Manchester United exploit Arsenal’s frailty to stay in touch at the top
Premier League: Arsenal 1 Manchester United 2
It may not have been anywhere near as bad as the 8-2 hammering at Old Trafford, but a defeat is a defeat and Arsenal have now suffered eight in an increasingly miserable campaign.
Goals from Antonio Valenica and Danny Welbeck gave the champions a deserved victory, as Arsenal failed to capitalise on the lifeline of Robin van Persie’s equaliser with twenty minutes to go.
The Dutchman’s 19th Premier League goal of the season looked to have set up a grandstand finish, but Wenger’s decision to substitute Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain surrendered the momentum, and Welbeck’s winner eight minutes from time deepened the gloom around an angry Emirates Stadium.
A third successive Premier League defeat is enough of a setback but so too is the sight of United joining Manchester City in disappearing over the horizon.
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Arsenal now seem to be involved in a fight for fourth place with Chelsea, Liverpool, and maybe Spurs if Harry Redknapp’s side fail to negotiate their tricky set of upcoming fixtures.
But the Gunners cannot look at the results of other teams when their own are so wretched, and there will be some trepidation on the next league outing, a visit to the Reebok Stadium to face Bolton on February 1.
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Wenger had shown more daring earlier in the day after springing something of a selection surprise, opting to give Oxlade-Chamberlain a first Premier League start on the left flank, while Tomas Rosicky came in to the centre as Mikel Arteta was absent for a second successive game.
The major boost for the Gunners came at the back, however, as Thomas Vermaelen returned, having recovered from the muscle injury that had ruled him out of the previous four games.
It was evident from the early stages that Arsenal were going to need all their defensive steel because United looked dangerous from the outset.
While there was no place in the starting XI for the returning Paul Scholes, United played an attacking trio of Nani, Wayne Rooney and Antonio Valencia behind striker Danny Welbeck and it immediately looked potent.
With the evergreen Ryan Giggs probing from midfield, the champions exposed Arsenal on the flanks early on as crosses zipped into the Arsenal box. Wojciech Szczesny got down well to smother an effort from Giggs, while Welbeck skied over under vital pressure from a backtracking Laurent Koscielny.
Arsenal rarely threatened in the opening half-hour, even after Phil Jones had stumbled while trying to challenge Theo Walcott and departed on a stretcher to be replaced at right-back by Rafael Da Silva.
Oxlade-Chamberlain had one encouraging run past Patrice Evra and picked out Walcott with his cross, but the older of the two Englishmen in Arsenal’s line-up miscued horribly wide.
United were looking far more likely to score. Ten minutes before the break Evra beat Alex Song all too easily and pulled back for Nani to take aim at goal, but Szczesny again got down well to save low at his near post.
Rooney tumbled optimistically in the penalty area after a challenge from Song, as Michael Carrick and Giggs had a stranglehold on midfield that the Gunners were struggling to contain. Song and Rooney clashed again when the Arsenal man appeared to lead with an elbow, but referee Mike Dean decided that a warning would suffice when a yellow or even red card was possibly deserved.
But the visitors had nothing to show for their territorial advantage, and the Arsenal fans were starting to warm to the task of being the underdog.
Nani took advantage of some slack defending from Johan Djourou to bear down on Szczesny’s goal once again, but the Portuguese winger wasted the opening by dragging it across the face of goal.
The next chance United were to get they made count just a minute before half-time. Giggs, hugely influential despite his advancing years, swung over a cross from the United left which Djourou was far too slow to cut out, and Valencia got in behind Vermaelen to head home from close range.
It was a massive blow for Arsenal. Go in level at the break, regroup, and anything could be possible in the second half. But going behind sank confidence and morale even lower. Remember this is a team who have yet to taste a league victory in 2012.
However, those thinking back to Old Trafford in August should have been buoyed by the memory that it was only one goal. Wenger reacted to his side’s defensive struggles in the first half by taking off Djourou and replacing him with the teenager Nico Yennaris. Another Premier League debut for a youngster against the league champions. Desperate times indeed.
Yet within seven minutes of the restart Arsenal should have been level. Chris Smalling slipped to allow Rosicky to nick the ball off his toe and square to Van Persie, but the Dutchman missed the target when it almost looked easier to score.
Moments later Aaron Ramsey drove into the United box and smashed a shot inches over the bar and it appeared whatever Wenger had said at half-time had galvanised his side to make a game of it.
Van Persie was suddenly in the game. Just before the hour-mark his cross deflected into the path of Ramsey and then Rosicky whose drive looked goalbound until it stuck the arm and chest of Nani. On second viewing it was a penalty, but you could hardly chastise the officials for not having seen it at full speed.
Oxlade-Chamberlain then fizzed another effort narrowly wide and it started to feel that an equaliser was not just possible but probable.
Hoewever United then should have doubled their lead when Welbeck raced clear and outpaced Per Mertesacker, but the United striker did not get enough on his shot and the big German had time to race back and clear off the line.
Szczesny denied Welbeck again shortly afterwards and took a whack in the ribs in the process and the game appeared to be getting stretched.
A goal was coming, but it was more than a little surprising when it was an equaliser, and even more so that Kosicielny started the move in his own box.
The French centre-back robbed Rafael and the United right-back had no chance of getting back to his position. Koscielny transferred the ball to Rosicky who sprayed it out to Oxlade-Chamberlain and Arsenal were in on goal.
The 18-year-old delayed his pass perfectly and found Van Persie but the Premier League’s top scorer still had an awful lot to do. However his first time shot on the turn went through the legs of one defender and through the fingers of Anders Lindegaard before going in off the far post. Arsenal were level.
Celebrations turned to derision two minutes later when Wenger replaced Oxlade-Chamberlain with Andrey Arshavin and the impetus of the equaliser seemed all but lost.
Wenger probably felt that 75 minutes had been long enough for the teenager, but the Emirates hordes let him know in full voice what they thought of that decision, and even Van Persie seemed to show his disapproval from the pitch to raise tensions further.
On 82 minutes the worst fears of the crowd and the captain were confirmed when Arshavin failed to get close to Valencia as he cut in from the flank, and his cross bounced back into the path of Welbeck to sweep it into the net past an exposed Szczesny.
Arsenal huffed and puffed for a second equaliser, but much like at Swansea the previous week they had neither the wit nor the composure to find one.
The league table, with City and United 18 and 15 points ahead respectively, makes depressing reading for Arsenal fans. The top two are no longer the target, however. Fourth will be seen as salvation this season for the Gunners, and that on its own is a sad indictment of how far aspirations have fallen.
Arsenal: Szczesny, Djourou (Yennaris, h-t), Mertesacker, Vermaelen, Koscielny, Rosicky, Song, Ramsey (Park, 83), Walcott, Van Persie, Oxlade-Chamberlain (Arshavin, 74).
Subs not used: Almunia, Squillaci, Benayoun, Miquel.
Manchester United: Lindegaard, Jones (Rafael Da Silva, 16, Park 75), Smalling, Evans, Evra, Valencia, Carrick, Giggs, Nani (Scholes, 74), Rooney, Welbeck.
Subs not used: De Gea, Berbatov, Hernandez, Fabio Da Silva.
Referee: Mike Dean