Despite the lack of traditional ‘mind games’ between the managers, Arsene Wenger and his men lost the psychological battle in Monday’s encounter. Rather than playing to their strengths, Arsenal appeared obsessed with proving they had matured and were able to withstand a physical test, to the detriment of their usually incisive attacking play.
The statistic that the Gunners committed 7 fouls in the opening 14 minutes of the match is testament to this and meant the away side focused upon regaining possession at the expense of being creative when in control of the ball. Both sides were careless with possession in the opening exchanges, with Wenger highlighting the poor condition of the pitch in his post-match comments. Whilst he remained largely objective in his observations – and may well have a valid point – in context of the defeat his comments appear to be more excuse than explanation.
Arsenal also lost out tactically, with the key battleground proving to be the wide areas. With United opting for five players in midfield to nullify Arsenal’s midfield trio, the centre of the pitch became quickly congested and the creativity of both sides was stifled, helping to explain the profligacy in possession. United turned to the flanks and had the better of the play, with Luis Nani’s constant threat drawing a sterling performance from Gael Clichy. It was the home side’s wingers that ultimately fashioned the decisive breakthrough, combining five minutes before half-time, albeit with a hefty slice of fortune. The unfortunate Wojiech Szczesny helplessly watched Ji-Sung Park’s header loop over his despairing dive and drop in off the post, a cruel blow that will reduce his otherwise impressive performance to a mere footnote.
In contrast to the home side’s impressive wing play, Andrey Arshavin furthered his reputation as an enigma, belying notable statistics this term with an abject performance on Monday night. On the opposite flank, Samir Nasri was unable to exert his customary influence on proceedings and was marginalised by his wide station. The success of United’s wingers brought into question the decision to omit Arsenal’s only genuine winger Theo Walcott as the side struggled to penetrate through the centre. The energy of Park and the threat of Nani in the opposite direction also limited the support the full-backs were able to provide, allowing Ferguson’s men to funnel the attacks into the strength of central pairing Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic. As the manager noted: “We
Wenger sought to pre-empt the inevitable post-match speculation regarding the title race urging the result to be taken in context: “United won the game tonight and you don’t necessarily have to go to big conclusions. Be calm.” Arsenal will feel aggrieved at having succumbed to a narrow defeat, and certainly an element of fortune was key in deciding the outcome, but having offered so little to threaten United’s goal the Gunners cannot legitimately have expected more.