Two games in the upper reaches of the Premier League this weekend produced fixtures that were similar only in their frenzied tempo and the fact they both contained penalty misses by star strikers.
Tottenham and Chelsea’s 1-1 draw on Sunday afternoon was an enjoyably open and entertaining encounter; Manchester United’s victory over Arsenal last night, by contrast, was a rather dour affair.
Despite playing their way to the top of the league, Arsenal seemed to enter the game at Old Trafford having taken notice of the widespread criticism they’ve received for being physically lightweight, transforming themselves from a group of subtle and thoughtful artistes into a bunch of cloggers — even Andrey Arshavin, the modern-day total footballer, was flying into brutal challenges.
Unfortunately, the robust approach adopted by the Gunners meant that the first half was almost devoid of incident until Park Ji Sung’s wonderfully improvised headed goal shortly before the interval.
It was the archetypal “game that needed a goal”, and the second half was better, much better, as a result of Park’s opener. Now trailing, Arsenal could no longer play for the nil-nil draw, as had appeared to be the limit of their ambitions during the opening period.
With renewed levels of purpose and intent, Arsenal’s pass masters Arshavin, Samir Nasri and Tomas Rosicky started to produce their usual fast, clever interplay towards the edge of United’s penalty area, with Marouane Chamakh looking increasingly capable of unsettling Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic.
But United were offering a threat on the counter-attack, and a passage of play shortly before the hour mark neatly encapsulated the strengths and weaknesses of the game’s most eye-catching individual, Nani.
Receiving the ball on the right wing after a fast break by Anderson, Nani appeared to have wasted the promising position by allowing himself to be dispossessed far too easily by Gael Clichy.
But the Portuguese winger rectified his error by immediately winning the ball back and striding towards goal, only to launch his shot hopelessly over the bar. Brilliant and awful within the space of five seconds — that’s Nani.
A few minutes later Arsene Wenger unleashed his big guns from the bench as fit-again Cesc Fabregas and Robin van Persie entered the fray. But they had little impact as the game reverted to the scrappy, attritional mode that had been prevalent in the first half.
Then came the moment that should have sealed the points in United’s favour. Nani was again at the fore, tussling with Clichy near the byline and sending over a firm low cross that cannoned against the arm of the Arsenal defender from point-blank range.
There was absolutely no intent from Clichy — it would have been almost impossible for him to get out of the way — but the linesman swiftly threw up his flag to signal a penalty.
The decision was harsh on Arsenal, but justice was served when Wayne Rooney blazed the spot kick high over the crossbar. Rooney had been a peripheral figure and perhaps there was some frustration behind his decision to smash the ball as hard as he possibly could, but it was difficult to feel too much sympathy because the penalty shouldn’t have been awarded in the first place.
So Arsenal were still in the game, but they never looked like taking advantage of their reprieve. United were organised and resolute in defence, bottling up any space around the centre of the field and resultantly restricting the Gunners to speculative long-range efforts. Fabregas, lacking match fitness, was unusually wasteful in possession, while van Persie was forced to drop into harmless deep-lying positions in a fruitless attempt to exert any kind of influence on the action.
The final minutes drifted away with Arsenal’s only opportunity being squandered by Theo Walcott’s woefully mis-hit volley, and United held onto the victory with relative ease.
United did just about enough without producing anything like their best form, and Arsenal should regret their first-half approach — adding a much-needed physical dimension to their play is one thing, forgetting the qualities that make them such a free-scoring team is another.
The previous day, Chelsea will have been both relieved and frustrated that they failed to take all three points despite a dominant performance at White Hart Lane — relieved because they trailed for nearly an hour after Roman Pavlyuchenko’s 15th-minute opener, but frustrated because they were by far the better team and were only denied victory by Didier Drogba’s injury time penalty miss.
But the Blues can take plenty of encouragement from what was their best performance for a long time. Having looked lethargic and one-paced in the last few games, Sunday’s showing was far more like the Chelsea we’re used to. And with Manchester United and Arsenal coming up next, their promised renaissance couldn’t have come at a better time.