September 17th, 2006 • 1:49 pm
That was bloody brilliant.
Obviously, I haven’t written anything about this EPL season yet because there hasn’t been much to write about. The Middlesborough victory against Chelsea was a nice upset, but it didn’t mean much in the greater scheme of things. And Arsenal’s first three games were obviously extremely frustrating to watch and to read about. So much potential, so much intricate passing, and so little end product.
But this is something else. It is already one of the games of the season, and one of the major results of this campaign. Arsenal will need to confirm with a string of victories against regular EPL opposition in the next few games, of course, but they have already achieved something quite magnificent. They have won at Old Trafford, against the only team that had a 100% record so far, in front of 75,000 supporters, and without Thierry Henry.
Most importantly, however, they asserted a convincing superiority on the pitch throughout the 90 minutes of the game. It’s true that things were pretty even in the first half and that each team had good chances, but the Gunners should really have been ahead at the break. They failed to convert a penalty, and missed a couple of great chances.
As the second half progressed, their domination became more evident, both in the statistics and on a psychological level. Rooney was muzzled, Ronaldo was his usual frustrating self, the Manchester United midfield was unimpressive, and the defence was quite shaky at times.
But, as we all know too well, domination doesn’t mean anything without the end product. The Manchester players made a couple of really bad mistakes that they should really have been punished for, and with more than 80 minutes on the clock, it was tempting to think that, with Thierry Henry on the pitch, the Gunners would have been ahead.
But then Thierry Henry was on the pitch for the first three games of the season, and that didn’t really help the Gunners bag the points. He was injured today, and so was van Persie, and so Adebayor had to shoulder most of the attacking responsibilities, which was always going to be a big ask, especially against such opposition. He had a good first 80 minutes, but failed to put the finishing touch on several major chances, and there were obvious signs of fatigue towards the end of the game.
Baptista also came on for the last 20 minutes and had a really great chance, which was inches wide of the post.
So it looked like we would have to settle for a point, in spite of our domination. And then… Fábregas and Adebayor tried to combine once more—and finally it worked! It was a typically Arsenal goal, one that in years past would have been scored by the pair of Vieira or Bergkamp and Henry. But obviously the younger players have been studying their predecessors and Wenger has been working his magic again.
That goal came pretty much at the ideal time in the game, with less than 10 minutes left to play. But of course you can never let down your guard against Manchester United until the final whistle blows, and we had the demonstration of this yet again a few minutes later. “Super-sub” Solskjaer was at it again, and it took a final stupendous save by Jens Lehmann to prevent him from equalizing. The German keeper also had to save a decent volley by Wes Brown.
Then the game did finally fizzle out and the Gunners managed to do what they had been doing for most of the game, i.e. keep possession and effectively stop United from building anything.
It was one terrific team performance, obviously the best one against United since that glorious win at Old Trafford in 2002 that gave the Gunners their league title. I think it’s fair to say that every player in the team had a fantastic game. They still all have their flaws, of course, including Adebayor’s wastefulness, Lehmann’s erratic behaviour, Gilberto’s occasionally woeful passing, Fábregas’s insufficient physical presence, etc.—but they also all have their qualities, and provided ample demonstration of this today.
Players like Rosicky, Ljungberg, and Hled did a lot of work to win balls, Touré was once again heroic through the pain barrier, Gallas, Éboué, and Djourou were very solid, Gilberto was a rock, etc.
This victory doesn’t magically solve all of this team’s current problems, of course. But it is one massive morale boost and puts them back on the right track in a really big way. Now we just need a few victories at the Emirates Stadium against less glorious opposition, so that the league position becomes a better reflection of the value of the team. One feels that that team needed a victory like this to become really aware of its actual potential—just like it needed that victory at the Bernabéu in February to become convinced that it could go all the way in the Champions’ League, and just like the French national team needed that victory against Spain in the World Cup to really start believing.
I also feel that Thierry Henry was right to ask for more from his colleagues prior to this game. His words probably had an impact and you could see it in the players’ commitment on the pitch. (I doubt very much that Ashley Cole’s own words had the same effect, though.) Now, this doesn’t solve the problem of Henry’s own indifferent form, of course, but hopefully he himself will start clicking again soon.
One thing is for sure: The “young guns” have proven—especially to themselves—that they do not necessarily need him on the pitch to find the motivation and desire to challenge for the top. This is a fantastic victory, and there should be renewed optimism for Arsenal and its fans after this.
It was also nice to see a game that wasn’t marred by ugly incidents and contentious refereeing decisions. Graham Poll did a great job and handled the incidents at both ends of the pitch early in the game quite well. Both keepers could have been sent off (although it would really have been harsh on Lehmann, who was just stupid) but stayed on and we had a much better game because of it.
I must admit that I haven’t felt such excitement about a football game since the France – Brazil quarter-final in July. This was just a great game to watch, and a terrific result for Arsenal.