Premier League Playback: How have Arsenal blown another title bid?

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WHY DOES ARSENAL KEEP BLOWING IT?

It’s happening again. It always happens. Why is it happening again?

[ MORE: Three things learned ]

That’s likely to be the question most Arsenal fans are asking themselves this morning and they have every right.

After crashing to an injury-ravaged Manchester United 3-2 on Sunday at Old Trafford, Arsenal’s title hopes are quite in ruins but it’s getting there.

[ MORE:  Arsenal chokes ]

Five points behind leaders Leicester with 11 games to go, the Gunners crumbled under the pressure. Leicester won on Saturday (Leonardo Ulloa’s late winner saw the Foxes beat Norwich 1-0) to move five points clear. Arsenal knew they needed to win on Sunday and although they started the game brightly – Mesut Ozil’s delicious flick set Nacho Monreal clean through but he shot right at David De Gea to squander a gilt-edged chance — that urgency soon faded as defensive lapses left them crumpled in a heap.

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Laurent Koscielny and Gabriel failed to pick up Marcus Rashford as Gabriel’s poor clearance was picked up and then swept home by the teenager (much more on him, soon) and then he ghosted in-between the duo in the box to head home and put United 2-0 up in the first half. Defensively, Arsenal were shocking. Would Per Mertesacker‘s experience have helped? Probably not.

The Gunners showed some fight with Danny Welbeck scoring to make it 2-1 right on half time, but then they imploded again with poor midfield tracking and a lack of tenacity in the engine room the underlying issue in this defeat. Francis Coquelin left Ander Herrera with far too much time and space on the edge of the box and his deflected effort put United 3-1 up. Still, Mesut Ozil scored to make it 3-2 with 20 minutes to go and there was hope but Arsenal never truly looked like netting an equalizer on a day where star names didn’t show up. Big time. Being present in Wenger’s press conference after the game, it was clear he was annoyed with the performance. He snarled at suggestions stating that this defeat was his worst-ever to United because of their under-strength team and refused to criticize his senior players who didn’t deliver.

[ MORE: Wenger says title hopes still alive ]

Ozil had a goal and assist but did little apart from that. Alexis Sanchez struggled to have any influence on the game. Theo Walcott looked lost out wide. Even Petr Cech seemed to be struggling to demand his defense and organize them coherently.

That was the big issue here and in recent times, it’s nothing new. Arsenal last won the title 10 years ago and this season clearly represents their best chance to end that drought. This was meant to be a new Arsenal, a side who could go away from home, sit back and defend then hit teams on the break. They’ve got better at it, but after putting themselves in a good position their customary end of season charge doesn’t look like materializing once again this year. Coquelin and the lightweight, disappointing Aaron Ramsey went missing with Morgan Schneiderlin and Ander Herrera all over them to cut off the supply line to Arsenal’s underperforming attacking midfield trio of Sanchez, Ozil and Walcott.

With Arsene Wenger’s attacking team selection, he seemed to want to go for the jugular and rub salt in the wounds of a wounded, bitter long-term rival as United had several key players out. It backfired.

“I think they defended well. Every time we got in the flow they stopped us with little free kicks in the middle of the park,” Wenger said. “On set pieces I expected us to do more. We were not dangerous enough.”

Is Wenger the problem? Many had questioned his “naïve” tactics and insistence on playing “the right way” over digging in and getting the job done. Those critics will find a fine voice once again after this damaging defeat. Coupled with Tottenham Hotspur’s comeback win against Swansea, it is now Spurs who trail Leicester by two points and lead Arsenal by three. The Gunners face Swansea at home on Wednesday and then a huge north London derby at Tottenham on Saturday.

This is it. Their title hopes will come down to the next two games. Can they pick themselves up and beat Swansea heading into the biggest derby matches against Spurs in PL history? They need to. Deep down, Wenger knows it.

“Nobody knows,” Wenger said, with  shrug. “We dropped three important points and we have to show we can fight and bounce back on Wednesday night [against Swansea] and not feel sorry for ourselves.”

Although he hasn’t given up on winning the title this season, he knows it’s do or die in the next seven days. Arsenal’s fans have seen this last chance saloon scenario play out too many times to be surprised. They’re already starting to feel sorry for themselves.


