At the end of a week that was meant to truly test Arsenal’s title credentials, it’s fair to say that the Gunners can win the league, but it is impossible to predict if they will. The 1-0 defeat to Manchester United was frustrating as, once again, Arsenal didn’t bring their best to Old Trafford. However, the defeat shouldn’t be a disheartening one as Arsenal weren’t blown away by the Champions, and with players to come back into the squad, can become stronger.
To add to Arsenal missing Theo Walcott, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Lukas Podolski, Abou Diaby, Yaya Sanogo, a mystery illness moved through the squad before the game. Per Mertesacker and Tomas Rosicky were unavailable, and rumours suggested Mikel Arteta, Serge Gnabry and Mesut Ozil were suffering as well.
Whilst a lot of focus after the match has been on Arsenal’s attack struggling to break Manchester United down, it is worth highlighting how Arsenal’s defence did well again, even without Per Mertesacker. Club captain Thomas Vermaelen made his first league start of the season and slotted in superbly. To have a player of Vermaelen’s quality as a third centre back shows how the squad has improved. His performance was also a testament to his mindset and determination to win his place back in the team.
To concede a goal from a set-piece was disappointing, and arguably Per Mertesacker might have cleared the ball had he been there, but it was a good delivery and a good run from van Persie to score the goal.
Going forward, the biggest problem for Arsenal was a lack of pace. The three creative midfielders behind Olivier Giroud are able to take apart lesser teams, but against the best Arsenal need to stretch the play a bit more. It was no coincidence that Arsenal’s best chances came from Sagna’s crosses into the box. With someone like Theo Walcott in the team, the winger can occupy the opposing full back to allow Arsenal’s full-backs more space to cross the ball.
Where Walcott would also have been useful would have been to give Arsenal a player willing to run past the defence and give the Gunners a through ball option. None of the midfielders looked keen to commit to going beyond Olivier Giroud, and the Frenchman doesn’t possess the speed to burst through off the back of a defender. Ozil and Cazorla would then have a different option to pass to, allowing them to create more chances and put the opposition on the back foot by passing forward rather than sideways in front of the opposing back four.
With Walcott out injured, Arsenal have done well to pick up points and adapt to not having archetypal wingers. However getting him back in the team will give the added dimension to allow Arsenal to mix up their attacking options. Rather than always going through Olivier Giroud, which can become easier to shut off for the opposition defence, the Gunners could look for a through ball to Walcott making a spinning run inside the defence.
Walcott’s recovery would also have the potential to bring the best out of Mesut Ozil. Fans saw a glimpse of how he could assist the flying winger during Ozil’s debut against Sunderland, and the way Walcott is a more direct runner towards goal will give the German more options to pass to.
Ozil didn’t have an effective game at Old Trafford, but he shouldn’t panic or worry about it. He was struggling with the illness, and he’s still adapting to the pace of the league. With other options around him after others return from injury, Ozil will continue to be a big player for Arsenal.
The game was disappointing and it is a shame that the Gunners couldn’t pull away from the pack, but Arsenal can recover from it. The league is very tight with the other weekend’s results, and given the intense weeke Arsenal have had, they shouldn’t read too much into the defeat at Old Trafford. If the Gunners can put it behind them and get key players back fit, they can challenge for the title.