The verdict: Arsenal come up short again when it matters most

Manchester United take over at the top as same old failings haunt the Gunners at Old Trafford

PROGRESS, it seems, will have to wait a little longer.

Arsenal headed to Old Trafford on Monday night confident that their time had finally come and that a performance and result to mark their new maturity was within their reach.

In the end they managed neither. The performance was not without merit, but United kept them at bay like an expert boxer, knowing that at the end victory would be theirs for having landed the one telling punch.

The result will not prove disastrous, and Arsene Wenger’s side could reclaim top spot this weekend when they host Stoke 24 hours ahead of United’s visit to Stamford Bridge.

However the defeat, a fifth already in the league this season, was also the 11th successive game the Gunners had failed to win against their principal title rivals, with 10 of them being defeats.

United and Chelsea have shared the Premier League trophy for the last six seasons since Arsenal’s 2004 ‘Invincible’ triumph, and there was precious little evidence from Wenger’s side at Old Trafford that this Sunday’s meeting between the two is not the real clash of the genuine title contenders.

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Wenger, understandably, does not agree with that assessment but the evidence against him is mounting.

“Why do we always lose the big games? If you are a football specialist I leave this analysis to you,” he snapped when the question was put to him afterwards.

“We are only here to analyse one game. United won the game and you don’t necessarily have to go to big conclusions.”

That argument is fine, but when exactly should the conclusions be drawn? The end of the season is a logical time but for the last five years, come May, Arsenal have been empty-handed. And more often than not it is defeats against these two sides that have brought about that predicament.

United have not only dominated league encounters, but also comfortably won both legs of the Champions League semi-final between the two teams in 2009, and went on to lift the trophy.

Chelsea have beaten Arsenal four times in succession in the league, and have also won an FA Cup semi-final in that recent run. Not that long ago, they also won a Carling Cup final.

To win big trophies you will have to beat big teams at some stage, yet every time Arsenal have met a top side in recent times – not forgetting Barcelona in last season’s Champions League quarter-final – the results have been depressingly familiar.

“It is a big frustration and a big disappointment but what is important is that we bounce back in our next game. Overall on what I have seen tonight there is no reason not to believe,” said Wenger. “And we know we can play better offensively.”

There was a sluggishness to Arsenal’s play on Monday that could only partially be put down to United’s defensive nous. The pitch – “bouncy and slippery” according to Wenger – did not seem to help and neither did some team selections from the Frenchman that were hard to fathom.

A look at Arsenal’s bench suggested a level of depth that most clubs could only dream of, but the problem was they appeared to be a lot better than those who were on the field.

There was a decent argument for all seven substitutes that they should have started, although in the case of Cesc Fabregas, Wenger’s caution was probably understandable and he will now hopefully be fit to play his part over the busy festive schedule.

But Robin van Persie has been making substitute appearances since the defeat to Newcastle back on November 6, and has started recent games in the Carling Cup and Champions League. Surely he was worth a gamble for such a vital game?

Wenger thought not, and Marouane Chamakh looked isolated battling against United’s twin towers Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic. It was a surprise the Moroccan stayed on the pitch for the full 90 minutes.

Theo Walcott and Nicklas Bendtner also presented pressing cases to start, but instead Wenger opted for the experience of Tomas Rosicky in the central creative role, which did not only fail but also shunted Samir Nasri to the right flank where he failed to reproduce his recent form.

On the left side Andrey Arshavin initially looked lively, but singularly failed to get the better of United’s one defensive weak link, the young right-back Rafael.

The belated arrival of Van Persie, Fabregas and, later, Walcott, did seem to energise Arsenal and an equaliser did not look beyond them, even if United had the better chances only for Wayne Rooney to waste a debatable penalty and then be denied by the promising Wojciech Szczesny, who also saved well from Anderson.

But United, just as Chelsea had done against the Gunners in October, held on without too much further concern. Teams who are capable of winning titles usually do.