The Emirates Stadium, London—
Arsenal recovered from their 5-1 drubbing at Anfield at the weekend to keep a clean sheet and avoid a second successive Premier League defeat against a rival, but the Gunners never really looked like winning against Manchester United on Wednesday evening either.
Arsene Wenger commented after the game in his press conference how his side had been more preoccupied with keeping United out than looking for goals themselves; while it was understandable after shipping so many goals last time out, it was a missed opportunity for his team to go top of the table.
Wenger - “Utd have players dangerous on the counter attack but we were focused not to concede tonight. Restricted our game going forward."— Karl Matchett (@karlmatchett) February 12, 2014
Wenger - “Felt we were nervous in the final third where we are usually dangerous, through the middle. United defended well there."— Karl Matchett (@karlmatchett) February 12, 2014
Wenger - “Handbrake football tonight yes. But i hope and think it will come off again. Players wanted to not lose. "— Karl Matchett (@karlmatchett) February 12, 2014
Arsenal's horrendous run of upcoming fixtures is well documented.
This period over the next two months could see them surge forward in three competitions, fall out of the running for silverware once again, or leave them specifically focussing on one tournament.
One point from a possible six in the Premier League has not made it the best of starts to this haul of games and it was Arsenal's slow and unspectacular approach to the final third which cost them the chance to rectify that meagre total.
Olivier Giroud might be coming in for a certain amount of criticism of late after only scoring once in his last five league appearances, but the blame did not lie at his feet against United. Isolated and expected to do the job of both the target man and a forward with movement to break the Red Devils' back line, Giroud beat Nemanja Vidic comfortably on the ground and in the air—yet rarely had anybody to play off.
Tomas Rosicky, Mesut Ozil and Santi Cazorla operated as the trio behind the French striker, and that's exactly what they remained: a trio behind him.
Not once in the opening 50 or 60 minutes did any of them attempt to break beyond their striker or run in behind the full-backs, not once did they anticipate Giroud winning an aerial ball and look to run onto it toward goal.
In the second half, Bacary Sagna attempted to do this from right-back and the introduction of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain off the bench helped a little in this regard too, but Arsenal were too slow to move forward after winning the ball and overly cautious in altering their midfield positions.
Learning the lessons defensively of the rout inflicted on them by Liverpool is one thing, but perhaps Wenger and his troops should have taken on board an attacking lesson too.
The Reds destroyed Arsenal through rapid transitions and flooding forward after winning the ball; Arsenal's central duo of Jack Wilshere and Mikel Arteta rarely looked ready to break out of midfield and support in attack.
There were a couple of occasions when the young Englishman put on a burst of acceleration to take on an opponent or aggressively look to challenge, but don't let those "highlights" mask what was, overall, a disappointingly mundane and sluggish performance from the No. 10.
Clearly, the absence of Theo Walcott and Aaron Ramsey is a significant loss for Arsenal, with the former's pace and the latter's willingness (and ability) to push on and become an extra man in the penalty area.
Where does Arsenal's best chance of success lie?
Against United, as with against Liverpool and—with the exclusion of the second-half performance of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain—as with against Crystal Palace, there was simply no penetration or pace in the Arsenal offensive front, nothing to break the lines of the opposition and threaten the goal. A cross or set piece aimed to Giroud was almost the only way Arsenal were likely to score at the Emirates and with their Frenchman out of form in terms of his finishing, ending the game scoreless was a likely outcome.
Wenger described the outcome as the second of two poor results for his team, given the honours they are chasing, and instead of being top of the table as they were only one short week ago, his team now lie in second, one point off the pace and having taken one win from their last four.
It doesn't get any easier with Liverpool and Bayern Munich up next.
Attacking and scoring goals has always been one of the great strengths of this nearly-great Arsenal team. Wenger needs to quickly find a way for his team to return to that presence of mind to ensure they remain fighting on all fronts to be able to ditch that "nearly" tag.