Match report: One slump or two?

Manchester United 2-0 Arsenal

And so, as feared, the sleep-slump to disaster continues. I can’t see this one ending well.

You don’t have to scour the Arsenal online diaspora for too long to sense as much despondency, verging on militancy, as you will have ever seen. Yesterday’s defeat was entirely predictable, and followed a well-trodden formula. Loads of possession, not enough chances taken, undone by moments of weakness at the back, the team populated by a handful of passengers. We didn’t play disastrously at all – their keeper was named man of the match – but we did play like a team feeling sorry for itself.

I do worry though. Wenger drums on and on about the mental strength of this team, but I’ve long sensed these are rallying calls for the benefit of the players as much as for anyone. What I see is a team that loses a game or a player – or usually in the case of Arsenal, both at the same time – and loses its way. The losing of the way can even happen mid-game – viz Newcastle, Spuds etc.

Man Utd lose two in a row, then grind out a result. We lose one game and our form flies out the window. What are they listening to in the dressing room – Leonard Cohen?

The unpalatable truth is that this side, for all its aesthetic beauty and occasional flashes of glorious form, is making the same mistakes as it ever did.

Moan moan moan. But we’re second, I hear you cry, and chasing the title. It’s true, we are in a strong position, it’s just that our team is not currently strong. And as for the title – well again, based on what I see at the moment, I’d say it’s a pipe dream. With half our first team out and a black dog day that’s gone on for weeks, from where are we going to summon up a turnaround in form sufficient to pull it off?

We are not helped by our one-in, two-out injury list. Szczesny, Vermaelen, Song, Fabregas, Walcott and Djourou represent 6/11 of our best side. In the cases of Vermaelen and Fabregas, they possess a drive and will to win that we have no replacement for.

In their place we rely on, amongst others, Denilson and Diaby, two midfielders who have completely lost their way. When both went off against Sunderland, we improved. When both went off yesterday against Utd, we improved again. We can barely afford to carry one of these, but carrying both is a recipe for disaster. Nursing them both through developmental crises is very altruistic but where is it getting us? Yesterday, Gibbs and Arshavin also had bad days at the office. Even with so many off colour, we did create chances – we just couldn’t take them.

So yes, I’m gloomy, and for once, I’m looking forward to a week off. There are only so many miserable blogs I can write and, I suspect, only so many you can read.

I’m sure I’ll cheer up. There is still plenty to play for. It’s at times like this I need to lean more on the online shoulder of Goodplaya. A more relentless optimist you will not see. I wish I shared it – but I don’t.

Match preview: Down for the count or up for the cup?

I’ll admit, I’ve been rather down on the team since our defeat on Tuesday. What I fear more than anything else is the team letting the mini-slump slump along further, to the point where it’s all a bit too late. Let’s, for the sake of clarity, refer to this as ‘sleep-slumping’ to disaster.

And if I’m feeling a bit sorry for myself, it’s reasonable to assume that the team is too. These are the ‘psychological blows’ Wenger refers to. Left hook, Birmingham. Midriff, Sunderland. Right hook, Barcelona. We’re tottering on the ropes a bit.

This article in the Guardian sums up neatly why today is more than just an opportunity to freshen things up and give our war-weary troops a breather. Back in 2008, Wenger effectively conceded the FA Cup at Old Trafford to concentrate on the league, only to then win just one win from the next eight. That, as they say, was that.

So quite apart from being an FA Cup quarter final, which is reason enough to take things seriously, the added factors of a) two teams eager to put recent disappointments behind them and b) two teams challenging each other at the top of the table, makes it a huge, huge game.

We’ve lost five of our last six trips to Old Trafford, drawing the other, and United’s home form is superb. Nobody is under any illusions about the size of the task. But we urgently need to come out with a response. It’s been argued long and hard over the last week, but for my money we’ve not played well – at least not as well as we can – since Barcelona in the first leg. We’ve lost a bit of sparkle. You could argue that the league is a bigger priority, but I’m not sure I agree. It’s a bigger target, and we’d all rather win it than the cup, sure, but the FA Cup has equal priority in my books. You cannot pluck form out of the ether, or pick and mix which competitions to win. It doesn’t work that way. You go for them all.

So we’ll play as strong a team as we can, I’m sure of that, and I guess it will be something like Almunia, Sagna, Koscielny, Djourou, Clichy, Wilshere, Diaby, Eboue/Bendtner, Nasri, Arshavin & van Persie. Denilson might play a part but I’d be worried by that. We don’t need to add more players lacking confidence to the starting XI, we need fewer. It’s one thing Bendtner doesn’t lack, and Eboue for all his lack of end product offers a bit of pace.

What we need is a reaction. A performance. A sign that they’re rolling up their sleeves and tucking into the business end of the season with the bit between their teeth.

BBC preview
Guardian squad sheet