Before this game, all the talk had been about how both teams would recover from their setbacks from over the weekend. Those results may have resulted in the cautious approach both teams took for this game, with our players eager to avoid the defensive shambles of last Saturday.
I suppose it could have been so different if Robin van Persie had taken his early chance, but thankfully he hadn’t brought his scoring boots on the day. Overall, I think we coped admirably with the Manchester United attack the whole game, limiting them to very few clear-cut chances. For that, our back five can celebrate yet another clean sheet, which has been quite the norm of late at the Emirates. Don’t concede and the worst result you can get is a draw.
Which is exactly what we got on Thursday morning and I don’t think we can complain too much about that given our performance. To use a Wenger-ism, we played for too long with the “handbrake” on and we only really got going in the second half. As with the Liverpool game, the passing was not as crisp and there wasn’t nearly enough off-the-ball movement.
United came prepared with their central midfielders sitting right in front of their defence, so our tactic of playing through the middle played right into their hands. It was telling that our best chances came via corners and all-too-rare crosses from the flanks. How sweet it would have been if we had converted one of those, especially after the Red Devils’ love affair with crosses in their last game, but this wasn’t to be one of those days.
There were three other things that stood out for me in this game.
1. Giroud is back… somewhat!
The Frenchman has come in for criticism of late due to his general lack of attacking contribution, but I thought he rose to the occasion in this game. Olivier Giroud gave Nemanja Vidic a torrid time throughout, forcing the Serbian to foul him on several occasions. He also came close with a first half header and narrowly missed getting on the end of Bacary Sagna’s late cross. It’s always encouraging when strikers pop up in the right places and start sniffing out chances, and I’m sure we won’t have to wait too long for Giroud’s next goal.
2. Far too careless in the middle of the park
It’s one thing to pass sloppily, it’s another to lose possession in dangerous areas. I don’t think we’ve completely learnt our lesson from that loss against Liverpool, as we contrived to gift the ball away in midfield on several occasions here. We weren’t punished this time around thanks to our defence bailing us out (and the level of opposition!), but we really need to be safer and smarter in protecting the ball around the centre circle. Yes, Mikel Arteta and Jack Wilshere, I’m looking at the two of you!
3. A goalkeeper that earns points
What a difference it is to have a goalkeeper that earns points instead of losing them. It wasn’t so long ago when Arsenal custodians were known for the occasional blunder. But Wojciech Szczesny has grown leaps and bounds since early 2013 and he’s making world-class saves regularly these days. That first save from Van Persie was routine, but that late tip onto the bar… wow. Just wow. I guess we’ll only know the true value of that save come the end of the season, but for now us Gooners are thrilled to have our Polish number one in such unbeatable form.
While all Gooners would have appreciated a win over our old rivals, this isn’t a bad result in the grander scheme of things. The clean sheet will give us confidence that we’re back to our miserly ways on the defensive front, and the point keeps us in touch at the top of the table. It’s still very much in our hands as long as we play at a consistently good level in all the remaining games – remember, it’s not just the big games that matter.
Our next game is in the FA Cup when Liverpool come visiting and I suspect the 5-1 loss will affect Wenger’s team selection somewhat. If it were any other opponent, I would expect wholesale changes in preparation for next week’s Champions League clash with Bayern. But this represents an early chance to banish the demons from that Anfield loss. Regardless of the team Liverpool put out, a win for us will serve as more evidence that the 5-1 loss was a mere anomaly in what has been an excellent season so far.
So let’s go for it, Arsene! If anything, the players will certainly be up for it with a measure of revenge sure to be on their minds. More of the same rock solid defence, more sensible play in midfield, and more direct penetration upfront will give us a huge chance to progress to the next round and give us added momentum for the rest of the season. Come on you Gunners!