Arsenal, Manchester United come up short with opportunity to rise up
LONDON -- Arsenal, this season, has made a habit of failing its biggest challenges.
It is only a point off the top and could still go on to win the league, but the fact is that in the biggest games it has come up short. It lost at Old Trafford, at the Etihad and at Anfield; it was beaten at home by Borussia Dortmund and it faltered at Napoli, and here, after Chelsea had opened the door by drawing at West Bromwich Albion, Arsenal missed its opportunity to return to the top of the table.
Under normal circumstances, there would be few complaints about a draw against Manchester United, but these are not normal circumstances: United has won only two of seven league games in 2014, and there was a clear sense of relief about its manager, David Moyes.
Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger, by contrast, seemed frustrated, quickly undermining his own attempts to put a brave face on the point by admitting his side's confidence had been shaken by Saturday's 5-1 defeat at Liverpool, which suddenly finds itself just four points off the top with both Chelsea and Mancester City still to go to Anfield.
"Our team was highly focused not to concede tonight and maybe that restricted us going forwards," Wenger said. "I felt we were nervous. Where we are usually always very dangerous breaking from the middle, Manchester United were defending very well. It's not worrying because we care about what we do. When you concede five goals like we did on sat, we are only human beings... We've had two bad results but we are still in a position where we can do it."
Mathematically, of course, technically, that is true. But given how often Arsenal has stuttered when the pressure has been on this season, there is little reason to suppose that it will suddenly produce decisive performances away at Chelsea, Tottenham Hotspur and Everton or at home to Manchester City.
It was nervy, it was anxious, and for long spells, it really wasn't very good. There was a strange lack of intensity about the first half as though both teams, like drivers going out for the first time after a serious accident, had to persuade themselves they could actually keep a car on the road. In past seasons Arsenal has often been accused of playing a pass too many, of needlessly over-complicating attacks, a fault that has - by and large - been missing this season.
Here, though, the extra touch was once again in evidence, too many attacks faltering and losing momentum with a pass too many. The directness and zip - the self-belief - that have characterized the club at its best was absent. A couple of crosses produced half-chances, and Antonio Valencia had to clear a Laurent Koscielny header off the line, but there was never a spell on concerted pressure, never a sense that Arsenal could capitalize on United's timidity.
And United was timid. It is bereft of self-belief and seemed content from the outset to play for a point. A year ago, there was a sense of inevitability about Robin van Persie scoring against Arsenal, something he did after three minutes of his first game against his former club. Confidence, or the lack of it, can do strange things to a side, though, and when van Persie created a chance for himself by dispossessing Koscielny after three minutes at the Emirates, he lost his footing as he shot, scuffing his effort straight into the body of Wojciech Szczesny.
Van Persie did go close following a second-half counterattack with Wayne Rooney, Szczesny making a smart reaction save to turn his header onto the crossbar, but that was the only time it really threatened. Moyes, slightly bafflingly, praised Juan Mata, claiming he had been United's best player in his three games since joining from Chelsea, but he looked out of sorts, huffing and puffing to no great effect on the left.
"I thought we did a lot of good things in the game," said Moyes. "The shape was nice and compact."
Given Jose Mourinho was praised for the way his Chelsea closed down Arsenal and secured a 0-0 draw at the Emirates in December, it would be wrong not to give credit to Moyes, and the maligned Tom Cleverley and Michael Carrick both had fine games plugging gaps in front of the back four, but equally, this isn't an Arsenal in anything like the form it was in then. And, just as pertinently, United is now 11 points off fourth: Champions League qualification is becoming an ever more distant dream.
A draw, ultimately, satisfied neither side, yet such was the scarring form the weekend's results that neither had the wherewithal to push for anything more. There is time yet for both to produce something dramatic, but this felt like an evening on which each accepted its fate.