I should start by saying that last night’s 3-1 loss to United was perhaps the most difficult game of football I have ever watched. There have certainly been other difficult games – the Champions League final loss to Barcelona, the 2-0 loss to United to end the 50-game unbeaten run, the 2-1 loss to Liverpool in the 2001 FA Cup final and even last season’s 4-2 loss to Liverpool in the Champions League – but this was the worst of the lot.
It wasn’t particularly the result that hurts so much, nor the fact that it was United or that we missed out on a place in the final of the Champions League. It was the fact that it was over so damn quickly. One slip and one speculative free-kick and that was it. Game over. Thanks for coming.
For me the game requires little analysis because it was over after 11 minutes. The other 79 minutes didn’t mean a thing because, truth be told, we had absolutely no chance of getting back up from the double-punch that United delivered. No-one would have, not even Liverpool.
There’s little debate that Manchester United were clearly the better team over the two legs, yet the harsh reality in this match is that a freakish slip from Kieran Gibbs and a wonderful free-kick from the most irritating – if not the best – player in world football essentially decided this contest. We were buzzing around with great movement before the first goal but when Park Ji Sung found the back of the net it sucked the energy out of the stadium and when Ronaldo scored just three minutes later the full-time whistle may as well have been blown.
As always with these sorts of games, it’s hard to ignore what could have been. We showed enough in the opening 8 minutes to suggest that had Gibbs managed to clear, we may have gone on to win it. Statistics won’t back that up but I think every Arsenal supporter in world would agree. Alas, we’ll never know.
I think it would be harsh and unfair to put much blame on the manager for this result. There was nothing tactical that could have been done to prevent either of the first two goals and as I said, once they went in it was over. I admit to getting frustrated with Arsene Wenger’s reluctance to try something different as soon as we went behind – moving Theo Walcott to the left, bringing on Nicklas Bendtner, taking off Gibbs – but at the end of the day it really wouldn’t have done much. Whereas the movement and intensity of our side before the opening goal was excellent, our players were virtual statues after going 2-0 down.
There will be arguments made that our side simply did not have the experience to get past a side as well-drilled and a squad as big and varied as Manchester United, and there’s certainly an element in truth. I don’t think anyone would deny that a 19-year-old is more likely than a 30-year-old to make the sort of mistake that Gibbs did. However, Gael Clichy’s slip against Tottenham earlier in the season showed it could happen to anyone. Likewise, there’s little experience can do to prevent a free-kick from dipping and swerving the way that Ronaldo’s did.
The truth is that experience could not have prevented us going two goals down today. It may have prevented us mustering up the courage to come back and make a real fist of a comeback, something that I still very much doubt, but it could not have stopped United going ahead 3-0 on aggregate. That, unfortunately, is down to the unpredictable nature of football.
I realise I’ve made very few conclusions about the game or our season in general but the truth is I’m finding it hard to make any. While there’s no denying we were knocked out by the better side I just can’t stop thinking about how different it might’ve been had poor Gibbs stayed on his feet.
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