Arsenal and Manchester United have enjoyed contrasting seasons to date, but on Wednesday both are faced with the crucial task of bouncing back from the lowest point of their campaigns.
Seeking to end a decade-long drought for a Premier League title, Arsenal exposed, really for the first time, on Saturday the full-scale of the vulnerabilities that many observers have long anticipated would emerge to derail their prospects.
To date this campaign, Arsene Wenger’s side have showed a valuable championship-winning quality to be able to efficiently dispense with the league’s lower-ranked teams. But at Anfield, when they were required to step up their game in the face of a Liverpool side that came out with ferocious intensity, they came up woefully short. Both mentally and tactically, Arsenal didn’t appear up to the challenge.
Whereas against the same opposition at the Emirates, Arsenal showed their superior quality by passing around them in midfield, at the weekend Wenger’s men failed to, as the cliché goes, earn the right to play. Liverpool’s pressing startled Arsenal and their mental fragility and unwillingness simply to dig in, led them to be 4-0 down within 20 minutes before eventually going down 5-1. With Mathieu Flamini suspended, the lack of a holding midfielder was exposed time and again in combination with the Per Mertesacker’s lack of pace as Liverpool bombarded them with early through balls.
While in some ways the result was simply the continuation of Arsenal’s poor record against the best teams, and they have already rebounded from a sound beating at Manchester City earlier in the campaign, this was different. All of the flaws that have so far only been hinted at, and for the most part covered up, were crudely laid bare. It’s the sort of defeat that brings reexamination and recriminations.
Arsenal are just a point off the top of the table, a position they would likely have taken at the start of the season, yet their campaign stands on the precipice of dissension into once more into mediocrity. With Manchester United to come on Wednesday, followed by an FA Cup fifth round clash again against Liverpool before the first leg of their Champions League last-16 tie against Bayern Munich, Arsenal have to bounce back immediately.
The visit of a United team mired in far greater abjectness should come as something of a relief. Unlike Arsenal, United did not suffer a defeat at the weekend, but the 2-2 draw with Fulham at Old Trafford will surely have felt worse than the vast majority of losses David Moyes has endured in his managerial career.
The start to the Scot’s reign at the Premier League champions was difficult, but, rather than turning it around, it has descended into nothing more than a disaster. Against a Fulham side with little ambition to leave their penalty area, United’s lack of ingenuity under Moyes was put on full horrific show. Cross after cross, 81 in total, was hurled into a Fulham box teeming with defenders who were only too welcoming of the predictable aerial assault.
Moyes had Robin van Persie, Wayne Rooney and Juan Mata on the pitch forming a trio that would be the envy of most clubs in the world, to be joined in the second half by one of Europe’s most promising creative players, Adnan Januzaj. Yet, instead of the ability of those players being used to move the Fulham defenders around with quick passing and movement, tactics were deployed that, as Fulham defender Dan Burns suggested afterward, were more akin to something found in the Conference.
It was far from an isolated incident. By some margin, United have averaged more crosses per game than any other side in the Premier League this season. It is why for all the hoopla surrounding the signing of a wonderfully talented player, the capture of Mata raised as many concerns as problems it solved.
Clearly, almost regardless of the manager, United still possess a squad that is capable of beating the majority of teams in the Premier League and finishing high up the table. The worry now is that, such is their disillusion with the situation, the players have stopped fighting for the cause,
After Sunday’s result, Moyes conceded his side had showed a “mental softness.” It’s not clear what his intention was, but in making such a comment he has effectively hung himself out to dry. If it is true that Moyes inherited a squad that were not as talented as their title winning exploits suggested, then the one thing they most certainly had under the previous manger was mental toughness.
It was that toughness that was responsible for Manchester United’s victory over Arsenal earlier in the season. There was little flowing football on show, but United’s players that day rose to the occasion of meeting a long-time rival while Arsenal’s shrunk in the face of it.
With both clubs now at low mental ebbs, it is hard to surmise how each will react on Wednesday. Back at the comfort of the Emirates and on the back of, before the weekend, a far more impressive season than United, the expectation has to be for an Arsenal victory.
Manchester United lack the vigor in midfield to press Arsenal in the way that Liverpool did. Moyes, habitually conservative away from home, will also be reluctant to so, in the knowledge that, while a draw would be seen as a perfectly respectable result, a defeat would lead to further harsh inspections of his tenure. If United descend into the labored, predictable buildup they have so often displayed this campaign, then it will play right into Arsenal’s hands. Meanwhile, despite being shell-shocked, Wenger’s outfit should have the quality in the final third to open up a United defense that looks increasingly porous.
Prediction: Arsenal 1-0 Manchester United
Sports reporter, mainly focusing on my native sport of soccer, but also dabbling in some tennis and Formula One.