Ignore the scoreline for a second. Manchester United’s 2-1 win over Arsenal on Saturday was a cakewalk. The early Robin van Persie goal was a huge problem for the Gunners who appeared to be set out more to nullify United’s attacking threat rather than surge forward and look for goals of their own.
United’s second goal took a while to come, chiefly because Vito Mannone made some excellent saves and Wayne Rooney sent a penalty wide. But by the time it did arrive Arsenal had still not managed a goal on target, and Santi Cazorla’s consolation goal arrived so late there was no time for play to be re-started.
This turned out to be a very satisfactory weekend for Alex Ferguson’s team, who secured a one-point lead at the top of the Premier League after Chelsea and Manchester City were both held to draws and Tottenham, one of only two teams to take any points off United this season, surprisingly succumbed to Wigan at home.
Ferguson was publicly critical of his team’s profligacy in front of goal, but he would surely have privately been very pleased indeed that they defended so very well. The relationship between Jonny Evans and Rio Ferdinand is blossoming by the game, while the full-backs — Patrice Evra and Rafael — coped manfully with what came their way.
In truth, they didn’t have a huge amount of complicated defending to do, which reinforces my belief that Arsene Wenger is paying the price for playing Cazorla in the middle.
The Spaniard made an immediate and impressive impact at the start of the season, and comes with a reputation as a versatile player who can adapt to various roles. Wenger appears to have decided that putting him directly behind a lone striker, generally Olivier Giroud, is the best approach.
In fact, Cazorla’s pace and accurate crossing means he is crying out to be played on one of the wings. On Saturday, Arsenal showed a noticeable lack of penetration down the left, where Lukas Podolski was playing in front of Santos.
Wenger could have benched Podolski (or played him as the striker), pushed Cazorla out on the left instead, and started with Theo Walcott on the right. That way, Rafael and Evra would never have had the armchair ride they ended up getting, and instead of surging forward in support of countless United attacks, they might have had a lot more testing defending to do.
Of course, it’s pure hypothesis. The problem with the 4-2-3-1 formation is that none of the midfielders end up in wide positions often enough. Instead, it’s the full-backs who tend to get the space to operate out there. This is fine if you’ve got full-backs who are comfortable running into space and whipping in crosses, but in Arsenal’s case they had Santos, who doesn’t look good enough at this level, and Bacary Sagna, who you sense would be happier in a mainly defensive role.
Arsenal, whose squad is packed with high-quality midfielders, should find a formation that plays to their strengths, whether three at the back or a 4-4-2. Surely, it has to be worth a go.
Chelsea find themselves embroiled in a frankly ludicrous race row involving a referee, who, it is claimed, called John Obi Mikel “a monkey” in the bad-tempered League Cup defeat to United.
Much more likely is that the referee in question, Mark Clattenburg, told Mikel “I couldn’t give a monkey’s” or something similar, and we await the developments of that saga in due course.
Meanwhile, the early front-runners in the title race need to start winning again after looking a little timid against Swansea, who secured a draw thanks to a late goal from Pablo Hernandez.
This was not a game when Chelsea’s creative trio Oscar, Eden Hazard and Juan Mata were showcasing their great array of skills with any great frequency — though you would have to pay credit to Michael Laudrup’s impressive Swansea as well.
Manchester City, who will probably drop out of Champions League contention if they fail to beat Ajax in mid-week, did not play with the swagger of champions in their away match at West Ham, with Mario Balotelli missing the easiest of a catalogue of wasted chances in a 0-0 draw.
But they didn’t fare as badly as Tottenham, who were booed off the pitch by their own fans after a tactically brilliant performance from Wigan, whose manager Roberto Martinez is beginning to get the luck he deserves.
The best performance by an individual all weekend perhaps came from Luis Suarez. While everyone else in a Liverpool shirt, most strikingly Steven Gerrard, gave an off-colour showing, Suarez was a constant menace to Newcastle’s defence, and scored a memorable goal with one of the best first touches you’ll see in the 1-1 draw at Anfield. Heaven help Brendan Rodgers if the Uruguayan picks up a bad injury.