In May 2009, Manchester United came to the Emirates in a cup game and handed a developing Arsenal team a football lesson, winning 3-1, the first two goals coming in quick succession in the first half. It was a deflating evening.
Fast forward four months short of a decade, and it suddenly feels like the club has been treading water in all that time. Nothing seems to have changed. Now go back 10 years from May 2009 and we have some more deflating memories – of another cup defeat at the hands of United, although on neutral ground, with a 2-1 scoreline after extra time. At least that collective of players recovered, with new additions, to win a string of trophies over the following six seasons. At the moment, it’s hard to feel too optimistic about the next six years at Arsenal. At least, between 1999 and 2002, the club had money to spend (it dried up with the new stadium project, but by that time, key personnel had been secured – Henry, Pires, Sol Campbell, Lauren, Gilberto to name a few). Now, even if the club were owned by a billionaire willing to invest in playing staff, FFP rules dictate there is a limit on how much they could do. Everyone now, in theory, is operating on a self-sufficiency model. Manchester City get round it by their huge sponsorship deals with their owner’s companies. But for everyone else, it’s money through their varied sources of income that determines their ability to do business for new players. Roman Abramovich has stopped pumping funds into Chelsea due to his visa situation, and would probably sell the club if the right offer came along.
Arsenal do not have much room for manoeuvre – compared to the money making machine at Old Trafford for example – because of their wage bill. It is way too high, a legacy of the previous regime awarding contracts to players paying them more than their worth. It was a model based upon continued Champions League participation, but a series of poor buys meant that as Liverpool and Spurs improved, Arsenal could not maintain their consistency. Now the club are stuck with a squad where too many of the players are simply not of the standard required. United can afford to pay Alexis Sanchez more than Arsenal are paying Mesut Ozil – and it doesn’t hamper them as much when they seek players to improve their squad.
Which brings us to the game and the booing of Sanchez. Panto season isn’t quite over yet it seems. Sanchez is a talented player who served Arsenal pretty well, but quite evidently fell out with many of his team-mates. He, like most footballers, prioritised personal finance over club loyalty and could do better by moving elsewhere. Additionally, he seemed to care more about winning than many of his colleagues – at least that was my impression. Arsenal decided to let him go to United because they felt they would do better trading him for a player rather than getting nothing for him a few months later. Sanchez chose to go to United because they were offering a bigger pay packet than anyone else. I didn’t boo Sanchez last night. Perhaps better to focus one’s energy on getting behind your own team? Just a thought. Still, it’s all entertainment. We pay our money we have the choice to do as we choose within the ground regulations. No-one takes it that seriously, but I never enjoy seeing former players get this kind of reception, understanding their personal priorities are to themselves rather than any one club. That’s just me though.
As for the game, no need to rake over the coals in depth. Arsenal were unfortunate to lose two more centre backs to injury, and we can only guess when either will be back. It certainly didn’t help the team. United’s first two goals were a result of Emery’s team playing the offside trap badly. Maitland-Niles wasn’t in line for the first goal and Koscielny unwisely tried to use it for the second. Steve Bould is on the coaching staff, but my suspicion is that he isn’t taking the defenders through the kind of George Graham drills upon which 18 years of success were built. Good times. And you know what, for many reading this, the period between 1987 and 2005 will be as good as it gets in our Arsenal supporting lives. 13 trophies in 18 seasons. Some wonderful football and great matches under two managers at the peak of their powers. To think, the club moved stadium to build upon that success.
Back to the game anyway and Arsenal gave us hope with a goal before the interval, and had a go in the second half. The best chance was the point blank header from Ramsey that was saved by Romero. Lacazette tried manfully, but there were too many instances of over-playing it in the United box when getting a shot away would have been more effective. It is a hangover from the attempt to score the perfect goal from the previous manager’s era. If you have Messi, Suarez, Neymar and Iniesta in the team, it might come off more often.
Ultimately though, United proved adept at closing off the channels and getting their interceptions in. Given that Grant Xhaka was moved to centre back once Koscielny was taken off, a counter attack was always going to result in a likely goal, and so it proved. That Rashford and Martial had joined the fray by this time told you that. In the end, the third United goal came and the home fans streamed out, even though there would be ten minutes of injury time added. In truth, the players seemed to lose heart after the third goal, and it was no wonder. Ozil came on for Iwobi on 64 minutes and got heavily involved, but ultimately to little effect. He couldn’t unpick United’s defensive lock.
So Arsenal exit the FA Cup. Time will tell whether this ultimately assists their season. They have two prizes to focus on now. Top four and Europa League. Frankly with the defending as we have seen it so far this season, there isn’t a huge amount of optimism here. Is it personnel, tactics or lack of coaching? Probably a combination of all three. How revolutionary would it be to give the players to Bould or another defensive co-ordinator for 30 minutes every day so they could work on this? With Emery watching so that he can incorporate the lessons into his tactical approach. For a piece one day I will look at the defensive solidity of Sevilla when they won their three Europa Leagues in a row under Emery. Then we will have a better idea whether improvement is likely. And if it isn’t… well, how long can the club afford to wait before trying someone else?
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