Arsenal lost to Manchester United yesterday 1-2 in front of a frustrated and angry home crowd. The majority of supporters blamed the manager, Arsene Wenger, for the loss. He made the decision to substitute the 18 year-old forward Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain with 30 year-old veteran Andrey Arshavin in the last twenty minutes of the game.
On paper, this seemed like a sensible decision. It was late in the game, and putting on an experienced veteran in place of a youngster should have been a prescient tactical move. The objective was to secure a 1-1 draw against the team that thrashed Arsenal 8-2 back in August and who are reigning league champions. You should be able to trust your veteran to not only maintain possession of the ball, but also, just maybe, he might make a stunning score and pull out a victory. Fans fondly recall Arshavin’s blistering goal against Barcelona last year.
But this tactical move backfired. Arshavin allowed Antonio Valencia too much space on the left side of the Arsenal goal. Valencia passed Arshavin easily into the center of the box where a pinball machine seemed to operate: Valencia dished the ball quickly to Ji-Sung Park to his left, who popped it forward to a surging Valencia, who once again centered it in front of goal for Danny Welbeck who finished strongly.
But Arsenal fans thought the calculating tactics of the French manager’s brilliant mind payed no attention to the heart of the game: the teenager Oxlade-Chamberlain had been Arsenal’s most inspiring player. He had relentlessly pushed at the Manchester United defense and set up Robin van Persie’s amazing strike that tied the game. Boos rang out when “The Ox” was substituted for Arshavin. Television cameras caught van Persie saying “no” as the youngster went off. Arshavin has been in disappointing form for several months, and most had already given up hope for the diminutive Russian.
Moments later the goal was scored and Arshavin, caught off guard in a defensive role, was immediately seen as the goat. Wenger, who has led Arsenal to three league titles since 1996, was the villain.
So many supporters are conducting post-mortems on the substitution decision, that I am probably just adding to a cacophony of voices on the subject. I really like Gunnerblog’s take on the match. He saw the game at the Emirates and was appalled at the fans who turned on the team. I’m sure Arshavin’s confidence took a blow before he had even stepped on the pitch.
Ironically, for the first time this season, Wenger showed earlier in the game that he could listen to his gut rather than his rational mind. By starting Oxlade-Chamberlain at left wing instead of Arshavin in the first place, the Manager gave the nod to a raw talent that fans had only seen a glimpse of against lesser opponents. To trust 1/3 of your strikeforce to an 18 year old against the best club in English football was a daring move. And it worked brilliantly.
He also showed he was listening to instincts rather than rational calculations when he replaced the more experienced Djourou with Nico Yennaris at right back after halftime. Throwing the untested Yennaris up against the onslaught of Nani on the right side could have been a disaster. Instead, he rose to the challenge. Djourou had been completely outlclassed by Nani and Evra in the first half. Placing Yennaris on the pitch against these two could have been like throwing raw meat to the wolves. But Yennaris rose to the challenge.
It is cruel misfortune that the rational decision to place Arshavin on the playing surface late ran afoul of the heart and guts of the game.
Of course, if Arsenal pulled out a draw or Arshavin magically returned to his form and danced around Chris Smalling for a victory goal, this debate would never occur. We’d all be talking about what a genius Wenger is. Sadly, we’re not.
Here are some other thoughts for you to ponder as I leave you on a wintery Monday morning…
1. Scholes played a brilliant ball from mid-field across to Valencia on the left side of the Arsenal goal which caught Arshavin too far forward. This was a masterful ball, really, and The Ox could have just as easily been caught too far forward.
2. Where was Vermaelen? The Arsenal left-back (only just returning from injury and playing out from his usual role of central defender) was just as slow to react to Valencia’s move towards goal. There were flashes of the usual Verminator, but the truth was that he probably returned from injury too soon.
3. Why was Welbeck unmarked in the box? Mertesacker gave the Man United forward far too much space.
4. The Valencia-Park-Valencia-Welbeck exchange was rapid-fire, outstanding football. Few defenses would stop that attack.
5. Aaron Ramsey blew another close shot over the bar. Aside from his game winner against Olympique Marseilles, the Welshman has lacked finishing quality. I won’t mention the missed opportunity by RvP/Rosicky after Smalling’s defensive error. (Oh, I just did).
6. Manchester United should have easily been ahead by two goals were it not for a miraculous Metesacker slide at an open goal from a Welbeck run that caught The Szcz out of place.
So many variables, yet only one goal matters. The manager started the match trusting the emotions of the game, he should have finished it that way.