Huge But Unconvincing Win For United
I've come home but I'm still not relaxed at all, still feel the tension, the anxiety. It's as different from the thrill over our perfect display against Arsenal in the FA Cup as different it can be.
I liked the starting line-up. Park and Hargreaves deserved inclusion, based on recent form and Giggs was finally left out. Pique, I thought, offered a better alternative to Vidic than O'Shea. My only regret was Scholes starting instead of Anderson.
However, our interpretation of the formation and tactics was baffling. Park played the first 45 minutes up front, chasing down aimless long balls. Ronaldo always took the ball inwards, into the crowded midfield where he invariably lost it while Carrick's positioning was nowhere near as masterful as usual.
The first 15 minutes were terrible: both Brown and Evra tried to defend way too high and got caught out with embarassing frequency. Evra upped his performance after that less than glorious period - Brown did not.
Of course credit is due to Arsenal. It seemed that they felt they had nothing to lose and loved it: they went for the jugular, playing with hunger, drive and enthusiasm - things we seemed to lack. It was a must-win game, all right but not once this season we crumbled under pressure the way we did in the first half. Adebayor could have had a brace in the first half, Fabregas fired over the bar from a threatening position and they looked likely to score.
Yet it was a testament to United's quality that we had great chances to find the net. Park headed wide from Hargreaves's cross when he should have left it for Ronaldo then Rooney's moments came: first he was sent clear by a long ball from Van der Sar, muscled out a chance between Toure and Song but fired wide.
Then Evra, with the outside of his left foot, sent a glorious ball into Ronaldo's path, the Portuguese took on Song near the byline on the left, beat him with ease then pulled the ball back for Rooney who for some reason did not blast it from close range, instead opted for a clever little flick which was parried by Lehmann. Then Song was culpable once more as a ball was deflected off him straight to Rooney but Lehmann denied him again as his shot deflected off the German's foot for a corner.
It was clear by this time that Hargreaves was operating mainly on the left, running a lot to do his job defensively and provide crosses in attack. He did this job magnificently but why wasn't Park given a similar instruction? He could have been a lot more effective.
However, for the last 15 minutes United settled down, Scholes and Carrick started to take control of the midfield and passed the ball around nicely. The hectic pace of the game also slowed down but as a result chances have dried up as well. A draw looked like a fair result - though a 2-2 draw would have reflected the pattern of the play much better.
The second half started in disastrous fashion. We failed to clear a Fabregas shot and the Spaniard released Van Persie on the left. His cross wasn't very good: it should have been headed away by Ferdinand or punched out by Van der Sar. However, neither of them could decide which one should act and as a result, neither did do anything, allowing Adebayor to score. That the Togolese striker did this with his hand only added to the sheer misery of it as the linesman, standing on the other side, could not see it.
It would have been fascinating to see how United react to this set-back but we were spared: Carrick's little chip into the area was clearly handled by Gallas and fortunately, the assistant spotted it this time. The penalty itself was a farce: as Ronaldo stopped in his track before he took it, both Gallas and Park ran into the area before the Portuguese hit the ball. Therefore his goal did not stand and I was worried that the increased pressure might result in a missed penalty.
I should not have worried though: Ronaldo had the cheek to choose the same corner again and fire the ball there unstoppably. Fergie sent in Tevez and Anderson, replacing Park and Scholes and our football became more composed, slowly we took control as Arsenal looked shattered.
We could have taken the lead a minute earlier before we actually did: Evra beautifully dribbled his way inside then sent Rooney clear with a clever through ball. The striker was yet again denied by Lehmann but the ball got back to Evra who was fouled by Gilberto just outside the box. Hargreaves and Ronaldo stepped up and there was a lot of guesswork in the ground: who would take it? Hargreaves did, sending it gloriously into the far low corner, leaving Lehmann frozen on the spot. He celebrated wildly with the others while Old Trafford threatened to explode.
Now, in my opinion, the most worrying part of the game came after the goal. The goal did not give us confidence as it should have done: it seemed to inject even more self-doubt. It looked like our lads were terrified of the prospect of losing their lead - and very nearly did. After Arsenal's goal, Ferdinand almost scored past his own keeper with a mis-hit clearance. Later Brown repeated the trick, hitting the post from a terrible attempt to clear the ball away.
These were signs of our doubts and these doubts, as I said, were apparent in the last 15 minutes. Arsenal, even with Theo Walcott sent in, had no cutting edge but ruled the midfield because Carrick either got stranded in the box or stayed too far up the field. He did not occupy our midfield and as Hargreaves was usually on the flanks, Arsenal had too much space down the middle.
Fortunately, apart from a Bendtner header, they did not really threaten as our defence finally managed to look decent. Anderson, Tevez, Rooney and Hargreaves kept the ball well but Ronaldo and Carrick were wasteful in possession and don't get me started on Brown - he improved defensively in the second half, the highlight being dispossessing Hleb with getting the ball forward - as he always seemed to hit dead ends whenever he started to run with the ball. By contrast, his counterpart Clichy was brilliant at left-back but ultimately he did not have the same impact that Evra had.
It is a huge, huge win. I had it down as a draw in my predictions but the fact we won means that Chelsea know they have to win both their games next week. The real bonus is that this was our last game without Vidic: the last two league games showed just how important he is. We can talk about defensive cover but such a brilliant pair that is Ferdinand and Vidic can't be replaced. If one of them is absent, the other becomes nervous - and that was apparent today. No wonder Brown also lost his head repeatedly but we should be embarassed: half of Arsenal's chances came from our defenders giving the ball straight back to them in our own half. We can't afford to do this.
Arsenal perhaps deserved to get something out of his game but as their goal was a handball and then they went on to give away a stupid penalty, I don't think they can complain. But they can draw a lot of positives from this performance; in fact, I thought we played much better at the Emirates where we could not win.
On the positive side, our mental strength is obvious: we managed to hold our own and sweat out a win against an Arsenal side that clearly summoned their last strength and produced an effort that many thought was beyond themselves. I'm not sure if the games at the Nou Camp and Stamford Bridge will be more difficult than this one.