The best thing about Arsenal's brutal annihilation at the hands of Man Utd was that it came very quickly. By the end of the match one had gone through the five stages of grief. In fact, I emerged looking forward to the Chelsea match next weekend with a sense of acceptance. At this point a 7-0 thrashing looks pretty acceptable.
Man Utd's victory came from a series of stunningly simple and yet devastatingly effective counterattacks. The powerful surging of Park Ji Sung, Wayne Rooney, and Nani running in parallel unnerved the Gunners into chasing their shadows. For an Arsenal fan, there was no more painful sight than seeing Nani spinning Clichy like a top all afternoon. Surely CERN is missing a centrifuge. Or Almunia handling the ball like a hot potato. Or Arsenal's tangential attack that ran out of passes and predictably into a thicket of Utd players. We could also point out Arshavin's blindspots, the overall poor finishing, Clichy and Sagna's pointless crosses to no one in particular, and the inept and weak tackling but that would just add to the pile on.
Behind all of this, all the debate of missing essential players to challenge realistically for a Premiership, one was left with a nagging doubt. We have so sunk ourselves into an ideological hole with our approach that we fail to adapt or prepare. We were outplayed by a team that wanted to win. Talent and skill can push us past Bolton when down but who wants to get into that position against Man Utd? or Chelsea?
There are no beautiful ways to deal with Ashley Cole's crosses or Rooney's runs, simply effective ones. But the absence of established frontline strikers also means that Arsenal's attack wears a less circumscribed look. Their goals have come through a committee with defenders turned into bands of roving marauders. When confronted with muscular and speedy counterattacking teams, this over commitment to attack can be fatal. But this is not new knowledge against teams like Man Utd and Chelsea. We have been burned badly before by the same approach.
I think Almunia's own goal, the result of a breathtaking piece of individual brilliance by Nani was unavoidable but the ridiculous spectacle of Park Ji Sung, Rooney, and Nani each holding the Sword of Damocles over Clichy during the third goal would never have taken place if protecting a vulnerable Almunia was the first priority. This would have limited damage but unfortunately because it meant compromising ideological purity, it did not happen.
Wenger needs to play smart against Chelsea by strangely dumbing it down. Limiting damage, which teams like Stoke and Birmingham have to contend with, should now be part of our defensive lexicon. The defenders get behind the ball, close down space, disrupt the passing lanes, tackle effectively, and play no other part in attack other than set pieces and we have a template to stop cheap and easy goals. From there it is left to Arshvin, Fabregas and the rest of the attack to create chances and garner goals.
On a sidenote, even while grieving as must have been every Arsenal fan, one had to empathize each time the camera panned onto a distraught Wenger. With each blowout, a new wrinkle gets etched onto his face. He has aged while Fergie looks ruddier. Winning has a way of smoothening those furrows and for Wenger's sake I am hoping we win at least one more Premiership with him as the gaffer. It is better than any anti ageing cream.