UNITED’S YOUNGINS

Premier League Schedule – Week 27

Result Recap & Highlights
 Leicester 1-0 Norwich Recap, watch here
 Man Utd 3-2 Arsenal Recap, watch here
 Saints 1-2 Chelsea Recap, watch here
 Stoke 2-1 A. Villa Recap, watch here
 Tottenham 2-1 Swansea Recap, watch here
 Watford 0-0 B’mouth Recap, watch here
 WBA 3-2 C. Palace Recap, watch here
 West Ham 1-0 S’land Recap, watch here

The eruption of noise at Old Trafford when Rashford lashed home a shot to put Manchester United 1-0 up against Arsenal on Sunday was unlike anything I’ve heard in recent times at OT. Perhaps it was the loudest since Sir Alex Ferguson retired…

[ MORE: Rashford on his dream week ]

Scratch that. Rashford, 18, struck again in the first half and the noise was even louder. His two goals and assist led United to the win over Arsenal and the teenager, who only made his pro debut four days ago, now has four goals in his first two outings as a United player. Not bad.

The local lad seemed composed, unfazed and received glowing praise from both managers post-game. His movement was particularly impressive as he peeled away at key moments and didn’t panic when two chances dropped his way. He did get lucky with a handball shout at the other end as he appeared to block the ball on the line with his arm, but the way his luck is going right now Craig Pawson missed it.

Rashford wasn’t the only United youngin to make a scene. This week alone Van Gaal has handed debuts to five players from their academy and since he arrived at United just over 18 months ago he has handed 23 players their debut for the Red Devils. With eight academy products in United’s 18-man squad on Sunday, their recently criticized academy does seem to be getting something right. He’s always been an advocate of promoting youth players quickly and has had huge success doing it at Ajax and Bayern Munich.

“It is the culture of Manchester United and that is why they take me as a manager,” Van Gaal said. “It is of course crazy all the injuries we have, today 12 injured players so now it is a little bit overdone, I think, but you see youngsters give always spirit to the team. I have a lot of experience with that and that is also a very important aspect of my philosophy.”

That said, this sudden influx of acne and flattop haircuts into United’s starting lineup was out of necessity rather than ingenuity. 12 first team players are out injured, plus Marcos Rojo went down during the game.

Of the youngsters who did play on Sunday, Guillermo Varela was solid and grew into the game from right back, while Rashford stole the headlines up top and although it’s difficult to class Memphis and Jesse Lingard as “’youngins” they’re still under 23. That fact and with two midfielders Michael Carrick and Daley Blind playing center back emphasized how impressive of a patch-up job United did. For some reason, this song from a baby-faced Wiz Khalifa popped into my head as I watched the multiple academy products make their debut for United over the past few days. They’re definitely on their grind, just like Wiz was back in the day.

18-year-old Dutchman Tim Fosu-Mensah came off the bench to play most of the second half, while James Weir also made his first team debut late on in this huge game. The fact that none of these youngsters really looked out of place (well, Fosu-Mensah hardly look comfortable at left back with the midfielders usual attacking instincts kicking in, but he put in a great shift) playing against one of the best teams in the PL bodes well for the future. Sure, the adrenaline pumping may have improved their performance levels but this experience will hold them in good stead. A by-product of this injury crisis at United is that these youngsters will increase LVG’s options, should he remain beyond the end of this season.

With United now just three points off the top four – crosstown rivals and fourth-placed Man City have a game in hand though – after this gritty win with a depleted team, maybe Van Gaal can salvage this season and get the fans back on his side.

Moments like the one below will certainly help.


“AND THE Oscar GOES TO… Louis Van Gaal!”

This was a moment which could define Louis van Gaal’s tenure at Old Trafford.

In the 72nd minute, with United leading 3-2 but Arsenal pushing hard for an equalizer, Van Gaal took exception to Alexis Sanchez going down after a tackle. The usually docile Dutchman jumped out of his seat and rushed out to the edge of the technical area to remonstrate with fourth official Mike Dean, the linesman and the refereeing crew.

[ MORE: Van Gaal explains decision to flop

Then, as the entire home support at United had noticed his outburst and began to roar him on in almost gladiatorial fashion, Van Gaal fell. He didn’t trip. The Dutchman threw himself to the floor forcefully (but, impressively, still held onto his beloved clipboard) to demonstrate his disdain at what he perceived was simulation from Arsenal’s players.

The fans loved it. “Louis van Gaal’s Red Army!” was belted out by the Stretford End and it was a genuine “what have I just seen?” moment. Speaking to a can driver in Manchester after the game, he was laughing his head off and loving it. “I don’t like Van Gaal,” the cabbie explained, “but at least he got out of Fergie’s seat and actually showed a bit of emotion for once instead of scribbling on his bloody clipboard!”

After the game, LVG rather sheepishly explained his decision to take a tumble.

