It was the 74th minute when Arsene Wenger went from mere arrogance to sheer incompetence. Replacing Alex Oxlade Chamberlain with Andrey Arshavin. The Ox had been Arsenal's best player on the pitch providing the side with desperately needed speed, ambition, and some quality skills. Just a few minutes before, he had provided a superlative touch to set up RVP's electric finish which gave Arsenal its equalizer. The substitution led RVP to mouth a disbelieving "No" as thousands of fans at the Emirates and in the world reacted the same way.
What was Wenger thinking? Arshavin who has been a defensive liability his entire Arsenal career proved to be a disaster as Antonio Valencia slalomed around him with ease to enter the box with the Russian trying to dispossess him. His ridiculous attempts ended gifting the ball to Danny Welbeck who gratefully accepted the offering to slam the ball for Utd's winner. To be fair, it wasn't all Arshavin's fault because Vermaelen was not there in support to stop Valencia. It could have happened with the Ox around too. But unlike the teenager, his subsequent contributions to the attack were equally poor.
The change happened when Arsenal was clearly in the ascendancy with the Ox and RVP within sniffing distance of another goal. Arshavin's entry was a momentum killer.
The first half was dire as Arsenal could not get anything going playing with a bewildering timorousness and lack of ball control as Utd established a chokehold. The absence of full backs was thoroughly exposed as Nani, Giggs, and Valencia ran at will down the flanks. Johan Djourou was completely at sea. It was a matter of time, the citadel was going to fall, and it happened just before halftime as Giggs running down the left unchallenged floated the ball with no one marking Valencia providing him a clear path to goal.
Djourou was gone in the second half as Nico Yennaris made his Premiership debut. The Gunners picked themselves up in the second half with RVP missing an absolute sitter right after Utd lost the ball to Tomas Rosicky who ran into the box and squared to the striker. It was a bright spell for Arsenal with the Ox troubling the Utd defense with his pace and coming close to scoring himself. Ramsey and Rosicky also came close. They had to wait till the 70th minute for the equalizer which started with Laurent Koscielny who had an immense match robbing the ball from Welbeck in the Arsenal box and then issuing a long relay to Rosicky to set up the beautiful 1-2 with Ox and RVP. Arsenal notched it up another gear till Wenger had his mental fart.
After the match, Wenger had to reach into his grab bag of ready to make rationalizations. He's got plenty of them.
"Oxlade-Chamberlain had started to fatigue, started to stretch his calf, and was not used to the intensity."
Did the Ox look tired to anyone? Because he looked quite capable of playing another 90 minutes.
" Let's be serious. I have to stand up for the substitutions I made. I've been 30 years in this job and have made 50,000 substitutions and I have to justify every time I make a decision? I do not have to explain to you every single decision I make."
" That's part of United being dangerous on the flanks. But people pay for their tickets and are free to express their emotions. We cannot dictate what behaviour people should have. That doesn't mean they're right always."
United were dangerous down the flanks for a reason. Wenger had no full backs to stop them and refused to get any replacements. Johan Djourou was incapable of stopping Nani or Giggs. Arshavin was exposed against Valencia. We have been insisting for a while that this would prove counterproductive. But once again this manager shows his contempt for such justified criticism.
The result is another loss, the third in a row. Arsenal were helped by some helpful results as Bolton beat Liverpool, Fulham thumped Newcastle, and Norwich stopped Chelsea. They are still in fifth but their season is turning to tatters.
This club has no conviction, it is failing to respond to a manager who seems to have no answers, is unwilling to provide them with help, and blames everyone else for its predicament. Meanwhile, we have a pusillanimous board, that trots out Stan Kroenke, who does not know his football from his arse, for an occasional session where he mouths empty platitudes. Peter Hill-Wood, a long time crony who fills a seat but little else. Ivan Gazidis whose prattle is all about Arsenal being a model of self sustenance. It appears there will be 40 million less reasons to tout such an achievement at the end of the season.
The highlights - have at them till they last.