Missed opportunity to make a statement at Old Trafford

Posted by James McNicholas

At the top level, football matches are decided by the finest of margins. At Old Trafford, one brief lapse in concentration at a set piece allowed Robin van Persie to nip ahead of Aaron Ramsey and head home the game’s only goal Sunday.

That it should come from van Persie felt inevitable. He is the pantomime villain of this fixture, and seems to have fully embraced the role. Last year his celebrations against the Gunners were demure; this time round he made sure everyone knew how delighted he was to score.

That’s the way it should be. There is no love lost between Arsenal fans and van Persie, and both parties know it. Any pretense at enduring respect is a waste of everyone’s time and energy.

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The goal was just reward for United’s first-half superiority. Arsenal were sloppy in possession and looked weary without the ball, with several players perhaps feeling the effects of a pre-match bout of flu that robbed them of Per Mertesacker and Tomas Rosicky.

It’s worth noting that Arsenal also came in to this fixture on the back of two difficult games against Liverpool and Borussia Dortmund. United’s fixture list, pitting them against Fulham and Real Sociedad, had been rather more kind.

Arsenal improved drastically after the break. The introduction of Jack Wilshere on the hour mark added some much-needed vigour to the midfield, and Nemanja Vidic’s withdrawal with concussion afforded Olivier Giroud a chance to get in to the game.

However, Arsenal could not convert their possession to clear goal-scoring opportunities.

Arsenal’s creative players were all below par. Aaron Ramsey has been the Gunners' player of the season thus far, but looked out of sorts on the right wing. Many of the bad habits that had previously dogged his game returned: the wayward passing, aimless back-heels and overly ambitious shooting were all in evidence.

On the opposite flank, Santi Cazorla struggled to impose himself upon the game. Chris Smalling, then Phil Jones, did well to shackle him, and it was only when wandering on to the right wing that he seemed likely to provide any threat.

However, the greatest culprit was arguably Arsenal’s record signing: Mesut Ozil.

Ozil is adored by the Arsenal fans. His global status and enormous price tag make him a symbol of the Gunners’ rejuvenation. The Emirates faithful are desperate for him to be a success -- and thus far, he has been. However, even his staunchest supporters would have to admit that he was poor at Old Trafford.

Not only was his passing unusually imprecise, but he also appeared to duck out of what looked a great opportunity to head in an equaliser. When a cross from the left floated into Ozil’s path, he didn’t even jump. Afterwards, he smiled ruefully. Arsenal fans watching struggled to match his grin.

In several recent big matches, Ozil has been forced to switch from the centre to the right wing in order to exert any influence. While this provides the German international with more space, it also removes him from the most dangerous part of the pitch. Arsenal need Ozil to flourish in the centre, as that’s where he can hurt teams most.

It’s telling that Arsenal’s best chances were created not by an attacking midfielder but a full-back. Twice, Bacary Sagna swung in excellent crosses, only for his Arsenal colleagues to fail to get a touch.

With Arsenal’s usual creative forces underperforming, manager Arsene Wenger might have wished to withdraw them. However, Wilshere aside, the bench was bare. Teenage midfielder Isaac Hayden was forced to travel up from London on the morning of the game just to make up the numbers. When Wenger needed a goal, he had to turn to Nicklas Bendtner -- a man whose disparaging comments about his own club and manager found their way into the national papers Sunday morning.

These were desperate times with disappointing measures. By contrast, David Moyes could afford to leave the clinical Javier Hernandez as an unused substitute.

Ultimately, Arsenal were beaten, but not outclassed. Had Ozil and his creative comrades been on better form, the Gunners might even have found a way to win.

Wenger will be left to wonder what might have been. Arsenal had an opportunity to bury United’s title hopes and establish an 11-point lead over Moyes’ team. With Chelsea, Manchester City and Spurs also dropping points, the Gunners would have been comfortably clear at the top of the Premier League.

However, this is no time for despondency. This result may have bumped United up the table, but the narrow manner of their victory means there has been no seismic shift in the clubs' respective momentum. Moyes' team didn’t exhibit the verve and flair you associate with previous championship-winning sides from Old Trafford.

Arsenal, meanwhile, remain top of the league. They have come through a difficult period with two wins from three games, and can look forward to less daunting fixtures against the likes of Cardiff and Hull in the coming weeks.

When Arsenal resume Premier League action Nov. 23, Wenger should also be able to call upon the likes of Theo Walcott and Lukas Podolski -- both much missed at Old Trafford.

United won the battle, but with the cavalry due to arrive, Arsenal could yet win the war.

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