“That was too emotional because at that time you a little bit too emotional because it is not good for the referee, the linesman, the fourth referee. I was emotional,” Van Gaal said. “It happens not too much. Normally I am sitting on my bench and I have a lot of criticism because I am sitting on my bench. I have apologised to the referee and the linesman. I have to control my emotions.”

With constant reports linking Jose Mourinho to take over form Van Gaal this summer and many believing the United board set to release the Dutchman 12 months earlier than planned, that may still happen. Following the huge criticism for his “boring tactics” and many of the players he paid big money for not performing, he’s still under severe pressure. But finally showing some emotion proved to United’s fans that he has passion and something as simple as on overzealous demonstration of frustration could buy him some more time. At least until the end of the season.


TWO HORSE TITLE RACE?

With Arsenal’s defeat and Manchester City in League Cup final action, a golden opportunity for Leicester and Spurs to pull away present itself.

Both took advantage of it. Just.

We mentioned Leicester’s last-gasp home win over Norwich and for much of the game they were second best as the Canaries had chances and limited the Foxes. However, just like all good title-winning teams do, they found a way of winning. Leicester still lead the way but are only two points ahead of Tottenham Hotspur we have a huge week on the horizon.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings | Schedule ] 

Spurs have now won six-straight PL games as they battled back in the second half to overturn a 1-0 deficit to beat Swansea City 2-1 at White Hart Lane. Mauricio Pochettino‘s team are rolling and they haven’t won seven-straight league games since 1967. They have momentum and, compared to Leicester, have more offensive weapons and individually their players are better. It;s all been about the collective for Spurs and that’s why they are where they are and boast the best defense in the PL.

With a trip to West Ham United on Wednesday (Watch live, 2:45 p.m. ET http://www.nbcsports.com/live-extraonline via Live Extra) the clash against their rivals and in-form Hammers will be a tough test. Add to that a north London derby against Arsenal on Saturday at the Lane and it’s a huge week for Tottenham. They can not only boost their title hopes this week, they can also put a monumental dent in Arsenal’s. The biggest NLD in PL history awaits, but first Spurs must take care of business at West Ham.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights

The fact that both Leicester and Tottenham is challenging for the title is remarkable. If either of them sees this out and wins the PL, it would be perhaps the most astonishing achievement in league history given the vast wealth and power the so-called “big six” possess. Of course, Leicester would be more incredible but the growing feeling is that Spurs are gathering steam and they are the bookmakers favorites to win the PL. If you uttered that sentence back in August, the stray jackets would’ve been on you quicker than you could say “bob’s your uncle.”


WILLY THE HERO FOR CITY

While all of these title contenders were jostling, there was the small matter of a League Cup final taking place at Wembley Stadium between Liverpool and Manchester City.

City won 3-1 on penalty kicks, as Willy Caballero saved three of Liverpool’s four spot kicks to be the hero and Yaya Toure rolled in the winner to send City’s fans wild at Wembley.

Fernandinho had given City the lead courtesy of Simon Mignolet‘s howler but the Belgian goalkeeper did keep Liverpool in the game with some fine saves and Philippe Coutinho equalized seven minutes from time to force extra time.

Jurgen Klopp would’ve been bitterly disappointed to lose but it’s hard to begrudge Manuel Pellegrini at least one trophy in his final season at City. His comments on playing with Caballero instead of recalling Joe Hart were also spot on. Pellegrini had promised Caballero he would play in every domestic cup game this season and despite the Argentine goalkeeper putting in a shaky display in the 5-1 FA Cup defeat at Chelsea last week, Pellegrini proved he’s a man of his word.

“I would prefer to lose a title than lose my word,” Pellegrini said. “My word is more important than football. We deserved to win the game before penalties, but I’m happy to win it that way with Willy as a great hero.”

Brilliant. Here’s the moment Yaya won it for City.

Also, check out this pre-game prediction from former Oasis front man Noel Gallagher. Doesn’t get any more accurate than this.


CAMERON RETURNS

Finally, it’s great to see a U.S. national team player back fit and firing in the Premier League.

Geoff Cameron returned from nearly two months out on Saturday to star at the heart of Stoke City’s defense as the Potters beat Aston Villa 2-1. Cameron had previously suffered an ankle injury which was healing slowly and he’d only had a few days of practice before being chucked back into the starting lineup by Mark Hughes with Stoke’s other center backs out injured.

To mark the occasion, I caught up with Cameron at his house in Manchester as he kindly invited us in to chat all things PL, USMNT and more.

Click play on the video below to see us throw around some banter, discuss Geoff’s favorite flavor ice cream (seriously) and more.

Premier League Playback comes out every week as PST’s Lead Writer and Editor takes an alternative look at all the action from the weekend. Read the full archive, here