Early on Saturday morning I tweeted that Arsène Wenger had two selection choices to make ahead of Arsenal’s trip to Old Trafford. There was a team I thought he would choose and a team I thought he should choose. And as the final whistle blew and the after effects of a very disappointing performance set in amongst Arsenal fans, I felt even more assured about my earlier statements.
Wenger had the benefit of being almost certain how Alex Ferguson would set up his side, which in theory should have made his selection choices easier. Manchester United were going to use the same system that they had a week earlier against Chelsea, since it was going to work for the same reasons. Wayne Rooney would drop deep to form a midfield five without possession, whilst effectively doing a man-marking job on Mikel Arteta, and Antonio Valencia would hug the right touchline to isolate the Arsenal left-back.
Knowing this, the decisions which the Arsenal manager had to make were over his choices at left-back and on the right wing. Starting with the left-back, I stated before the teams were announced that my choice would be to use Bacary Sagna on the left and Carl Jenkinson on the right. Manchester United’s biggest threat was likely to be down their right side, as it had been at Stamford Bridge the week earlier, via the pace and power of Antonio Valencia. My fear for Arsenal, however, was that Andre Santos would again be given the nod.
And so it turned out, with the Brazilian struggling from the first minute. Santos has been the source of much debate amongst Arsenal fans, with a piece criticising him here on Sabotage Times recently getting panned by several readers. They pointed to statistics as a source to defend him with but therein lies the problem with statistical based analysis – it can paint any picture you choose it to. To give you an example, Santos was statistically Arsenal’s best defender against QPR last week (clearances, interceptions etc.). However, if you watched the full 90 minutes then you would have realised he was in fact the worst and a constant liability throughout. If it wasn’t for the general ineptitude of Shaun Wright-Phillips on a number of occasions, his errors would have proved costly.
Valencia is the best natural winger this league has to offer and he must have been rubbing his hands together with glee at the prospect of running at him all afternoon. Time and time again, Santos made the mistake of standing square on to Valencia (something kids are taught to avoid, so there is no excuse for a professional) allowing the winger to skip past him on the inside or the outside over and over. While he should have had more support from the poor Lukas Podolski, the basic errors he made were unforgiveable. And a quick note on his fitness; I find it absurd that a professional sportsman cannot make it beyond twenty minutes without visibly huffing and puffing, it’s disgraceful. And swapping shirts at half-time with an opposition striker, one who has recently left your club, was equally appalling.
What is more unforgiveable, however, is that it was all so predictable. I could see this would happen if Santos started, so could the Sky pundits and so could the majority of Arsenal fans. It was the wrong decision to make, yet strangely it was the one I expected Wenger to go with. The preferred option would have been to shift Sagna to the left and start with the vastly improved Jenkinson on the right. Whilst it is not Sagna’s natural position, he is one of the finest full-backs in the league and would have been more than capable of doing an effective job on Valencia, certainly a better one that Santos could do even on his best day. Even moving Thomas Vermaelen (who had another awful day) to left-back would have been preferable, with Laurent Koscielny able to return at centre-back.
As for the right side of midfield, I thought Wenger would go with Aaron Ramsey whereas I thought it would have been wiser to use Theo Walcott from the start. When Arsenal visited Manchester City recently, Ramsey started and it worked, with the Gunners unlucky to leave with only a point. However, there was one key difference that day – Gervinho started as the centre of the attacking three instead of Olivier Giroud. That is not a comment on the relative merits of the two players but what Gervinho does bring to the side and Giroud lacks is pace.
Although he was wasteful in front of goal at the Etihad, the Ivorian’s general performance was good. He buzzed around throughout the game, constantly moving and getting involved in the build-up play, whilst importantly looking to run in behind the City defence. Accordingly, the fact that neither Ramsey nor Podolski have blistering pace was irrelevant as Gervinho provided that threat. However with Giroud starting at Old Trafford, Arsenal were so one paced in attack that United’s rickety defence looked entirely untroubled. The threat that Walcott would have brought, especially off the back of his excellent performance in midweek, would have added an entirely different dimension to the Arsenal front line. This is especially true when you consider that United have looked susceptible to pace all season. That it took until the 91st minute for Arsenal to register a shot on target tells its own story.
There was also another knock-on effect of this lack of pace. It allowed United’s defence to push further up the pitch, knowing that both Rio Ferdinand and Jonny Evans (neither of whom are particularly quick) would not get exposed with balls in behind them. This compressed the space in the middle of the pitch and restricted the room for Arsenal’s midfield three to operate in. If Arsenal were to win, they were going to have to dominate the midfield but the selection of Ramsey over Walcott proved a hindrance to this.
Whilst Ferguson got his selection correct, Wenger made a couple of glaring errors with his. It took an injury (Aaron Ramsey had a groin strain) for Wenger to introduce Theo Walcott and it was only then that Arsenal looked remotely capable of creating something, although by then the tone of the game had been set. The fact that so many others could see this before the game even kicked off should be a big concern for Arsenal fans.