Arsenal 1-1 Manchester United: Strength of Character

I don't know what it is about April Arsenal that is so consistently better than December-through-March Arsenal. Whatever it is, I wish we could bottle it up and distribute it to the squad earlier in our campaigns...if our boys played like this all season, we would consistently be right up there in the title race.

Olivier Giroud's suspension provided just about the only selection headache for Arsene Wenger heading in - Lukas Podolski was chosen to lead the line. Besides that and Kieran Gibbs being preferred to Nacho Monreal at left back, the rest of the side selected itself.

Whatever the selection has been, much of Arsenal's issues these last few seasons have stemmed from a lack of cohesion and an alarming tendency to sleepwalk through matches until the other mob has gone at least a goal up. The Gunners put paid to both of those today, as they stunned the visitors with a blitzkreig attack inside of the first two minutes.

The fact that it was Judas van Persie who gave the ball away to start the move has a certain life-affirming quality to it. Of course, we've all suffered through some of our beloved players leaving before - but never like this, never to the one side that for me is the worst of the worst (even outranking our near-neighbors at Shite Hart Lane). Gooners of a certain generation may have been hurt worse by Liam Brady's departure to Serie A, but for me there is no greater pantomime villain in our universe now than this Dutch bastard.

Anyway, Judas gave the ball away in the middle of the park, and Arsenal were away in a flash. The ball was played to Tomas Rosicky some distance outside of the Manchester United penalty area. Theo Walcott timed his run to perfection down the right-hand side, and Rosicky's pass was weighted with precision into his path. Theo still had it all to do with a difficult shooting angle to contend with.

Thankfully, David De Gea got his angles badly wrong, and he failed to recognize that Theo's only possible shot was back against the grain. Still, Walcott had a target about the size of the ball to shoot at, but he threaded the needle perfectly. Poor goalkeeping from the United man, but I can't say I mind all that much.

The champions-elect (vomit) were stunned, and Arsenal kept at them. Rosicky sent a tracer just wide, while Santi Cazorla's swerving effort was thwarted by an excellent diving save from De Gea.

Sadly, our guys failed to strike again before United inevitably regained their composure. The one thing I grudgingly admire about the Evil Empire is their collective footballing intelligence - they simply know how to win games and how to recover from precarious positions. Here, they spent much of the first half fouling anything that moved, taking several yellow cards in the process. It wasn't pretty to watch, but it was exactly what they needed to get back into the game. It was instructive to note how, late in the second half, United had a few breaks precisely because our defenders failed to foul at the right times.

We're too damn nice, too damn often. It's a major character flaw in this team.

That's not to say that we didn't continue to have chances though. Arsenal's relentless pressure meant that United had much less of the ball than they are used to, and a little more quality might have put this game away in the first half. Aaron Ramsey - who had another storming game - intercepted a clearance and played in Podolski. The German should have done a lot better, as he tamely hit it straight at the Spanish stopper.

Rosicky was next to miss when in a good shooting position, his shot almost going out for a throw-in. It almost cost us too, as horrendous defending from Bacary Sagna (not for the first or last time) allowed Nani the run of our left wing. His cross curled in perfectly for Judas, who hit a thumping header on goal. Wojceich Szczesny's anticipation was perfect though, and he bravely repelled the shot with his face. I keep mentioning that I'm a goalkeeper myself - let me tell you, I've done that myself and it is NOT fun. That is bravery. That is strength in character.

Unfortunately, the ongoing liability that is Bacary Sagna struck again just before halftime. Longtime readers know that I am continually mystified by many of the manager's decisions, and arguably the top of that list is why Carl Jenkinson isn't playing at RB these days. Sagna can't defend, can't cross and can't take on a defender. He brings absolutely nothing to the table, and against quality opposition like this he actually takes things off of it.

