5 Things We Learned: Arsenal 0-0 Manchester United
1. Better, but room for improvement
MOST reports I read and comments I’ve heard since the game, predictably, centred on how it was a classic, lifeless, 0-0 draw.
A draw, coupled with a resilient, late win for Liverpool at Fulham, stretches the Merseysiders’ lead over Manchester United in the ever diminishing battle for a top four place, but I honestly thought it was an improvement on recent performances.
OK, we can bemoan how this season’s United are a shadow of the team that stormed to the league title by 11 points last year and question how we can be pleased by such abject results and performances when we’re flipping Man United, but let’s take our little victories while we can.
We kept a clean sheet, we competed well and our all round defensive display was robust.
In a season of continuing struggle and failure, the game at least produced a battling reaction from United.
The players chased, tackled, and competed ferociously. They showed fight and we were difficult to break down – two traits that we have been sadly lacking this season.
2. Widemen vs No 10s
UNITED have traditionally played with tricky, pacy wingers, which flies in the face of today’s transforming football landscape where the playmaker is king.
United have an embarrassment of riches in the No 10 role, with Wayne Rooney, Juan Mata, Adnan Januzaj, Shinji Kagawa and even Tom Cleverley all able to play in the hole behind the striker.
Most fans and critics believe United’s best options up top at the moment are to play Robin van Persie as the main striker, with Rooney in the hole behind and Mata and Januzaj playing either side, but centrally, narrower, as neither are traditional widemen.
The problem is moving away from the traditional United style of flying wingers.
David Moyes should be aware that none of his widemen have been convincing this season.
Nani has spent most of the season out injured, or been unimpressive, Antonio Valencia has been in rut really since being named United’s player of the season for the 2011/12 season, while Fergie’s last signing as United manager, Wilfried Zaha, is on loan at Cardiff City, with no-one able to explain just why he hasn’t been given a fair crack of the whip by Moyes.
It says it all really that Ashley Young – who has proved that while he was a big fish in a small pond at Aston Villa, United has been too big a step up for him – has probably been United’s best wideman this season.
Moyes’ biggest fault is that he can’t seem to make up his mind what system he wants to use. The traditional knock it out wide and let the wingers terrorise full backs method. Or the more intricate, central, attacking policy.
It amazes me that he seems to be going for a mixture of both in the games since Mata’s arrival.
At the Emirates, he went with Valencia and Mata out wide, while Mata played on the opposite wing to Young against both Fulham and Stoke.
Strangely, Januzaj has been used only fleetingly in this period.
When he was on the bench against Fulham, I thought Moyes was saving him for Arsenal, but he was only on the bench again – arguably our best player this season.
Despite our troubles this season, United can still frighten defences, and with an attacking quartet of Van Persie, Rooney, Mata and Januzaj, we’ll strike fear into anyone.
Moyes has given our wingers a fair crack this season, bar Zaha, and there’s nothing to say he can’t use them from the bench as Plan B, but at this moment in time, he’s got nothing to lose.
He needs to bite the bullet and dispense with tradition.
Give the four horsemen the reigns and see if they can get United back in the race four fourth.
3. RVP’s second season syndrome
ROBIN van Persie’s debut season in the red of United was simply phenomenal.
People, wrongly, claim we were a one man team, but his goals certainly went a long way to winning us our 20th title.
This season, a few factors have combined to turn the Dutchman’s second campaign at Old Trafford from a dream into more of a nightmare.
Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement has irked Van the Man, he’s spent a significant period on the sidelines through injury, and the transition the Reds are going through in the wake of Fergie’s departure has resulted in them being out of the running of all but the Champions League by the end of January.
There are rumours circulating that Van Persie is unsettled, upset at the fact that the man who was influential in bringing him to Old Trafford and apparently told him he was going to be around for a few years to come, called time on 27 years at the club’s helm at the end of his first season.
He’s also said to be critical of David Moyes’ stringent training regimes, which have been blamed for so many player injuries this season.
Add to this the uncertainty surrounding the future of Van Persie’s strike partner Wayne Rooney, and it’s been a really troubling season for United fans, and this summer could bring more stress.
I love Van Persie, but honestly he needs to grow up.
So, Fergie’s left. United fans were upset too, but all he talked about when he joined was about the ‘little boy inside of him who was screaming for Man Utd’.
