Mayday, mayday – Arsenal catch fire

Arsenal 1-0 Manchester United

Well, that was fun.

Fresh out of the title race and with the handbrake well and truly off, Arsenal put in the kind of shift and performance that – had they happened more frequently this season – would have been the benchmark.

That our benchmark has in fact been drawing or losing from winning positions, or not taking our chance to edge ahead even when the opportunity is presented to us on a silver salver, makes yesterday all the more frustrating. You could spend months turning yourself inside-out mulling over the What Ifs if you wanted to, but it wouldn’t get you anywhere, so what’s the point?

Best I think to take it as a fine one-off performance, and it really was.

Maybe it was the glorious sunshine, refreshing breeze and the glow of Bremen’s finest export, but I was in a state of almost horizontal calm before the match. This is what happens when you don’t expect too much.

From the off though, you could tell that Arsenal were up for it, with both Walcott and Wilshere squandering presentable chances early on. Ramsey, Song and Wilshere were having a ball in midfield, with Djourou and Koscielny untroubled at the back. The latter made one particularly thunderous interception on Fabio. Tackling at its finest.

The referee was doing his best to get in the way of Arsenal passes wherever possible – one of them even looked like a nifty backheel – and was clearly too busy honing his positional interceptions to spot Nemanja Maradona’s handball. Rooney was bubbling with frustration; always a good sign.

The goal, when it came, was not dissimilar to Arshavin’s against Barcelona. Van Persie waited and waited, before passing to the unmarked Ramsey to slot it home.

Hats off to the Welshman. For my money it was his finest Arsenal performance to date, against tough opposition, and if there’s anyone who better deserved the catharsis of a goal then I’d like to know who it is.

His partnership with Wilshere, sitting in front of the equally excellent Song, really blossomed. That we did not miss Fabregas yesterday says it all, and bodes extremely well. For me, the Wilshere/Ramsey partnership was the stand-out highlight of an all-round impressive performance.

Ramsey also seems more vocal than I remember him being – when Sagna made a clearance in the first half, he was first to him to slap him on the back. It’s easy to see why Wales took a punt on making him their captain.

OK, so the last 30 mins was a bit hairier, but we held on well and can be grateful that the referee was at least as poor for Man Utd as he was for us. Clichy’s clumsy tackle on Owen would have been given as a penalty more times than it wouldn’t. But the old saying that things even themselves out was very apt here – one penalty apiece not given – and we were well worth our win.

Clichy – prone to this – did otherwise have an excellent game, particularly from an attacking perspective. Szczesny showed once again that while he needs to work on distribution – he wasted several goal kicks at the end by kicking them all the way to van der Sar – he is an imposing keeper and a fine shot-stopper. We do not need a new number one in the summer.

Anything left to achieve this season? Of course. As well as cementing an automatic Champions League place, which is well within our grasp if we play like that, I’d like to see us win all of our final three games of the season. Should we do that, it would be the first time this campaign that we will have won four league games in a row.

Apparently, it was the most youthful team fielded by any side this season in the Premier League – averaging 23 years and 296 days. No doubt the boss will see that as vindication of his approach. It’s hard to disagree based on yesterday’s performance, but that doesn’t mean some hard work needs to be done on the training pitch and with the cheque book over the summer to ensure that performances like that are the norm and not the exception.

Enjoy your bank holiday – I know I will.

Two mistakes unravel the good work

Manchester Utd 2-1 Arsenal

So, an early defeat, but I’m still scratching my head to work out how we came out of that game with nul points.

Last season, in our second game we capitulated meekly to Fulham at Craven Cottage, a defeat that set the tone for the next six months. This season, we’ve also lost one of our first three games of the season – but there the parallels end. Whereas at Fulham we deserved nothing more, yesterday at Man Utd we threw the game away.

We were utterly dominant until Almunia made the first of two bad Arsenal mistakes. We’d had a clear-cut penalty denied, we’d scored a fabulous goal and van Persie had come within a goalkeeper’s ankle of making it 2-0. Nothing less than we deserved.

Then Almunia scuttled out of his goal at Rooney, way too far out, there was contact and the inconsistent Mike Dean gave the penno. “Old Trafford-ish” was the word Wenger used to describe the penalty being given, a genius description that implies without accusing. Rooney made the most of it – he’d begun to fall before the contact – but contact there was and really, Almunia can have few complaints. Rather than chastising Dean in this instance, (reserve your opprobrium for the clearest of penalties you’ll ever see, denied to Arshavin, shortly before his 30-yard rocket), perhaps we should look closer to home. What was Almunia thinking? It was an avoidable penalty.

And it changed the course of the game. Utd, hitherto huffing and puffing, got the wind up them and though van Persie managed to hit the bar from a free kick, it wasn’t long before Diaby scored the most extraordinary own goal. A free kick, no pressure, and he nodded it right past Almunia. Words fail.

So we found ourselves down, and despite a mazy run and shot from the no doubt severely embarrassed Diaby, and a last-minute goal correctly given offside, that was that.

Well, that wasn’t quite that: the absurdly officious Dean still found time to send Wenger to the stands for kicking a water bottle in frustration, a mere few seconds before he was due to blow the final whistle. Wenger had no way of getting to the stands, so with the most incredible chutzpah, went and stood on a raised dais like a god, arms outstretched, ignoring the usual vile chants. “Where am I supposed to go, you jobsworth half-witted git”, he said. Or at least, that’s how I saw it.

It provided some interesting photos, but was a ridiculous refereeing decision.

Dean’s inconsistent, card-happy refereeing provided several other talking points. Watch Wenger’s post-match interview below:

Nevertheless, Wenger was pretty upbeat, and so he should be. Until we shot ourselves in the foot, we looked excellent. Even when the game started going away from us we created a few chances. We passed well, defended well, and looked comfortable. Utd came back strongly after the penalty, but you’d expect them to.

The way we performed makes the end result – and the two mistakes – that bit more frustrating. But in the cold light of day we can also be pleased, I think, as on the evidence so far, we’ve made a step up from last campaign.

Onwards and upwards.