Manchester United 1-Arsenal 0

Arsenal lose again to a top team, but again lose differently.

Both teams converge on the margin of difference in the match.

Aside from the loss, the most painful experience of the game for an American Arsenal supporter was the acceptance that ESPN has provided a platform, equipped with microphone and satellite, for Steve McManaman to talk. The game he was announcing began with the banal talking points of the recent narrative of this fixture, game notes plucked from headlines and highlight reels, possibly compiled by a wonky young production assistant ashamed to be dropping twice-chewed tidbits down McManaman’s gullet.

One may have expected McManaman to stick to these talking points and dramatic arcs as a clumsy attempt to be easily digestible to a new U.S. audience, as well as compliment Ian Darke, the anointed voice of the Premier League in the US. The subtle pandering is not his fault.But nonetheless, one expects more. McManaman isn’t so green. His daily in-studio presence during the World Cup offered him a summer intensive course, a diploma conferring the right to pass through proficiency and into confident color announcer with opinions and heart-of-the-matter criticism (this was the same degree awarded to Alexi Lalas, whose absurdity by the late rounds of the World Cup was comedic*). As a player and nonprofessional broadcaster, McManaman would have been much more effective contributing anecdotes about the two teams from his experience as a player.

By the second half, the depth of McManaman’s analysis plunged the level of repeated summary: Arsenal was mediocre on the night. Technically, this would be considered as having conveyed zero information content. Anyone watching the game could see that Arsenal was not having a good game. Andrei Arshavin played poorly and was substituted; no Arsenal player shot from the outside, except Arshavin, who launched two limp rollers wide; Cesc Fabregas, Theo Walcott, and Robin van Persie were late substitutions, and had too little time to break down United’s fibrous defense; and with a congested middle, Arsenal didn’t get the ball wide to Clichy and Sagna with any consistent threat. But this is irrelevant since no Arsenal player was positioned in the penalty box to receive crosses.

The 1-0 loss extends a dismal record against United over the last few seasons and easily falls into the category of Arsenal as “close” or “closer” to becoming title contenders, the inching toward where they want to be. Over time, the approximation begins to look asymptotic—always closer and closer, but never reaching the destination.

But the persistent story should stop with statistics before the latest loss becomes part of a repeated trauma inflicting its well-known psychological pain. The recent string of loses to United and Chelsea has a narrow set of grand causes, one of which is the vulnerability to counter-attack.

The story is familiar: Arsenal holds possession, controls the pace and rhythm of the game that culminates in missed chances. They indiscriminately commit too many players forward and get beaten on the counter-attack.

In many of these games, Arsenal hold their own, but suffer brief catastrophic breakdowns that define the difference. If there is a compulsion to do this time and again, it lies, in part, in Arséne Wenger’s unbending commitment to play Arsenal’s way. Against talented teams like Manchester United and Chelsea, the commitment becomes predictable and the opponents counter-strategy of patience and timely counterattack is planned well in advance. It becomes formulaic.

What McManaman labeled as a poor display (and he’s not the only one) was in fact Wenger’s rare departure from the usual approach. Instead of fear, there was caution as Wenger deployed a more prudent strategy. Alex Song played much deeper and the central defensive pair of Sebastien Squilaci and Laurent Koscielny stayed closer together and refrained from playmaking. Wayne Rooney seldom came back to play defense or dropped deeper to retrieve the ball, which helped Koscielny and Squilaci retain form.

The result was that United didn’t have a great game either. They may have had one of their best games defensively (Nemanja Vidic made a case as the best player in the Premier League), but this was the first time this season that they failed to score at least two goals at home. United had few threatening chances on goal, (Nani in the first half, Anderson and Rooney in the second) and at times resorted to playing long balls to Rooney, unsuccessfully. The game was a stalemate through a mutual lack of edge as much as through mutual negation. McManaman must have been watching a different game. From his account, Arsenal was thoroughly dominated, clearly second best. It seems that once he found opinioned footing he went with it and diverged into the imaginary.

Arsenal’s offense has been jejune on occasion this season, at fault for poor team performances—Newcastle and Braga come to mind—which are always overshadowed by the historically poorer play of the defense. Arsenal’s system requires that the offense performs well, and when it doesn’t they can find themselves at a greater risk of losing than when the defense is sub par.

Last night’s game was a clear instance where the offense shouldered much of the blame. The strategy of containment and prudence undoubtedly altered the character of Arsenal’s play, but it can’t be blamed for the inertia up front, which on previous occasions, was not determined by a game plan of different physics, but by a problem inherent in the offense. For all the dedication to pushing many players up field, Arsenal doesn’t push far enough forward. This has been in evidence against weaker teams when it wasn’t necessary for Arsenal to make strategic adjustments to their opponent. When off-form, Arsenal massage the opponent’s interface, occupying the zone between the center circle and penalty box, playing an ineffectual perimeter game. Last night, the few possible scoring chances were benign due to little incursion into the penalty box.

Against United, the impotence is more apparent when set against this relatively conservative strategy of containment and prudence drives the system, predominantly through Song’s deeper positioning and the central defensive pair’s task of pinning itself to Rooney. This was a 4-5-1 with its center of gravity concentrated and lowered. Considering what they gained in solidity, how can this be judged a bad move for an Arsenal side historically shaky in this fixture? The problem may be less about what Arsenal had to trim from their accustomed style, than the inability to positively adjust to the strategy, which should provide the support and enable the creative freedom and entrepreneurial spirit which are nearly genetic prerequisites of an Arsenal team.

* Alexi Lalas is not new to broadcasting. He’s been the face of U.S. soccer for some time, covering the 2000 Olympics and 2006 World Cup. He became part of the U.S. living room during the 2010 World Cup as a primary studio broadcaster. In the beginning of the tournament, the goofy stoner persona was replaced by serious analyst. He was energetic and hard working. One could see he was really making a go of it. His input wasn’t particularly enlightening (not necessarily his fault), but to his credit, he wasn’t an embarrassment. By the late rounds of the tournament he’d found his comfort zone. In the pregame to the Brazil-Netherlands quarter final, he was asked to offer a little insight on how Brazil would approach the game, he said (paraphrased): Brazil man, just has got to do the samba.

12/15/10

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