The Arsenal-Manchester United matchup on Saturday, another blazing fixture in a rivalry that dates back to the late '80s with a stomp on Lee Dixon sparking one of the greatest football rivalries in history, was a fantastic lesson for both sides. It was more interesting for the Arsenal starting XI, though, because it was the first of massive tests for the Gunners.
In terms of a measuring stick for the reason of the Premier League season, a loss to Manchester isn't exactly a call for the end of Arsenal incredible football. Manchester lost by the same margin last season and still won the title.
The problem with these fixtures is that they are completely out of the ordinary for both teams. Never have matches been as angry, as physical, or as intense and those between the Mancs and the Gunners. Don't let the so-called reconciliation between Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger fool you. These guys are massive competitors, and their teams really, really don't like each other.
But the results of Saturday's match, though registering a loss, was an immensely positive and hopeful show from the North London boys.
Arsenal have a strong, defensive midfield now. It's almost impossible to believe, but Alex Song and Denilson were bullying the Manchester engine room in the center pitch.
Who knew? If the results from last season show anything, those two aren't exactly injury prone either. Denilson had the most caps of any player on the squad. All of the sudden those two are workhorses, strong, and adept at passing.
Not only that, but more importantly the back four were absolute dynamite. Save for one near goal by Fletcher, Gallas and Vermaelen were tough, rugged, strong center backs who didn't give Rooney a sniff. All of a sudden, Vermaelen is as tenacious and strong as Martin Kneown. His partnership with Gallas could be the one that Arsenal has been crying out for. Sagna and Clichy? Well, they might be the best fullback pair in the Premiership.
Arshavin yesterday proved that he is not only a leader, but that he is a big game player who can change matches. Robin van Persie never gave up hope for even a moment, and although he really isn't suited for a central role, his attacking prowess has only gotten better over the years.
That's not to say that there aren't problems. Diaby's own goal (which was actually one hell of a goal, only in the wrong net) could happen to anyone, but it shows that he really isn't ready for the big-time just yet.
In order for Arsenal to be the well-oiled machine that it has been, Fabregas, or another attacking midfielder is key. Because of Fabregas' injury problems, Wenger may even try to buy another attacking player, like Van der Vaart, who has the class to fill in for the Spaniard, because without the young captain, Arsenal's bite isn't as sharp.
Also, there needs to be a central striker. Whether Eduardo or Bendtner, there needs to be a man in the box to really be at the end of all of Arshavin and van Persie's creativity. Marouane Chamakh, who is a strong player who makes everyone around him look good, may just be that player. Andre-Pierre Gignac could also be a goal-scoring threat, but, whoever it is, they need to lead the line, and they need to do it soon.
Finally, one serious issue that has been bugging this writer since last season: Manuel Almunia. The penalty that he gave away to Rooney wasn't just a slip, it was a game losing error of massive proportions. You give away a penalty to Manchester United, you are asking for a world of hurt from a team who make it their lives' mission to come from behind.
While the uncapped Spanish keeper can do "well" between the sticks, he will lose big games. Last year champions league fixtures against Manchester, Almunia, although proving fantastic in the first leg basically lost the second due to his poor positioning for Ronaldo's free kick.
It's a massive problem that needs to be addressed. If he fails as continuously as he does in the only matches that matter, then Arsenal simply cannot win silverware. Being an " OK" keeper with a poor big-game performance record is a liability that Arsenal cannot afford.
Coming on as a substitute for Jens Lehmann in a Champions League final may not have been fair for the keeper, but he wasn't a young boy back then, and that ball that slipped between his legs sent Arsenal off course for a long time.
Mark these words. If Almunia stays between the sticks without any real improvement or show of strength, Arsenal are going to lose big games.