Comment - Arsenal 0 Manchester United 0: Mesut Ozil and Juan Mata let the sweat of honest toil blind their creative gifts at the Emirates
The weather is not the only force of nature that halts the run of play. We saw here at the Emirates two teams frightened to go forward with real conviction for fear of falling further behind. This was felt most keenly in the creative feet of two players bought at great expense to make a difference.
An early tackle by Mesut Özil on Juan Mata on the halfway line proved symbolic; the future of these two great clubs colliding in an uncertain present in a part of the pitch where they are least effective.
Mata is still finding his feet in the Old Trafford environment. Özil is in search of a second wind at Arsenal after setting out in a blaze of creativity, and you felt the weight of that demand attaching to his ankles like a medicine ball.
We are told Özil is investing heavily in gym routines to add ballast to the artistry when all he really needs is the muscle that comes with scoring goals and winning matches. Mata is labouring under a different curse it seems, trying to answer the criticism of his former manager Jose Mourinho by tracking back in the service of his full-back.
David Moyes should fine him every time he steps into his own half, or conversely offer a bonus for every can-opening pass delivered from the inside-forward channel, just as he did in the 23rd minute to set Robin van Persie clear in the box.
This was the kind of chance gobbled up by Van Persie during his first season at Manchester United. Here he dithered, shuffled the ball back on to his right foot and missed the target wildly. The move summed up United’s lot; there is still pedigree in some component parts but insufficient rhythm, a feature reflected on Wall Street, where shares in the red shirt slipped a further four per cent.
By increments this will change. The United ownership has expressed patience and faith in the Moyes project, just as Arsène Wenger has in his record purchase. Özil, in this phase, is beset by thinking too much. You can almost hear the mental machinery churning through the gears.
The examples piled up in the opening half. A fantastic break by Özil down the left disappeared in a cul-de-sac after a pass to Tomas Rosicky. In August and September he was less inclined to move the ball on at the earliest opportunity and revelled in the responsibility of having a go.
In his enthusiasm to deliver, Özil popped up all over the pitch, the next time mining the right of midfield in search of an opening. Once again the move fell down via the combination with Rosicky. The work ethic is all well and good but Wenger would rather see Özil advancing on the opposition box rather than tidying up on the edge of his own.
The play was too safe from Özil and Mata, the fear of the mistake seemingly too much. And this was a night when United were off the hook of expectation. They have zero chance in the league, and remain a long shot for fourth place. The United board has written off the season in deference to the long game, conditions you might expect would remove the shackles. This was a different manifestation of the Moyes team, the absences of crosses a telling feature.
With a minute of the half remaining Özil was at last set free with purpose through the inside-right channel. Surely this was the moment to let instinct take over and go for goal? But no. He checked, came inside, passed to Rosicky and the life ebbed from the move.
This fixture has defined the very best of United in the last great period under Sir Alex Ferguson. The victory here in the 2009 Champions League semi-final, and again the following January, were as good as it gets. Five years on the pendulum has swung back to London, yet Arsenal ultimately struggled to escape the circumstances of the night.
It was better in the second half. The tempo was quicker and the reflexes more in auto mode. Arsenal rediscovered more of their best yet United might have nicked it had Van Persie’s header found the back of the net.
With a minute of normal time remaining fate beckoned Özil to the piece when Olivier Giroud was clattered outside the box. He stepped up to take the free-kick, a last chance to pierce United’s armour and reclaim hegemony at the top of the table.
Perhaps the most telling detail was the lack of faith among the Arsenal fans. They didn’t fancy his chances any more, you suspect, than he did.
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