie: A couple of curlers nearly did it but, as usual, the high-performance goal machine that RVP is needs a few games to become deadly after every lay off and this was one of the games he needs to get back to that form. 6
Chamakh: Wasn’t involved for what seemed like ages after he came on. Amazed me with a shot of substance from the edge of the area but it was straight at the keeper. Didn’t have the impact the manager would have hoped for. 5
Ramsey: Great to see him back, had to fill in at CB when we went down to 10 men after the injury to Djourou. Unfair to give him a rating based on an odd comeback game for him.
Rosicky: Um, not the player he was is he? Arshavin was running out of legs, but apart from being able to run I feel he did little. 4