Sunday 25 February 2018

Analysis - Gunners can hog the ball all they like but fundamental change needed is elusive as ever

Arsene Wenger has to accept his Arsenal side were the authors of their own downfall. Photo: PA
Arsene Wenger has to accept his Arsenal side were the authors of their own downfall. Photo: PA

Jeremy Wilson

Backed up by statistics showing that Arsenal had just had 33 shots and 75 per cent of possession, it was inevitable that Arsene Wenger should focus on a lack of attacking "efficiency" when explaining how they had somehow contrived to lose. Inevitable, but surely also misguided.

Arsenal might have been excellent for most of the match but to understand why they are already out of a Premier League title race they have not won for 13 years, you actually needed only to watch the first 11 minutes.

For everything that followed - Manchester United soaking up such pressure and Arsenal playing with an often scintillating attacking freedom - flowed from how they had already gifted their opponents two goals.

The entire tone of the match was set and, while an extraordinary recovery often looked possible, the carelessness of centre-backs Laurent Koscielny and Shkodran Mustafi trumped Alexandre Lacazette's second-half consolation.

Indeed, with Jesse Lingard twice finishing so clinically and Antonio Valencia punishing Arsenal with a finish that went through the legs of both Nacho Monreal and Petr Cech, the most relevant statistic was actually how United managed three goals from only four shots on target. That and the 14 saves that David de Gea made to equal an all-time Premier League record.

Jose Mourinho said that he was the best goalkeeper in the world and very few who witnessed his heroics at the Emirates on Saturday night were arguing.

Straw-clutching

He was also delighted by his team's character and, with United having at least a two-goal cushion for so much of the game, it would be straw-clutching for Arsenal to take too many positives.

United may have adapted and played very differently had Arsenal ever equalised. "David was amazing," said Ander Herrera. "We were clinical in the first half. Two chances in the first 11 minutes and it was two goals. We are going to find our best form very soon. We are second and are chasing the top of the table."

It was a performance that certainly suggests United along with defending champions Chelsea will offer the most sustained challenge of City, leaving Arsenal battling with Liverpool and Tottenham for fourth.

Wenger had been similarly convinced that the defeat against Manchester City last month did not reflect the actual pattern of the game but, when this happens often enough, you surely have to search for something more intangible.

Premier League champions are, above all, relentless and it is a quality that Arsenal just cannot seem to sufficiently add. Yes, Arsenal were going for a 13th straight home win, but the league table provides the most complete body of evidence and it tells us that they are bubbling along this season in fairly typical fashion. That is to say around about two points a game: respectable enough to push for a Champions League place and to produce moments such as the derby win against Spurs that will prompt excited dressing-room selfies, but insufficient for fundamental change.

The great frustration, as they showed for so much of this game, is that Arsenal really do currently have a team that could threaten the very best. Keep Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil and, yes, we could believe that something special might just happen.

Furious

The problem, of course, is that just like Robin van Persie and Cesc Fabregas before, it is the star players themselves who ultimately seem to believe that they cannot quite make that final step.

It was no wonder that Wenger felt so furious after the match. "Despite De Gea, we should have scored more," said Wenger. "I am just angry because when you play like that, and you have not even a point, it's unbelievable. And after you have to listen to a lot of conclusions.

"When you produce a quality performance like we did, you have to win the game, we have to be efficient. We are in this job to be efficient. So I blame first myself."

Wenger also believes that the experience should galvanise his squad and, in what felt like a subtle nod to Sanchez and Ozil, he also said that it should convince certain individuals of what potential there is.

"It has to make us angry and even more determined," he said.

"If I am a player, I think with what we produced today that we have a huge potential. We lose and we cannot accept that."

Wenger was adamant that was also how his key players felt, even if recent history suggests that they be more swayed by how Arsenal missed another big opportunity.

Irish Independent

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