Manchester United stumbled on Sunday in their pursuit of a record 19th English league title.
The highly anticipated meeting with Arsenal was previously billed as a decisive game in the title race. However, Arsenal's recent run of poor form has pushed them out of championship contention. United traveled to the Emirates looking for a positive result, as either a draw or win would put them in prime position to lift the trophy in coming weeks.
Boosted by the return of Dimitar Berbatov from injury, United traveled to London with a strong, first-choice side. Rooney and Chicharito paired up in attack, with Ferdinand and Vidic partnering in central defense.
However, with the congested fixture list of massive games in the Champions League and Premier League, manager Sir Alex Ferguson chose to rest his ageless midfield playmaker in Ryan Giggs. Also unavailable for selection was pass-master Paul Scholes, who is serving a three-game ban for a red card in the FA Cup Semifinals.
While the two stalwarts and loyal United servants were spectators on Sunday's match, United faithful were still confident of walking away from the Emirates with at least a point.
Without Giggs and Scholes, Ferguson was forced to employ Anderson alongside Carrick in central midfield. Although Carrick was once hailed as a tremendous passer, he has developed into more of an all-around midfield presence. The English midfielder still has an eye for the pass, but his defensive positioning and awareness have been at the heart of his good form this season.
Anderson provides a much different dynamic to the midfield than Giggs and Scholes. The Brazilian is a hard-working, box-to-box midfielder with great energy. While both players exude defensive qualities, the pairing lacks creativity.
The central midfield pair was indicative of United's mentality heading to the Emirates. Ferguson, by employing Carrick and Anderson in midfield, looked set on absorbing pressure and catching Arsenal on the counter. The two were unable to get on the ball and dictate the tempo and rhythm of play. Instead, they were happy to drop deep and mark Arsenal's young tandem of Jack Wilshere and Aaron Ramsey.
Although United used their favored 4-4-2 formation, it often became a five-man midfield as Rooney dropped in midfield when Arsenal was in possession. Ferguson's tactics and team selection reflected a side that were playing for a draw.
United's preference to defend and concede possession to the home side had striking similarities to Madrid's midweek encounter with Barcelona in the Champions League. Although the Red Devils came out with more attacking intent than the Madrid club, the mindset and defensive discipline was similar to Mourinho's side.
Although Ferguson's men were stoic in defense, it was only a matter of time before Arsenal broke through the United backline. The constant pressure and free-flowing attacking football proved too much for the Red Devils.
A flying hand from captain Nemanja Vidic was needed to keep Arsenal's Van Persie from scoring in the 32nd minute. Walcott delivered a tremendous cross from the right flank, but the referee's assistant failed to spot the blatant handball.
However, Arsenal's second half display would overcome their first half disappointment.
With United looking stagnant in attack, Ferguson decided to bring on winger Antonio Valencia for Anderson in the 56th minute. This change saw Ji-Sung Park move into the central midfield, which is by no means his favored position.
Ferguson's attacking change backfired minutes later, as Arsenal broke through the spirited United defense.
A tremendous piece of play from Van Persie saw Welsh captain Ramsey arrive unmarked inside the box. Park failed to track the midfielder's trailing run and the Arsenal youngster found himself in acres of space. The Welshman was calm and composed under pressure, slotting home an excellent side-footed finish.
Ramsey's goal proved to be the winner in this clash of Premier League heavyweights.
Although Ferguson brought on Berbatov and Owen in search of a late equalizer, the visitors failed to test Arsenal keeper Szczesny. Rooney forced comfortable saves from the keeper on two free-kicks, however United lacked ingenuity to break down the Arsenal backline.
The Red Devils' poor performance on Sunday will worry United faithful. The team lacked attacking flow and creativity with the likes of Giggs and Scholes unavailable for selection. Pairing Anderson and Carrick in the center of midfield gave the side a strong defensive backbone, but the two were unable to make an impact in the final third.
With Giggs and Scholes nearing the end of their careers at Manchester United, the massive need for a central midfield playmaker has become evident. Inter Milan's Wesley Sneijder would be an excellent fit for the Red Devils, as supporters will love the player's tenacity and emotional style of play. The Dutch midfielder will have a steep price-tag, therefore Ferguson might be priced out of the sensational move.
Other midfield options for United are Roma's Daniele De Rossi and Napoli's Marek Hamsik. The two Italian-based players are more complete midfielders than the Dutch maestro, but both have tremendous energy and an eye for the pass.
Regardless of who fills United's creative midfield void, history shows that Ferguson will find the proper fit. The only lingering questions are who is it, and how much will they cost?