Of course it’s all rumour and speculation, and there could be no chance of him wanting to leave, but his body language since coming back into the team has hardly been encouraging.
He’s a class act and with him on the pitch, United are always likely to score, but even though he’s scored in three of the four games he’s played since he’s been back, he still doesn’t look quite at the peak of his powers.
Against Arsenal, he looked uptight and affected by the atmosphere created by the snarling Arsenal fans still angry that he left to further his career.
He played like he had something to prove, which of course he doesn’t, and his tame effort on goal in the first few minutes of the game showed that either he is still not quite back to his best, or that the occasion of returning to his former club was playing on his mind, or both.
Despite his unconvincing performance, you’re always though that he can score.
That almost proved to be the case when he could have won the game for us with the best chance of the match, and it was only a special save from Wojciech Szczęsny that denied the striker a fourth consecutive goal in the four games he has played against his former club since moving to Manchester.
This season has certainly been very different to his debut season in United red.
4. How times have changed
FOR many years throughout the Premier League era, United v Arsenal clashes were titanic and usually meaningful.
They have been the two giants of the modern era of top flight English football for two decades, but times they are-a-changing.
Ten years ago this game would have been a title decider and, despite the fact that Arsenal are still very much in the hunt this year, the fact that they still haven’t won a trophy since beating us in the FA Cup final of 2005, combined with our fall from grace, is proof of how far these two great clubs have fallen behind their mega rich opponents who have embraced growth and development by throwing money at their squads.
In a way it’s admirable how Arsene Wenger and Sir Alex have largely tried to improve their teams without the help of oligarchs and billionaire royal families from afar.
It’s also sad to see how Arsenal and United are and have struggled in the changing face of the Premier League though, how both have toiled to spend wisely and develop from within, while staving off the aristocratic exploits of the nouveau riche and also being burdened by the weight of their own version of foreign ownership.
Arsenal’s £40m purchase of Mesut Ozil last summer was a break from tradition for Wenger, while even though United have splashed the cash more extravagantly by comparison, when you look closer it pales in significance to Chelsea and Manchester City.
I’m not saying for one minute that United have not spent big. We’ve twice broken our transfer record in the last five years – Dimitar Berbatov arrived for £30.75m in August 2008 and Juan Mata became the most expensive player in United’s history last month when he was bought from Chelsea for £37m.
The fact remains though that while United have continued to do relatively big business despite being burdened by the debt of the Glazers, while Chelsea and City have been able to dip, interest free, into the deep pockets of their owners, there’s also been a change in emphasis toward discovering emerging, young talent.
United’s transfer kitties have been funded by their global popularity, and most of their big purchases have not actually been as big as people think.
We bagged a then record £80m when we sold Cristiano Ronaldo to Real Madrid in 2009 – and essentially replaced him with £16m Antonio Valencia.
In fact, between the purchases of Berbatov and Van Persie, there had been a distinct focus from Fergie on bringing in promising potential to the club, with the likes of Javier Hernandez, Phil Jones, Chris Smalling, David de Gea, Wilfried Zaha, Nick Powell and Shinji Kagawa being the bulk of where the money was spent between 2009 and 2013.
5. Fergie should share the blame
DAVID Moyes has been the butt of countless jokes this season and the target of much criticism – but Sir Alex Ferguson is as equally to blame as him, if not more so.
Ferguson’s chronic underinvestment in the squad in the final years of his tenure have helped to contribute to United’s slide this season.
We’ve all grown tired of the debate about United’s lack of quality in midfield, but the fact of the matter is is that until it is appropriately addressed, the debate will linger.
Fergie struggled to replace Paul Scholes, one of if not the finest midfielder of his generation, but our midfield problems have been around since Roy Keane left the club acrimoniously in 2005.
It is abundantly clear that spending a lot of money in the summer, on the squad as a whole, is the needed for United to fix this season’s decline.
Ed Woodward’s comments prior to the Arsenal game alluded to a possible mammoth recruitment drive in the summer, which was refreshing.
Hopefully, his prophecy will become reality, which will at least help to eradicate the painful memories of a largely forgettable season.
Hopefully, United fans can look forward to a much needed shot in the arm in the summer, which will provide a boost to a squad that, although whispered very softly by most, was allowed to deteriorate by the previous manager.
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