That sound you hear is the deflation of many Arsenal fans’ hopes and dreams for the 2017/18 season. Arsene Wenger’s team was in irresistible attacking form when they took on second place Manchester United on Saturday, but were unable to come out on top, losing 3-1. The loss puts the Gunners’ title hopes in serious doubt, and was already their fifth of the season. They will get a chance to redeem themselves on Thursday, when they will invite BATE Borisov to the Emirates Stadium for their final Europa League group match. Arsene Wenger will be left wondering how his team could play so well and again fail to get the victory.
David De Gea
No conversation about Saturday’s match is complete without mentioning United goalkeeper David DeGea. The Spaniard had the game of his life against an in-form Gunners attack, making 14 saves en route to the two goal victory. While luck and some questionable referee decisions (I know, big surprise) might have helped his cause, DeGea came up big again and again, the highlight perhaps being a shocking double save on Alexandre Lacazette and Alexis Sanchez from point blank range.
DeGea has been one of the best keepers in the world for years, and ever since the decline from the heights of Sir Alex Ferguson, he has almost single handedly kept Manchester United around the Champions League places, even with an undeserving team in front of him. While Jose Mourinho clearly intended to play counter attacking football, he will no doubt be thanking his goalkeeper much more than his defence following the victory. Arsenal’s 33 shots taken were a season high for any team facing the Portuguese manager’s United, and with Phil Jones still sidelined, questions will remain about the quality in front of the world class DeGea, particularly with the Manchester Derby on the horizon.
Quality Capitalises On Mistakes
Despite the Gunners’ near total domination of the ball for 90 minutes, two stupid mistakes ensured they would be trying to dig themselves out of an early hole. First, Laurent Koscielny failed to connect with Sead Kolasinac on a pass, leading quickly to an Antonio Valencia goal in United’s first shot on target. In the 11th minute, an indecisive Shkodran Mustafi, who had been in great form since returning to the starting XI, took one touch too many and was dispossessed by Jesse Lingard, who would soon receive the ball back from Anthony Martial and beat Petr Cech for the second goal.
Arsenal had already started to control the match and put pressure on the Red Devil defence before falling behind by two goals, but the lead allowed Jose Mourinho to try and do what he wants to do the most: sit back and choke the life out of the match. In spite of his tactical efforts, the Gunners, lead by a very engaged Mesut Ozil, poured the pressure on , and if any other goalkeeper had gotten the start for the visitors, Arsenal might have put a half dozen on the score board. Those untimely turnovers at the back might not have resulted in goals against a team like Huddersfield Town, but a team with Paul Pogba, Anthony Martial and other world class talents will make you pay for any mistakes. Wenger’s men are developing a habit this season of letting down stellar defensive efforts with catastrophic lapses in concentration.
Good Enough To Win
If Arsene Wenger and his team have developed the reputation over the years of coming up small against their top 6 rivals, the same could not be said about Saturday’s match at the Emirates. Despite the visitor’s having played on Wednesday and Arsenal a day later, both teams brought impressive energy for 90 minutes, with large stretches of the match opening up into end-to-end attacks by both clubs.
The purpose and precision with which the Gunners built up their attack is perhaps unmatched by any other game this season, and was only let down by sloppy finishing, bad luck and a goalkeeper standing on his head to keep out their efforts. At the other end, Arsenal did a good job preventing United from spending time in their end, but unfortunately, every time the visitors broke in to the Arsenal end, the attack looked threatening. There will be many in the media claiming that Jose Mourinho got his team to execute a masterful plan, but the Gunners dominated every single statistical category that typically points toward victory except the score. Fans should be proud of the way their players played right up until the bitter end.
What a difference a season makes. As Arsenal fell into their winter collapse last season, many looked toward Mesut Ozil as a major reason why. The playmaker had indeed fallen ill around the holidays and hit a cold patch of form, but from striker to keeper, the Gunners were playing poorly as a whole team. Despite his World Cup winning pedigree and ardent fans in many of the game’s biggest stars, Ozil was thought to be too lazy, inconsistent and one dimensional for the English game. Alexis Sanchez, many argued, was the only player “fit to wear the shirt” during these troubled times, and as the score line would suggest he was forced to go at it alone. A large and vocal group of Gooners fervently called for Ozil to be sold in the summer and for the team to bow to whatever Sanchez wished in order to lock him up again.
Fast forward to today, and so many of those fans, without a hint of irony, are clamouring for Ozil to sign a new contract and for Alexis Sanchez to be sold in January. As I have said from the beginning of the team’s struggles last season, when Alexis is trying to force passes and shots, it throws the rest of the attack out of rhythm. His teammates are resigned to constantly trying to find the floating Chilean, who could pop up just about anywhere in the attacking third, but with little of the subtlety and intelligence of Ozil when he does the same. When the German begins to float around, he is generally trying to expose a weakness in the opposition or open up space for his teammates. Sanchez, on the other hand, is simply looking to get on the ball as often as possible. By some counts, he lost the ball over thirty times against United, with many of his turnovers coming from selfish dribbles or senseless passes. Unlike his teammate, Sanchez does not possess the vision and anticipation necessary to create consistently, but he takes it upon himself far too often and gives the ball away cheaply. With the fluctuation of form and fan affections so drastic, it would be hard to predict if fans will feel the same way about each player come the transfer window, but with their contracts both expiring, the club must make their decision on whether to replace or keep them as soon as possible.
Streak Ended, Runaway Trophy
Saturday’s loss hurt in many ways, but it also represented the Gunners’ first home loss in 15 matches at the Emirates Stadium. Nowhere near the top of anyone’s list of most intimidating atmospheres in the league, Arsenal nevertheless had turned the stadium into a bit of a fortress, scoring more than double their opponents tally during the streak. The fans were given cause to be loud again during the team’s impressive run at home, and there were moments during Saturday’s match where the stands were positively rocking, spurring their beloved Gunners back into the match.
The snapped streak is but a footnote to the fact that Premier League title may be all but sewn up already by Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City. After the weekend, the Sky Blues sit 8 points ahead of second place United and a full 15 Ahead of the Gunners. Arsenal may have lost to both Manchester clubs by the same, unfavourable score line, but if the matches were any indication of quality, City looked far more dominant. The league may have more money and talent than ever before, but fans all over the globe might be resigned to a Premier League champion being crowned quite early in the campaign.