Robin van Persie had a great early chance, but his finishing let him down badly.
Manchester United emerged from the Emirates last night with a 0-0 draw against Arsenal. United’s ever-chirpy Instagram account described it as a “promising point” while fans on Twitter, in contravention of basic mathematics and the fact that Arsenal away is quite a difficult game, determined it to be a “pointless point.” The buildup to the match was somewhat strange, with United miles away from the title race for the first time in decades, and the Gunners still in contention for the first time in at least six years.
Nevertheless, this fixture played out as it often has in recent years – tense, tight, United set up to defend deep and hit on the break, with Arsenal playing most of their football in front of the United backline. With both teams coming off massive disappointments – including Arsenal’s 5-1 shellacking at Anfield, and every aspect of Manchester United’s existence for the past eight months – there was a palpable hesitancy about the attacking play, and 0-0 in the end was an unsurprising result. As always, we look forward to hearing from both sets of fans (as well as resident comment troll Minimal, whose allegiance is yet to be determined).
Attack: Robin spurns two, Mata decent from the middle
As is traditional with United under Mr. Moyes – Liverpool have now scored more first-half goals than United have in total, for Fuch’s sake - there wasn’t much attacking to speak of from the lads in
red black-and-blue-chequered-nonsense. In the first half, Robin expertly purloined the ball from Arteta before firing off a limp mothball of a shot into Szczesny’s barely-outstretched arms. In the second, Robin and Wayne Rooney combined for a late counter-attack which, if it had yielded a goal and a subsequent 1-0 victory, would have: a) been an unusually brilliant goal for the Moyes era, or maybe a top 10 away-at-Arsenal goal in the Ferguson era, and b) prompted loads of talk on Twitter about a “mature, disciplined display” by United.
As it stands, his header was thwarted by a decent
CTRL-C, CTRL-V Szczesny save, and we’ve had loads of talk on Twitter today about, err, this. Bloody hell, Robin. Do better next time. Wayne Rooney was good, I guess, I dunno. Juan Mata was not particularly effective when stationed 50 yards from the goal on the left hand side of the pitch, and substantially better when closer to goal, nearer the middle of the pitch and able to see where he could pass to Robin. Whether Mr. Moyes will have noticed a pattern here is a matter of deep and futile speculation.
Antonio Valencia also participated in the match.
Midfield battle: Cleverley the Lesser does well
For both teams, this was a chance for the midfield to make a statement. Off the back of Arsenal’s weekend humiliation, Mesut Özil has come in for criticism from almost all quarters, after delivering no assists or goals over a long stretch of games. Aaron Ramsey has been injured for a long time, and Tomas Rosicky came back into the side. On paper, the Gunners had a very impressive set of players lining up behind Olivier Giroud: Arteta, Wilshere, Rosicky, Özil and Cazorla. One could reasonably have expected a steady stream of chances to come Giroud’s way, but in the end the United backline was largely well-protected by Michael Carrick and Tom Cleverley.
Cleverley’s come in for massive criticism this season – not without reason – but he had a very good game last night, at least in the context of the player he’s become. He’s had a very strange career at United. Initially, around 2011/12, fans clamoured for him to be put into the side after impressing on loan at Wigan and frequently doing nice things during United’s famously challenging pre-season tours. Click the second of those links for a headline that now seems completely surreal.
Originally, United fans thought that Tom was a player who passed the ball quickly, was eager to get the ball forward, and had a good eye for goal – “progressive” and “vertical” are the adjectives that come to the part of my mind that wears a tweed beret and has an iPad that is solely dedicated to the Squawka app. We had ample evidence that he was exactly this type of player. We saw that from pretending to watch his games at Wigan, we saw that in the three or four preseason games we could be bothered to half-drunkenly stay up for one summer, and we saw that in the heady days of August 2011, when Cleverley helped turn the game against Manchester City in the 2011 Community Shield, when United beat Arsenal Reserves 8-2, and Cleverley and Anderson really, legitimately looked like the future of the Manchester United midfield. But, as usually happens when something is too much of a mindf**k to be true, reality intervened. He proceeded to have his ankle assaulted at Bolton, City trounced United 6-1 in October, and all of the preceding happy tappy Cleverley-centric football now seems like a distant fantasy.
