Current brittle Arsenal far from the old ‘Invincibles’

Wenger’s outfit unlikely to be the ones to expose the cracks in United’s facade

 Martin Keown of Arsenal goads Ruud Van Nistelrooy of Man Utd after Van Nistelrooy missed his penalty at Old Trafford in 2003. Photo:  Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

Martin Keown of Arsenal goads Ruud Van Nistelrooy of Man Utd after Van Nistelrooy missed his penalty at Old Trafford in 2003. Photo: Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

 

By an accident of scheduling the premiere of Sky Sports’ Invincibles documentary about Arsenal’s unbeaten 2003-04 title-winning season was broadcast immediately after Arsenal’s 2015 vintage had lost 3-1 at home to Monaco in the Champions League.

The documentary didn’t really add much to our understanding of why that Arsenal team was so much better than the sides that have followed them. It’s simple – they had great players. Any team would have struggled to replace Sol Campbell, Robert Pires, Patrick Vieira and Thierry Henry.

But they also had a better attitude. The consensus among the Invincibles is that the pivotal moment of the season was the early 0-0 draw at Old Trafford, when Ruud van Nistelrooy missed a penalty in the last minute and Arsenal’s players rubbed it in so gleefully that six of their players ended up being charged by the FA.

Looking back at the footage, what stands out is the sheer unity of purpose with which the yellow-shirted Arsenal players converged on van Nistelrooy to goad and bully him. Several United players rushed to get involved, but as the crestfallen van Nistelrooy retreated it was the exultant phalanx of Arsenal players that owned the turf.

Proudest moments

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The 12-year-old footage from Old Trafford made a particular impression because of a contrasting scene that had been broadcast from the Emirates about an hour earlier.

Second Captains

In the fourth minute of injury time against Monaco, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain had received the ball from Kieran Gibbs’ throw-in, miscontrolled, and spun backwards into trouble. Sensing opportunity, two Monaco players rushed to help the one who was already tussling with Oxlade-Chamberlain, and between them the three opponents squeezed the ball out of his possession.

Six seconds had elapsed between Oxlade-Chamberlain receiving the ball from Gibbs and conclusively losing it to Bernardo Silva. Six seconds is a long time in a game of football. It took Monaco only eight more seconds to move the ball via Bernardo Silva and Ferreira-Carrasco from five metres inside their own half to the back of Arsenal’s net.

Six seconds is long enough for some of Oxlade-Chamberlain’s team-mates to run half the length of the field. So why was he left on his own to battle against three opponents? Where was everybody?

Standing and watching as though Oxlade-Chamberlain’s struggle had nothing to do with their own, is the answer. Gibbs stood on the left and watched. Rosicky stood in the centre and watched. The Arsenal players collectively stood and watched a team-mate sinking for six seconds, and not one of them thought to throw him a lifeline.

The goal that resulted means Arsenal’s only hope of a trophy is again the FA Cup, which they defend at Old Trafford tonight. And United have their own problems. They have lost two out of the last 22 but their displays seem to be getting worse.

Where is the dominant attacking football of which the name of Louis van Gaal was once a guarantee? There are grumbles that van Gaal’s thinking about the game has evolved to become less idealistic, more results-oriented; that the truest reflection of his philosophy is no longer to be found in the futuristic Ajax and Barcelona sides he led in the 1990s, but in the pragmatic Dutch team that counterattacked its way to the semi-final of the 2014 World Cup.

Last week, van Gaal found himself having to assure the world that he continues to enjoy a wonderful relationship with Ryan Giggs. Even van Gaal would struggle to argue United’s football is currently characterised by “passion, tempo, bravery and imagination”, which was how Ryan Giggs defined the club ethos during his brief stint as caretaker manager. Paul Scholes has been one of the loudest critics, scorning United’s reluctance to take risks. It’s natural for people to suspect that Scholes’ public criticisms might reflect Giggs’ private misgivings.

Arsenal might go to Old Trafford thinking it’s a good time to play United.

But from United’s point of view, any time in the last 10 years has been a good time to play Arsenal. The Invincibles’ ganging-up on van Nistelrooy cost their players a collective £100,000 and 10 matches in suspensions. The defeat to Monaco cost the current side nothing in fines or bans. But in terms of football ethics, their negligence was far worse than the excesses at Old Trafford. The memory of the flailing Oxlade-Chamberlain, left to fight one against three, makes it hard to believe Arsenal can be the ones to expose the cracks in United’s facade.

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