It was an eerie case of déjà vu for those at Old Trafford at the weekend. After fighting so hard to be back in contention the blues lost concentration straight from a kick off and were left with a mountain to climb. Again there was superb support throughout in the away end. Again we trundled home without the glory but with some pride remaining from a second half effort to attempt the impossible. Unlike the European tie, when the side bravely fought their way back with ten men, this time we capitulated inside of a minute and then rarely threatened the goal. If you play well and get beat it can often be more difficult to take as a fan. When you play as poorly as we did in the first half it can be easier to take on chin and fan forums have been gracious in defeat, quick to acknowledge we got what we deserved.
It was disappointing. It was again frustrating. After a fantastic run of results to get us back in with a chance the team were unusually caught out by the occasion, like a rabbit in the headlights, from United’s juggernaut opening. We needed a real team performance if we were to engineer a win and it sadly failed to materialise when we needed it the most. By contrast Man U looked determined not to make the same mistake twice and pass up on a title defining opportunity –they were far sharper than their abject display at the Emirates. By contrast we were lethargic. Slow starts might just be the story of our season – they’ve certainly cost us a few points.
So where did it all go wrong? If you’ve had a chance to read Tim’s excellent tactical blog on these pages he gives a great insight. As I said before this game I thought the key battle was at full back, we had to get ours involved high up the pitch but, we were not only nullified, the players in question also had an afternoon to forget. Cole and Brana allowed players to turn infield far too easily and it’s hard to recall a game when Ashley was outmuscled and beaten so frequently. Ivanovic was too slow to venture forward, Cole was too slow to make a challenge. In addition some of our other star performers in recent weeks also looked like the form had visibly drained out of them. Rather than terrific David Luiz looked erratic. Mikel and Kalou have been superb lately but were left completely on the margins, chasing shadows rather than bossing the game. These are still young players and hopefully can take the lessons learnt into next season.
For the paper talk of an exodus of aging players it was again the old guard who were contesting every ball. Drogba, Terry, Lampard and Malouda all battled on in vain. I think that this type of quality, too often absent at Arsenal, is why these players still have a future at the club. I think Carlo played the right team to get a result but was let down by a slack mentality in the first half. There’s not a lot you can do when so many players fail to perform to their usual standard. Collectively we needed to press much tighter and higher up the pitch to break up play and case damage on the counter. Instead we ran out of ideas and were left open to counter attacks. Again, let’s hope notes are been made for next season.
With a Champions League spot assured in the last two league games I’d like to see Carlo experiment a bit with the side. Let’s work on a Drogba and Torres partnership, on a system that suits their play. Let’s try Benayoun’s creativity in midfield, like United have successfully tried with Giggs. Let’s give our young players some game time, Ryan Bertrand at left back and Josh McEachran in central midfield. It’s important that the groundwork for next season starts here.