After last night's Champions League Semi-Final first leg at Old Trafford, Arsenal can consider themselves very fortunate to still be in the tie. In a traumatic first half, the home team created enough good chances to have killed the Gunners off but Arsene Wenger's young charges managed to somehow restrict United to only a one-goal lead. They came into the game a bit more in the second period but did not manage to steal a vital away goal. The best that can be said of last night’s match was that it could have been a lot, lot worse and, at least, Arsenal still have plenty to play for next Tuesday when United visit Ashburton Grove.
As the game kicked off the atmosphere at Old Trafford was tremendous. The 3,800 travelling Arsenal fans tried to make themselves heard over the tumult whipped up by the home support. When the match started it was United who flew out of the blocks catching their visitors cold. The home team started in a way that suggested they realised the importance and enormity of the match. In contrast, the Gunners sauntered around like it was a pre-season friendly.
In the opening minutes, United mounted wave after wave of attack and only a couple of top class saves from Manuel Almunia kept it level. It was looking like it was going to be a torrid night for Arsenal and their supporters. Annoyingly though, just as it seemed as if Wenger’s men were beginning to weather the storm and quieten the crowd down, some schoolboy defending gifted Manchester United their first and, as it turned out, only goal. With the Arsenal defence pulled out of position and all over the place, John O’Shea was left unmarked and converted Michael Carrick’s cross.
As feeble as the defending might have been for the goal, Arsenal’s back four actually played pretty well throughout the evening. Almunia pulled off three or four fabulous saves. Mikael Silvestre had arguably his best game so far in an Arsenal shirt and he and Kolo Toure withstood the onslaught manfully. Bacery Sagna dealt with most of what Wayne Rooney threw at him and Kieran Gibbs did fantastically well up against Ronaldo and when often being left having to cope with two attackers at a time.
Arsenal’s real problems lay elsewhere in their formation. Playing five in midfield has now become an accustomed Wenger tactic in matches like this and last night it seemed he would be deploying this set up again with Emmanuel Adebayor playing as a lone striker. In actual fact, the formation was more like 4-4-1-1 with Cesc Fabregas playing in the more advanced midfield role which he and Wenger appear to have been experimenting with since his return from injury.
On the evidence of last night, it is an experiment that needs to cease immediately. Fabregas is the one player who can pulls the strings in the heart of the Arsenal midfield. Playing in a deeper role he has far more scope and vision to engineer attacks and keep a forward momentum in build-up play. At Old Trafford, he was completely unable to get in the game and influence the match from the more advanced position that he took up. There is also a massive question mark as to whether he is actually quick enough to play as an out-and-out attacking midfielder. If Cesc has one flaw in his game it is that he does lack pace. Normally, he compensates for this with terrific speed of thought, balance and natural ability. Starting in a deeper role he can dictate the tempo of attacks but in the more forward role he can only react to them - and that would seem to negate a massive part of what he brings to the Arsenal team.
Elsewhere in midfield, Alex Song and Samir Nasri both had creditable games and put in a tremendous amount of work off the ball. Nasri in particular ran tirelessly. He tracked back, made tackles and tried to link up with the attack on where possible. Song showed good strength and between them they made a decent fist of holding down the centre of midfield from a defensive point of view.
Where the real weaknesses lay were with Walcott and Diaby in the wide positions and Adebayor up front. Theo Walcott looked like a rabbit caught in the headlights from the first minute until his substitution in the 71st. He offered little going forward and even less in terms of defensive cover for Bacery Sagna when United held the ball. Continually and easily forced inside by the United defence when on the ball he posed no meaningful threat. He may have turned in some good recent performances but last night he looked like a little boy who was well out of his depth.
By far the two worst Arsenal players on the night though were Abou Diaby and Emmanuel Adebayor. Both gave away endless amounts of possession which heaped further pressure on the Arsenal defence as it gave United to the opportunity to instigate new attacks only moments after their last ones had broke down and the work-rate of both individuals in such an important match was shameful.
Diaby completely failed to put in his shift defensively and left eighteen-year-old Kieran Gibbs exposed on countless occasions. He made too few tackles and had no real impact on the game going forward. It was no coincidence that Manchester United’s most threatening play came from the wings where Diaby and Walcott offered little resistance and pre-emptive cover for the full-backs behind them.
As for Adebayor, he turned in yet another performance that hardly endeared him to the Arsenal faithful. Apart from putting the ball in the back of the net when the opportunity arises, anyone playing the role of a lone striker has two key jobs. The first is to hold the ball up when it is played forward to take pressure off the defence and bring the midfield into the game. The second is to put in a lung-bursting amount of work to pressurise the defence and create outlets and opening for team-mates. Adebayor did neither. He ambled around waiting for the play to come to him. When he received the ball, more often than not, he either miscontrolled it, returning possession immediately to United, or he was offside.
All through this season Adebayor appears to be suffering from delusions of his own grandeur. The memory of the player who used to run for ninety minutes, close down defenders and who contributed over twenty goals in a season seems a distant one at the moment. His antics during last summer have soured his relationship with many of the supporters and his form and general attitude this season has done nothing to repair matters. It is ironic that he appears to always be giving interviews to the media saying that the team need to do this or the players need to show that. He really ought to get his own house in order before offering an opinion on what everyone else is doing. There appears to be mounting school of thought that if he were to leave the club this summer, it would be no great loss.
So, Arsenal live to fight another day and, after somewhat staring down both barrels at times last night, are still very much in the tie. The first leg is now done, over with and is yesterday’s news. The focus now has to turn to putting right the things that went wrong and finding the belief and cutting edge to overturn United’s lead in the second leg next Tuesday evening.
An early Arsenal goal would make it game on again. Let’s hope that is so.