Here, he played a brain-dead backpass to Szczesny that was woefully underhit. Judas latched onto it and was clear on goal. Sagna was forced to gamble with a wild sliding tackle, and at first glance I thought he got the ball (Phil Dowd, the worst referee in the league not named Mark Halsey, doesn't get the benefit of the doubt from me). Replays showed that Dowd got this one right, though. So what, even a blind pig finds an acorn sometimes.

So, yeah. Guess who stepped up to take the penalty? And, guess who thundered an unstoppable one past Szczesny into the top corner?

Goddamnit, I hate that man. Literally hate him. Where his giveaway leading to our goal was life-affirming, him scoring on our ground was both inevitable and soul-destroying. The yin and yang of life, I suppose.

That finished a madcap first half, which was played at breakneck pace with thunderous tackles flying hither and yon. Oddly, the second half could not have been more different - other than a few half-chances (mostly for United), the second 45 was sedate and had all the look of two sides who communally realized that they were both OK with sharing the points.

The goal took a bit of of life out of our game, I think, and the boss made an early change to try and combat it. Rosicky had faded after a bright start, so he was withdrawn for Jack Wilshere. We applauded the change at the time, but The Man Who Should be Captain was never more than a peripheral figure in the game today.

Just before that though, Sagna again mistimed a tackle and was lucky that Dowd had played advantage. Given time to think about it, he may have given the braided one a second yellow card...and I'd be hard-pressed to disagree had that been the decision.

More subs were made to try and shake up our team, but if Gervinho (who came on for Podolski) is the answer, you're asking the wrong question. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain also came on for Ramsey, but to no avail. United had settled by this point and once they were content to see out the draw, we found it especially hard going.

That said, it'd be pushing it to say that Lord Ferg had no interest in winning the game - he threw on Ryan Giggs and later Javier Hernandez to see if they could nick the points with a late surge. They almost did it, too...but our defense came through when they were needed. Laurent Koscielny truly stepped up when it counted...he was absolutely awesome today. Arsenal pressed for the winner and worked some space for Cazorla. Our only serious chance of the second half was clawed out well by De Gea, though.

United broke away on the counter soon after though, and really they should have won the game. The otherwise-anonymous Wayne Rooney played a killer long ball over our defense, and Giggs was away. His first touch uncharacteristically let him down though, and that allowed some red shirts to get back. Giggs did get a shot away, but it hit the Ox's thigh and skittered wide.

Injury time came and went without incident, and thus Arsenal came away with a point that may prove to be vital in the chase for a top-four spot.

Look, if we're being honest, I thought we were going to be on the bad end of another hiding today. The sad truth is that top to bottom, they are significantly better than us in every position on the field. There is probably some truth to the idea that they took their foot off the pedal a bit having clinched the title, but let's not take away from our efforts, either. Arsenal were full value for the point, and had we taken advantage of some chances earlier in the match, we could have not only won but done so comprehensively.

Sure, it'd have been a lot better if Judas hadn't scored on his return to the ground. But, if it had to happen, I'd rather it did on a day in which we won a hard-fought point against an excellent side, and did so with both fight and style.

Queens Park Rangers, Wigan Athletic, Newcastle United - that is what is left for us, highly-winnable games all. We get nine points out of that, we get at least 4th place. If we don't, we probably don't deserve to be in the Champions League anyway.

The Modern Gooner Player Ratings:

Szczesny 8, Gibbs 7, Koscielny 8, Mertesacker 7, Sagna 3, Arteta 7, Ramsey 8 (Oxlade-Chamberlain  7), Cazorla 7, Rosicky 7 (Wilshere 6), Walcott 8, Podolski 6 (Gervinho 7)

Man of the Match:  The whole team (sans Sagna) collectively played well, so there are a few candidates to choose from. Theo took his goal well, Szczesny came up with some timely stops and Ramsey was a beast in the center of the park. But, for me the most notable part of the match was just how little of a threat Judas was outside of the penalty. Laurent Koscielny had him in his pocket all day, and is more than deserving of the MotM award.