Arsenal suffered its first loss of the Premiership season on Saturday, falling 2-1 at Manchester United despite outplaying the defending league champions for the majority of the match.
A bizarre own goal from Abou Diaby provided the deciding tally at Old Trafford, when the French midfielder inexplicably headed a United free kick back towards goal and past the outstretched arms of Manuel Almunia.
The 64th-minute blunder gave United their second goal after the break, overcoming a 1-0 Arsenal halftime lead and overshadowing a fine display from the Gunners, especially the midfield of Diaby, Denilson and Alex Song.
The young trio was very solid in the absence of captain Cesc Fabregas, outplaying Manchester United’s midfield while assisting central defenders William Gallas and Thomas Vermaelen in quieting the home side’s attack for much of the match.
Andrey Arshavin had given Arsenal the lead in minute 40 with a thundering strike from 25 yards out. And just moments after the break, Robin van Persie nearly doubled the Gunners’ lead, stopped at point-blank range by a brilliant save from Ben Foster after directing a cross from Arshavin on goal.
Arsenal were looking dangerous early in the second half, with Emmanuel Eboue also given a chance off of a cross but failing to control the ball. Despite the Gunners’ confident play and better scoring chances, the match turned around just before the hour mark.
Wayne Rooney was taken down by Manuel Almunia when running down a
ball floated toward the 18-yard box, and the England forward converted from the penalty spot to tie the match in the 59th.
The next five minutes featured a free kick from a similar spot and distance for each side, with a curling van Persie strike eluding Foster and smacking the crossbar to deny the visitors another lead. Moments later, Ryan Giggs lofted up a soft, innocuous-looking free kick into Almunia’s box, only to be met by Diaby’s head and directed into the Arsenal net.
It was a cruel blow for Arsene Wenger’s side, who saw Nicklas Bendtner, Eduardo and Aaron Ramsey come on in the later stages in an attempt to re-energize the attack. While Arsenal did put the ball in the net in stoppage time (via a van Persie effort), the play was ruled offside.
Reacting to the disallowed goal and seemingly to the way the match had turned, Wenger kicked a water bottle in disgust, only to be sent off by referee Mike Dean for the final few seconds.
Downplaying that personal incident in the post-match press conference, Wenger did voice his dissatisfaction with the outcome. “We go home with no points and that is very frustrating,” stated the manager. “When you play like that to go home with no points is very difficult to accept.
While mentioning disappointment with “the performance of the ref” in his comments, the Frenchman also focused on his team’s performance. “I’m very positive because we showed great quality,” he continued. “Our performance is very encouraging for the future and there are more positives than negatives from today’s game.”
From being very close to 2-0 up early in the second half to losing out on even a point at Old Trafford is tough to take. But, as Wenger said afterward, “We were very strong today. I am very confident, I just hope that this unexpected defeat will not derail their confidence.
“I feel we are equipped to challenge for the title,” he added. “Frankly, when you see a comparable two performances of the two teams, you can recognize that.
That point was echoed in the media on Sunday, with reporters realizing the Arsenal side that some had written off in the preseason can make a run for the Premiership title. As the Daily Mail’s Matt Lawton wrote in his article on the match: “The better team did not win, because the better team, by some considerable distance in this utterly absorbing contest, were Arsenal.”
Lawton also wrote that Sir Alex Ferguson should be concerned about his team, as some deficiencies have been exposed in its opening matches. He then added: “For Wenger, however, there should be no such concerns, and when the anger subsides and he can look beyond the rejected penalty appeal, that extraordinary own goal, the ‘anti-football’ tactics of United and what he quite rightly considers a witch-hunt for Eduardo, he will be able to reflect on this defeat with a fair amount of satisfaction.
“Ferguson was among those who thought Arsenal might struggle this season and here at Old Trafford was proof that they will not,” continued the article. “Wenger was right to have faith in his fast-developing players; that they will, indeed, challenge for the big prizes.”