Before last night's match, Arsene Wenger called on the Arsenal players to "make a statement" with their performance. The statement they made was that they didn’t have the drive, energy and belief to beat United on their own patch for the first time since 2006.
Though the Gunners held plenty of possession they barely mustered much of an attacking threat and were unable to rock United back on their heels let alone land any sort of killer blow. More worrying though was general lethargy that pervaded the whole Arsenal performance. Considering what a huge game it was - and that Arsenal went there as league leaders - it was mystifying as to why they looked so sluggish throughout.
Another Trip to Manchester Ends in Despondency©PA Photos
Arsene Wenger might have tried to blame the pitch for the poor quality of the match but that is a red herring and is clearly designed to be an intentional diversion away from the fact that his team yet again failed to deliver in a big game.
To be fair, United didn’t look that much better either and were a long way from their best. It was only a moment of brilliant improvisation by Ji-Sung Park that made the difference to the scoreline - though, as much as it hurts to say it, you did get a sense that a few of the United players wanted it more than their visitors. Alex Ferguson set his team up to ensure men were always behind the ball to neutralise the threat from their visitors. For their part, Arsenal had neither the guile nor the cutting edge to break United down and carve out opportunities for themselves.
It was hard to pick out an Arsenal player who had a genuinely good game. Wojciech Szczesny made a creditable Premier League debut in goal. He had no chance with Park’s effort but, elsewhere, he made one or two decent saves and played his part in trying to psyche out Wayne Rooney before the United striker skied his penalty into the stand. Samir Nasri had a very quiet game by his recent standards whilst Andrey Arshavin and Tomas Rosicky both turned in now-customary underachieving displays.
Elsewhere, Alex Song misplaced far too many passes and Marouane Chamakh just couldn’t find a way to impose himself up front. The introduction of Robin Van Persie, Cesc Fabregas and Theo Walcott for the latter portion of the match had absolutely no impact on matters.
At the back, Gael Clichy was the weakest link. With United posing almost as little threat going forward as Arsenal were at the other end, the Frenchman gave away too much possession and conceded far too many free-kicks in dangerous areas - inviting trouble when there was no trouble there. The penalty awarded against him was a travesty and justice was done when Rooney missed it but, that aside, he looked poor. You suspect it is only because Kieran Gibbs has picked up so many recent injuries that Clichy is keeping his place in the team at the moment.
So, it was another disappointing showing in one of the red-letter fixtures of the season. Though the result itself doesn’t destroy Arsenal’s title ambitions - they are still second in the table and in the thick of things - but you do have to wonder how they are going to overcome the mental block they seem to have developed when travelling to places like United and Chelsea.
Psychologically, they never seem to exude the sort of belief it takes to turn up at these places and get a result and their recent record against United - one win in the last ten in all competitions - speaks volumes. Last night’s match shouldn’t have been one that the players needed any motivating for and yet the whole team looked a little jaded and timid in their approach; on top of which there were far to many below-par individual performances. It was all a bit depressing really.
It is hard to know what the answer is but a solution has to be found pretty quickly what with home games against Chelsea and Manchester City coming up over the next three weeks coupled with awkward away fixtures at Wigan and Birmingham over the festive period. Arsenal failed to win any of the four corresponding fixtures last season.
Before that though, Stoke City visit Ashburton Grove on Saturday and that is unlikely to be a match for faint hearts. Following Aaron Ramsey’s broken leg at the Britannia Stadium last season and both managers trading negative comments about each other in the media ever since, there is plenty of bad blood between the two clubs. This is not a game that the Arsenal players can approach with any sort of complacency, particularly in the light of their recent home form.
Despite the needle that exists between the two teams, it is important that the players are not drawn into petty squabbles or any score-settling. Their top priority must be to try to win three points and get themselves back on track.