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Monday, 21 February 2011

Strength In Reserve

"What the HELL was I watching on YouTube?"

We awake this morning to a brave new world. A new order is established comrades, as it has emerged that Manchester United and Arsenal have dreadfully weak squads, that behind their first elevens they can only muster players of a lower-league standard and they had better have a bloody good think about that before having the temerity to beat Barcelona or win any league titles in future.

In the press, Tony Cascarino suggested Manchester United’s match was “an indictment of their lack of quality in reserve” while Stuart Mathieson opines that Ferguson using his “understudies and hopefuls has too often seen him dice with humiliation”. Former United full-back Paul Parker, writing for Eurosport, asserted that “it confirmed what we all know - including Alex Ferguson - that United's second string simply isn't good enough”. He also suggested that Arsenal “lacked cutting edge with the goal-shy Nicklas Bendtner and Marouane Chamakh up front”, while the London Standard said that “while Arsenal controlled the ball and the match for long periods... there were signs of listlessness about them”.

To be honest, I find claims like this a bit knee-jerk. Alright, so they didn’t hand out any thrashings. But neither side lost this weekend. Neither are out of the FA Cup, either. And if you really want to be picky, neither lost ground in the league (IN WHICH THEY ARE THE TOP TWO) or got knocked out of Europe, positions that, at this stage of the season, you don’t get to without having a decent squad. United have lost twice in all competitions all season. Arsenal’s last defeat was away to Ipswich in the Carling Cup. The last time they lost in the league was against? Manchester United in December.

To an extent, a fifth-round tie against lower league opposition might bring about a case of ‘After the Lord Mayor’s show’ – particularly when you consider Arsenal’s remarkable game against Barcelona and the euphoria of United effectively knocking City out of the title race. That it was largely a different set of players doesn’t disguise the fact that the air around the clubs and fans was one of it being hard to rouse themselves for what were admittedly less attractive fixtures. Stands packed with day-tripper fans, regardless of the players on the pitch being those probably most in need of a little bit of support and confidence as part of the ‘second string’, make it difficult to generate an atmosphere.

Of course, the argument exists that it is the players’ responsibility to build an atmosphere regardless, and that fans will respond to a quality performance. It might also be construed here that I am advocating sympathy for players paid wages at Old Trafford and the Emirates far beyond the 22 players who lined up for Crawley Town and Leyton Orient respectively.

I don’t mean to, as such, and I freely admit that Bebe, Obertan and Carrick weren’t up to much and may move on in the summer, and furthermore that Chamakh and Rosicky have lost a lot of the effervescence from earlier in their respective Arsenal careers. The argument is more one of practical applications. Most players coming into the United and Arsenal sides and not performing over the weekend were those stuck on the fringes of the first team. Few were true reserve team ‘regulars’, but fewer still had been getting loads of playing time in the last few weeks. And while of course, players in this situation are not strangers to each other, it is an odd scenario when you are all thrown in there together, a mixture of first team fringe players and reserves, and expected to gel against a team playing the game of their lives with largely their customary league personnel. You can pretty much guarantee those United and Arsenal starting XIs won’t be seeing the light of day again this season.

This isn’t because they were crap (although they were), but rather because there is no guaranteed XI that is shipped in for a game for which the manager decides to make wholesale changes. If there were, and it was the respective full-strength reserves wheeled out to play, I’d expect them to do a more comprehensive job.

The main concerns then, are over the strength of United’s squad and Arsenal’s ability to kill a game off. Well, United are top of the league and have used 32 players to get there. Arsenal came from 1-0 down to lead against the greatest club side in the world with 10 minutes to go and saw it out (although I will concede they shipped four to Newcastle a fortnight earlier). These are not really the hallmarks of a weak squad and a spineless one. Rather they are surprisingly poor performances from teams relatively unused to playing together, in a one-off fixture.

Football is obviously driven by results for those involved in the game. It’s unlikely that beyond voicing his displeasure, Ferguson will give United’s performance a second thought. They won and are through. They have Marseille on Wednesday and the majority of his first team are rested and ready. While Arsene Wenger could do without the inconvenience of another match, his side are still in the cup and have negotiated a difficult away tie. I would be surprised if he sends out a side any different when Orient visit the Emirates on March 2nd, expecting them to finish the job.

Full credit to Crawley and Orient too though. While one-off opportunities like this exist for lower-league clubs to pit themselves against the elite (or some of their registered players, at least), the much-vaunted ‘magic of the cup’ will not be dead. But let’s not polish an onion and call it an apple. Just as they are one-off matches for small clubs, so they are for the opposition. Crawley played fantastically well against a shadow United side who failed to rise to the occasion. Orient did fantastically well to mount a comeback and claim a much-deserved replay – important for their cash flow as much as their kudos. But the application of any teams’ performance on a cup afternoon cannot be used as a barometer of their season.

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