FOX Soccer Exclusive
Arsenal, United fail to ease doubts
Tired legs and tired minds were the main attraction on Wednesday night as Arsenal and Manchester United labored to a 0-0 draw that did neither team much good. With Manchester City’s match called off due to inclement weather in the North, the result leaves Arsenal a point off the top behind Chelsea, and sees their serious rivals for the crown left with a game in hand.
The best you could say is that neither team looked as poor as they had in their previous outings. However, you could also argue they were both as devoid of ideas as in the games at Anfield and Old Trafford. United had the better chances, coming entirely off Arsenal’s mistakes; while the Gunners were reduced to the same tactics that Fulham had made United pay for on Sunday: cross in and hope.
The first half was a scrappy and undistinguished affair, with United having the better chances due to Arsenal mistakes. Robin van Persie almost made his club pay very early when Mikel Arteta coughed up the ball in just the second minute, allowing the Dutch striker to steam toward Wojciech Szczesny’s net. He should have scored there and then, but incredibly, he lost his footing in the box, pushing his shot tamely toward the Polish keeper for an easy save.
The next and only chance of note in the half came when van Persie beat the offside trap after twenty minutes, and found himself again alone wide left. But, seeming to think the flag was going to go up, he hesitated, and with the crowd baying at him, he pulled his shot wide right of the entire net.
Arsenal grew into the match however, and began to exhibit some of the defensive steel they had failed to show on the weekend at Anfield. Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny combined well to repel United’s crosses, removing both Wayne Rooney and Juan Mata from the match. And with Arteta sitting in front of the back four, Arsenal looked more of a threat going forward, with Tomas Rosicky a dynamic presence out wide.
But there wasn’t enough quality on display to find a way through an admittedly flawed backline. Nemanja Vidic was shaky again, with Olivier Giroud repeatedly beating him in the air, but the interplay between Mesut Ozil and Santi Cazorla wasn’t nearly crisp enough. Jack Wilshere at times looked simply wild.
It wasn’t until the second half that either side looked like they could find a breakthrough, with United again having the better chance. Koscielny rose above the pack to head on a Cazorla corner, but found Valencia well-positioned on the line to repel it. Twenty minutes later, a lapse in communication allowed Rooney to finally tee up van Persie in full flight. He should have scored but Sczcesny got a mitt to the header and tipped it off the bar and away. David De Gea did make a critical stop with seven minutes remaining when he tipped away a fine shot by Cazorla.
Inbetween? Not much. There were plenty of ticky-tack fouls, a lot of remonstrations with ref Mark Clattenburg, and little else.
"I think we lost two points, we missed an opportunity to go top of the league but a point keeps us in the race," said Wenger following Arsenal's on Wednesday night. "Where we are usually very dangerous, breaking through the middle, United defended very well. They have very experienced players in the middle there. They are very good team who can play against anyone, even our team."
This has been a roller-coaster Premier League season and it would foolish to make predictions based on just this game. But both of these teams look flawed, and Arsenal, in particular, look a player short of being able to hang on and seize the title. With Theo Walcott and Aaron Ramsey sidelined, they lack a player that can hold up play and give Ozil room to create. And, on Wednesday night, their over-reliance on Giroud as a fulcrum was again exposed as they were unable really pull United apart. One would have thought that Arsenal might have exposed the creaking pairing of Vidic and second half sub Rio Ferdinand -- once United's first-choice pairing but now a creaky relic. They were not.
For United, it was a gritty point that stops some of the rot. David Moyes will be pleased with his side’s defensive organization, but he will be dismayed by how badly Mata vanished from this match, and how fragile his back line looks for the run-in to a European slot. They remain nine points off Liverpool in that race and if we’re honest, don’t look anywhere close to matching their arch-rivals’ quality.
"I thought we did a lot of good things in the game, we had a nice shape, we were nice and compact, and there were some good moments," said United boss David Moyes after the match. "I see as it as a positive result, it’s a hard place to come. If you said to me that I’d have four points from Arsenal at the end of the season, I wouldn’t be too disappointed. We had a great chance in the opening minute. The first goal was very important tonight and we didn’t get it. But we did a lot of good things, we defended very well."
49 - David Moyes has now won none of 49 PL away games at the 'Big Four' (Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool & Man Utd) (W0 D19 L30). Block.— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) February 12, 2014
Elsewhere, the weather that has ravaged the south of England hit the north hard, with two matches called off just prior to kickoff. Manchester police decided that City’s game against Sunderland had to be called off after the area was hit by what were locally described as “hurricane-force” winds. At least one train en route to the game was halted after trees were felled onto the track. Everton’s game against Crystal Palace was also called off after high winds damaged a building, leading Merseyside police to intervene. Both games will be rescheduled for a later date.