Victories for Manchester United and City against their capital rivals once again demonstrated the alarming shift north in power. Although neither score-line was as emphatic as United’s 8-2 demolition of Arsenal or City’s 5-1 hammering of Spurs at the Lane, a loss is still a major blow to both North London sides’ lofty ambitions.
Although the Emirates is considered one of the more timid stadiums in terms of crowd decibel levels, there was nothing hushed about the booing Arsenal received at full time. Gunners’ fans had smiles on their faces waiting for kick-off, with the sun peeking out and having just heard of their near-neighbours’ misfortunes in Manchester. A drab first 45 minutes dominated by the away side and culminating in an Antonio Valencia injury time goal soon wiped those smiles away. It didn’t get any better in the second half with van Persie’s neat finish only keeping the home team level for 10 minutes – Welbeck grabbing the winner late on.
A defeat is one thing, but the limp performance is what will worry Arsenal fans the most. Traditionally a team that prides itself on its ability to move and retain the ball, they failed to do so throughout the game. United enjoyed superior possession and in the first half, it seemed like only a matter of time before they’d break the deadlock.
The Gunners are having a nightmare at left-back this season. Injuries to Gibbs and Andre Santos have meant Wenger’s been forced to play the likes of Vermaelen, Koscielny and Miguel out of position. It was Vermaelen’s turn again and he was given a torrid time. Likewise with Djourou at right back. United’s wingers skipped past them effortless which forced Wenger into making a rare half-time tactical substitution. Yennaris replaced Djourou at right full but didn’t offer much more than the Swiss international.
If the supporters agreed with that substitution, they were absolutely livid when Wenger reeled in Alex Oxlaide-Chamberlain, Arsenal’s only bright-spark, and replaced him with the languid and clearly disinterested Russian, Andriy Arshavin. The youngster, already nicknamed ‘The Ox’, was applauded as he took to the bench after a lively first start for the club. His tricky runs and delightful pass for Van Persie’s equaliser didn’t go unnoticed.
Arshavin endured a torrent of abuse as he entered the fray though, having failed to impress in a long time. The Russian’s first real contribution was to lose Valencia in the build-up to Welbeck’s winner, again, much to the frustration of the home crowd. Wenger defended his substitution, claiming he’s made 50,000 substitutions and doesn’t need to explain every decision he makes.
Whether or not the Frenchman feels he needs to explain that change, supporters are starting to questions his progression of the North London club in general. The late summer signings of Park, Mertesacker and Benayoun, none of whom have been particular impressive, have raised eyebrows. Similarly, the club have been quiet in January, only bringing in 34-year-old veteran Henry on a loan – a move that some have labelled ‘plastering over the cracks’.
Besides Oxlaide-Chamberlain’s impressive full debut, can Arsenal take any positives from a home defeat to Manchester United?
Tottenham, on the other hand, can take heart, if not points, from their 3–2 loss at the Etihad. An uncharacteristic mistake from Ledley King handed City all three points moments after Jermaine Defoe failed to dispatch a cross from Gareth Bale at the other end. Nine minutes of extraordinary football saw the Manchester club take a 2–0 lead through a thunderous effort from Nasri and a bundling finish from Lescott, before Defoe rounded Hart to score and Bale curled a sumptuous free-kick-esque shot into the top corner.
The North Londoners can be proud of their efforts in the game. No team has taken anything other than a beating from the Etihad this season, but Tottenham went there and dominated for large stretches of the match.
With on-loan striker Adebayor ineligible, Spurs didn’t have an aerial presence to lead the line, however Defoe still caused major problems for City’s stand-in centre back Stefan Savic. The home side sorely missed the suspended Vincent Kompany as Savic found himself at fault for Defoe’s goal and very nearly a winner for Spurs later.
Harry Redknapp’s head might have been elsewhere with his impending court appearance but his tactics were spot on Sunday. Bale started on the left wing but was allowed the freedom to roam wherever he liked. Similarly Van der Vaart and Modric were freed of strictly defined positions thanks Scott Parker’s disciplined covering.
Going to the Etihad and proving that they could compete with the best teams in the league will give Spurs a huge boost and give them renewed confidence and belief that they have a team capable of challenging for the Premier League title. However, the eight point gap opened between them and the leaders may prove to be a bridge too far.
Are Spurs out of the title race following this defeat?