Since then, either his injuries – or instructions from Fergie (and later, Moyes), or instructions from his #TC23 branding focus groups, or karmic retribution for lame haircuts and having a lame clothing line, or some combination of the preceding – have contrived to turn him into a completely different kind of midfielder. A safer, more hard-working midfielder. One whose efforts are now best captured by mileage statistics and ball recoveries, than by moments that make supporters get up out of their seats with excitement. One whose passing – having previously been a keen exponent of the quick one-two – is solely a means of retaining possession, rather than disrupting the opponents’ defence. At a time when United’s attacks are self-parodically one-dimensional, the need for the player that Cleverley promised to be – that he was, for a brief and seemingly half-imaginary time – is as great now as it ever has been. The frankly ridiculous negativity that comes his way from some United fans, I think, is borne out of disappointment with the player he has turned out to be, compared with the player that we wanted him to be. It is not that he is a bad player – he signally is not – but he is a vastly lesser player than what we expected him to be.
Anyway, back to the Arsenal game, and Cleverley did very well at the boring but highly-useful stuff. Both he and Carrick put in lots of tackles, interceptions, beings-in-the-right-place and whatnot, and generally ensured that Arsenal’s danger-men – Özil, Cazorla, Rosicky – had only sporadic views of the goalmouth. In his current guise – hard-working, dogged, unimaginative in posession – he’s actually ideally-suited to an away game at one of the best possession-based teams in the country. This was another in a series of good, scrappy, positionally smart performances for United in the “big” games – he’s also done well against Chelsea in the past, and was excellent in this role at the Etihad in late 2012, when United won 3-2.
Tom’s problem is that when United aren’t playing the best sides in England and Europe – i.e. most of the time – they need him to be the Cleverley of summer 2011 – the one who set a thousand blogs posting – and not Cleverley the Lesser, the player of now and the recent past. Ultimately, whether he can still be that better player and do those things will determine how supporters view him.
As for Michael Carrick, he was excellent without the ball, and so-so with it. He was also responsible for a staggeringly negative final possession when, with the prospect of a late winner opening up, he deemed it necessary to pass the ball backwards and run the clock out with aimless, infuriating tedium. United still haven’t seen the best of Carrick this season, not even close, but he’s had two pretty good performances this week. The club will have to hope that he finds form and builds on his last few performances, if they’re to have any chance at all of a European spot for next season.
Defence: Vidic vs. Giroud, Rio’s return, Smalling solid
Nemanja Vidic, one half of arguably the greatest centre-back pairing in United’s history, started alongside Chris Smalling. Early on, Giroud gave Vidic a great deal trouble, dominating him in the air, and fashioning a chance from a corner by selling the Serb a simple dummy. Indeed, it was unfamiliar to see Vidic beaten in the air so frequently. While Vidic came back from that with a commanding second half display in the air – replete with Superman headers out into touch – he continued to make dangerous fouls, and Giroud continued to find space on the ground, nearly getting on the end of a wicked cross from Sagna at one point.
It was a display that simultaneously showed the best and the worst of Vidic. Despite his age and a waning of vertical spring, he remains relentlessly physical, still one of the most entertainingly violent headerers of a football ever to connect cranium to cowskin. Given that United’s season is probably over from a
glory Champions League TV-money-chasing point of view, there’s a good argument that he should play all our remaining games, for the sheer thrill of seeing him inflict himself upon the league’s strikers (hat tip to Beautifully Red for the GIFs). Still, the game at Emirates also provided further evidence of the slowness in thought and deed which mean Vidic, at 32 – relatively young, in centre-backing terms – can no longer be thought of as a world-class defender.
Rio Ferdinand, the other half of that legendary but now-creaking defensive pair, is probably on his way out as well this summer. He put in a good forty-five minutes against Arsenal, maybe enough to earn him a start or two – which would be his first since November – while the younger defenders recover from their usual injury woes. Chris Smalling did well at centre-back in the first half and at right back in the second, though his awkwardness on the ball will always mean a diminution of the team’s attacking ability when he takes up the latter position.
That was probably the best Manchester United have played in 2014, yet many fans were disappointed afterwards – not necessarily with the result, but with the fact that Liverpool are now 11 points clear in fourth place. Some training cones and a hot climate beckon, and then it’s back to the league and in-form Crystal Palace on February 22nd. Onwards and upwards, to nowhere in particular.