Two Arsenal sides turned up at Old Trafford on Sunday.
The second half was more familiar and saw Aaron Ramsey back in midfield with Theo Walcott at wide as we salvaged a point.
The first half started in odd fashion with both sides trying to put pressure on the ball high up the pitch. The first 10-15 minutes saw a lot of long balls exchanged with little success.
Olivier Giroud won a number of duels, holding the ball up and flicking it on when he had no other option. At the other end Manchester United had Radamel Falcao attempting to exploit the space between Laurent Koscielny and Nacho Monreal while Francis Coquelin and Per Mertesacker attempted to play either side of Marouane Fellaini.
Throughout the game Fellaini would dart to the back post whenever the ball was wide, hoping to use his physical advantage to win an aerial ball against either Monreal or Héctor Bellerín.
Eventually it paid off. With Francis Coquelin momentarily losing Fellaini in midfield the Belgian had the ball at his feet facing our defence. He sent it wide before making the same run yet again. Aware of his threat, Koscielny and Monreal were both eager to challenge the Belgian but the ball went over his head and Ander Herrera was at the back post unmarked to score.
United’s plan paid off with Arsenal too preoccupied with the threat posed by Fellaini.
From then we looked really poor. Half-time came without one Arsenal shot. We were sluggish: poor decision-making on the ball wasn’t helped by men off it failing to provide players with an option.
The second half was worse if anything.
Getting in behind
Manchester United could press high as, with Aaron Ramsey and Alexis Sánchez out wide, we posed little threat around the back. A couple of counter-attacks were curtailed by a bad pass or unsuccessful dribble – Alexis in particular was a culprit. The Chilean failed to create one ‘take-on’ in three attempts and over the whole game just four (from 12) of his attempted passes in the final third found an Arsenal player.
Ramsey is a superb player but he isn’t suited to playing out wide. His pace isn’t notable, he is a great passer of the ball, and he is quite frankly a bit wasted out there.
Giroud provides a lot up front but couldn’t stretch the defence on Sunday. He displayed his superb strength and technique throughout but when we had the chance to go through he didn’t have the burst of pace to get on the end of anything in behind the back four. In the first half Alexis didn’t play a pass when Giroud made a run, Kosicielny played a ball that Giroud couldn’t reach, and Phil Jones twice made up ground on the Frenchman to prevent us from creating a chance, once with hilarious consequences.
Danny Welbeck starting this fixture in March was more than just sentimental. With him and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain both injured this game was crying out for Theo Walcott.
And so he arrived.
Our decision making on the ball had been poor, and Walcott certainly isn’t the man to improve that.
What he does do is provide men off the ball with more decisions, more options, and one that regularly works.
Ramsey was moved into the middle and Jack Wilshere brought on to partner him. With Ramsey central and Walcott on the passing ability of the Welshman was brought to the fore.
Unlike anything else we have (including pacey players like Alexis and Oxlade-Chamberlain) Walcott is more interested in running without the ball than with it.
When you consider that, it is odd that we would let him go. You need different options, and Walcott provides something different.
On Sunday it paid dividends.
Ramsey’s beautiful lofted ball found Walcott facing Tyler Blackett and willing to move the ball quickly to get outside him. A driven effort was deflected in and Arsenal were level.
Without Oxlade-Chamberlain we haven’t really had someone attacking the fullback on the outside. Alexis’ efforts to cut inside have become predictable and it just isn’t Ramsey’s game.
Ramsey’s game is to do what he was allowed to do in the last half an hour.
After moving centrally, Ramsey was able to get on the edge of both boxes. He loves to be involved and he should be as much as possible. Ramsey has become great passer, tackler, athlete with good vision and superb timing. He has done fine on the right, but he is in a league of his own in the middle.
Laurent Koscielny was one real positive on Sunday afternoon. Battling with an out of form Radamel Falcao and an unfit Robin van Persie was, despite current perception, never going to be straightforward.
Both looked to entice Koscielny while Fellaini battled with Mertesacker on the other side. Koscielny won almost every loose ball, never let his opponent turn to face him one-on-one, and snuffed out many an attack.
Most players will be disappointed with their showing on Sunday, but Koscielny played excellently.
Overall the point was a good one after such a bad showing, but the game showed what Arsenal have to do moving forward.
We had no clear style – there wasn’t one to suit these players in these roles.
Counter-attacking didn’t work due to a lack of pace and players who aim to be more direct – Giroud and Ramsey are short of blisteringly quick, Cazorla isn’t athletic enough to be in both boxes, and Coquelin doesn’t move form in front of the defence.
Possession also wasn’t an option. A horrid lack of width, very few players who make runs, and a midfield that can’t take the ball from deep and build play.
Arteta, Oxlade-Chamberlain, and Walcott have been out of the side and this game showed just how they’re missed.
A (fit) calm defensive midfielder proficient with the ball is needed in the squad, as is a wide option.
Hopefully we bear that in mind before deciding who we sign – and sell – this summer.