Picture: Arsenal Facebook
"Can't wait for our inevitable loss to the worst Manchester United team of the last 25 years. Can't wait for the inevitable lack of character, spine and fight that our flat-track bully cosseted little princes will display. Can't wait for the fact that Szczesny will probably get blamed for it, along with AIDS, global warming and Nickelback."
- Me, your humble author, on a closed Facebook discussion group hours before gametime
I don't think too many people saw this coming. But, as I illustrate above with something I posted on Facebook earlier today, we supporters just don't know shit when the quids are down. Once again, Arsene Wenger has masterminded a brilliant away win in the city of Manchester, only this one leaves us within touching distance of defending the FA Cup. More importantly, this one just may have driven a stake through the heart of Arsenal's Old Trafford mental block.
It was an interesting lineup that we fielded, too. Danny Welbeck was preferred to Olivier Giroud, and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain got something of a surprise start on the right. United had essentially a full-strength team, such as it is for their lot this season. Still, they were on top in the early going, and should have scored when Ashley Young was well positioned at the top of the box. Luckily, Beaker from the Muppets (aka Louis van Gaal) opted to play Marouane Fellaini in the hole, and he was unable to play the simple square ball needed to give Young a shooting opportunity.
Our boys grew into the game as it went on though, and it was obvious that they were going about it in much the same way as we did against City - keep it tight, don't over-commit, and wait for an error-prone defensive line to make mistakes.
That mistake duly arrived in the 25th minute. Nacho Monreal will take the plaudits for a fine finish, but it was a tremendous team effort. Francis Coquelin won an aerial challenge with a flick off the side of his boot. Alexis Sanchez then held off 3 or 4 defenders in the center of the park, allowing teammates to get forward. Monreal and Mesut Ozil combined beautifully down the left, springing the German into acres of space in the center. He played it out to Ox on the right, who clowned Marcos Rojo, Antonio Valencia and one of the center-halves. Chris Smalling came over to help, leaving Monreal all alone on the back post. David De Gea was left with no chance as Nacho belted it past him.
Still, I don't believe my head was the only one to drop when they equalized right after. Arsenal lost their defensive shape for the one time in the match, starting with Monreal playing far too loosely on Angel di Maria, allowing the cross to come in. Laurent Koscielny lost his bearings, allowing Wayne Rooney to drift off of him and power an unstoppable point-blank header past Wojciech Szczesny.
Had this been business as usual, the Gunners would have wilted as an energized United team ran riot on them. Instead, the Arsenal immediately closed up shop, regained their composure, and stuck to the plan of fighting back when the situation allowed for it to be done as safely as possible. Despite that, Szczesny had to help his own cause with a save on di Maria that was much more difficult than it looked - his reflexes and rebound control were on point there. Sadly, his kicking wasn't, as a poor clearance almost gifted them a goal towards the end of the half.
That took us to the interval, where Beaker decided to change things around by bringing on Michael Carrick and Phil Jones in place of Ander Herrera and Luke Shaw. It just meant that they were a disjointed mess with a slightly different collection of players, though. That's not to take away from an Arsenal performance of MASSIVE desire and spirit, but United were dreadful. I mean, what's their plan? What are they set up to do? Answers on a postcard...
It was right around here that they fully ran out of ideas. They turned into an almost continental version of Stoke City - long balls, diving all over the place, more long balls, and more diving. Really? REALLY, Manchester United? The big bad United at Old Trafford and you're resorting to lumping hoofballs to Fellani and falling over anytime someone breathes on you?
How the mighty have fallen.
Luckily, Michael Oliver - in arguably the single best refereeing performance of the last 4-5 years, wasn't having any of it. He was not afraid to dish out yellow cards when it was warranted, including for some of their more risible dives (di Maria the worst offender by far). Good on him.
Speaking of di Maria, what an effect he would have on the rest of the game. First, he spurned a decent chance up one end, and we only go up the other and score! A poor chest-down of a long goal kick by Jones started the danger. Valencia hit a ludicrously-poor backpass, De Gea couldn't get there, and Welbeck finished into the empty net.
You have to understand - I date back to 1992 as a Gooner. For me, Manchester United is the team I hate the most - the ever-present nemesis that prevented us from having the trophy haul that our best teams of the late 90s-early 2000s probably deserved. Watching them implode at home against us is pure, distilled, 10000-proof schadenfreude for me. HAVE SOME OF THAT.
There was still time for them to get back into it, which is why I loved Arsene's substitution of Calum Chambers on for Bellerin. The young Spaniard was booked early and committed a foul that on another day might have been a second yellow, so why risk it?
But, then again, why worry when United were desperate to empty an AK-47 directly into their own feet? They already would have been down 3-1 off a spectacular volley from Cazorla were it not for a worldie save by De Gea. Seconds later, Oliver booked di Maria for his 10,871th ridiculous dive of the half. The dumb bastard (who remember, many of us in our infinite wisdom were furious at Arsene for not signing) grabbed the referee's shirt, which is at least a yellow all day. Oliver sent him packing - imagine, a red card for a United player at their gaff - and that was about it for their chances on the day.
The hilarious thing was, a few minutes later, Adnan Januzaj was also booked for diving, in an attempt to win a penalty.
Want to talk about mental blocks? Maybe a new one is starting, going the other way this time. I hope so...you're late, Karma.
I keep coming back to it, but it keeps being the most astonishing thing about this game. THAT is what they were reduced to. It's like pulling back the curtain and seeing that the Wizard was just that small dude sitting in the chair after all. Good, fuck 'em to hell, anyway.
The one sop to the old days was that they got an inexplicable five minutes of Fergie Time at the end, but all they managed to accomplish was being bailed out by De Gea once again. Whatever else, remember that his saves were the only thing between them and a potential hiding. At home. To the team they had the mental advantage over going in.
So, ladies, it's time to get those yellow ribbons out once again. We got the winner of Bradford City vs. Reading, and for me the most important thing left for this season is to ensure that Arsene doesn't allow them to take it lightly. This trophy is ours to win if we play up to our capabilities. Come on, boys...let's do this.
The Modern Gooner Player Ratings:
Szczesny 7, Monreal 8, Koscielny 7, Mertesacker 8, Bellerin 6 (Chambers 7), Coquelin 8, Cazorla 8, Sanchez 8, Ozil 8, Oxlade-Chamberlain 7 (Ramsey 7), Welbeck8 (Giroud 7)
Man of the Match: We had no shortage of heroes, but I have to give it to Danny Welbeck for scoring against the team and the manager that told him that he wasn't good enough.
Sean Swift is a contributing writer to The Modern Gooner, and is absolutely walking on air right now. I am on the Twitter machine at @thefallen29, but my usual caveat, I don't often check it.