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Arsenal, United need to toughen up
David Moyes has such a stomach-churning meal on his plate it feels almost cruel to pile it on by recalling the last time Manchester United steeled themselves for a trip to the Emirates Stadium. It was last April. United had just won their 20th Premier League title. Sir Alex Ferguson hadn’t yet dropped his retirement bombshell and relished the moment of masterminding another success.
Arsenal decided that they ought to do the decent thing and they instructed their team to form a guard of honor to welcome English football’s relentless champions onto their turf. It hurt. Robin van Persie, whose move north had given United’s title bid a new driving force, stepped out in between his old team-mates and that image crystallised exactly why United continued at English football’s summit -- and Arsenal were stuck trying to claw out a place in the top four.
At that moment in time, anyone suggesting that a few months later it would be United under intense pressure and desperately worried about trying to gain a spot on the Champions League grid, with Arsenal a point off the lead, would have been laughed out of town. The points swing since that meeting last April is a barely credible 35 points. United were 21 points ahead of Arsenal back then. Arsenal are currently 14 points ahead of United.
United’s decline continues to shock the system. From their last nine matches they have lost five, and two of the others felt as crushing as a defeat (they did actually beat Sunderland over 90 minutes in the Capital One Cup before going out on penalties, and that last-gasp Fulham equalizer floored them sufficiently that the point of the draw was lost in the gloom). No wonder Moyes said that this managing Manchester United lark was worse than he could have imagined.
It is unfortunate that many of his pronouncements, and attempts at explanation, don’t seem to be helping at all. For a Manchester United manager to use the words "mental softness" about his team, as Moyes did in the aftermath of that sucker-punch draw against bottom-of-the-table Fulham, is an eye opener. We are all accustomed to seeing Ferguson seethe at below-par performances. Moyes appears to be trying to be reasonable, but ends up giving signals that his style lacks the required power. Has that softness come from the top? Has it trickled down to get under the surface of certain players, to spread throughout United’s game-plan? You can’t help wondering whether the atmosphere might be different with someone with a streak of nastiness and a scale of personality to stamp a little more authority on the scene.
At least United are about to meet a club who are also – albeit more suddenly – confronting some serious doubts and feeling the soreness that comes on that back of a bruising defeat. Mikel Arteta described Arsenal’s agony at Liverpool as a "car crash". If they felt dazed in the aftermath, they certainly need to dust themselves down and re-focus sharpish. An immediate response is vital. Not only in the Premier League against United, but also when they are re-acquainted with their Liverpudlian tormentors next weekend in the FA Cup. (Let’s not worry about Bayern Munich at least until those two hurdles are out of the way).
That thrashing at Liverpool, with absolutely no redeeming features, came at a dreadful time for Arsenal, simply because it adds to their sense of, as Moyes might put it, “mental softness” when it comes to facing the most difficult tests. Arsenal have shown greatly improved resilience overall this season, but have crumbled when it came to the crunch in matches at Old Trafford, the Etihad and Anfield. They have had a habit of responding well, and given the whirlwind of tests ahead of them, a good response this time would carry important weight.
Some are predicting a meltdown. It wouldn’t be the first time they have collapsed from a positive position like a house of cards. It is up to Arsenal to prove the critics wrong. "Mental strength" used to be an Arsene Wenger catchphrase – in fact one that was sometimes so misplaced Arsenal supporters used to do impressions of Edvard Munch’s painting of "The Scream" when they heard it. Come Wednesday night, two teams dearly in need of some genuine bona fide mental strength will look each other in the eye. They dare not blunder again…
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