Excuses aplenty for Louis van Gaal and Arsene Wenger
A common complaint about Arsene Wenger is that he makes too many excuses. This time, Wenger admitted that the fault lay within his own team's inability to convert territorial dominance into goals. As Arsenal suffered once more at the hands of Manchester United on Saturday, he might have recognised that United won with far more excuses in hand.
"It's a game that we dominated for 80 percent of the time," Wenger suggested. "We have not had many games against Man United like today, but we were not efficient enough in the final third and made mistakes at the back."
Even in the glow of a victory he agreed was his "best" as United manager, Louis van Gaal still gave plenty of mention to a lengthy and debilitating injury list. Radamel Falcao, Phil Jones, Jonny Evans, Daley Blind, Rafael, Marcos Rojo; all absent, yet United are already in the fourth place set out as the season's objective.
"I hope some players come back from injuries because it's unbelievably difficult to create consistency in the team," he said. "Every week I have to change my lineup. That is not always good to create ultimatism in the team."
"Ultimatism" is one of those words that van Gaal's quixotic grasp of English gives rise to, but its meaning is fairly clear. The "philosophy" of which he so often talks cannot fully flourish with key personnel denied to him.
Perfectionism prevented him the chance to sing from the rafters, even if Van Gaal did raise his voice to a shout as he acted out his halftime message to a team that really should have been two or three goals behind to Arsenal.
"In the first 35 minutes, we gave the ball away so easily, that's not possible for a top team. Arsenal created a lot of chances but fortunately we have a very good goalkeeper. After the first 35 minutes, you saw us coming back in the game," he said. "That's what I said at halftime. When we keep the ball, when we show confidence, then we shall score goals."
As Arsenal failed to replicate the whirlwind of their opening half hour, United began to pick up opportunities to strike at a fragile underbelly. Antonio Valencia's strike may have deflected off the doubly unfortunate Kieran Gibbs for United's first, but the second saw Nacho Monreal, so often the willing but unwitting fall guy, exposed by Angel Di Maria and Wayne Rooney, who scored the felling blow. Olivier Giroud's strike, rather over-celebrated by the Frenchman considering the circumstances, was not enough to make United bemoan Di Maria missing a golden chance to go three goals clear.
"If Arsenal had scored in the first 20 minutes, you would be asking about why I picked three defenders," admitted van Gaal, referring to the revival of three at the back for the first time since September. "But now I can laugh."
"We were not cautious enough," Wenger said of Rooney's goal. "I don't know why we had two against one at the back in our own half. You will get punished by these players.
"We made a big mistake on the first goal, and when we're 1-0 down we were too impatient."
Wenger himself refused to blame the additions to his own casualty list, even if the loss of Jack Wilshere might have been the moment his team lost control of midfield. Wilshere fell to the floor with another ankle injury, and soon after, Wojciech Szczesny suffered a similar knock in the collision that led to Gibbs' own goal.
"Wojciech is not bad, Jack is an ankle problem, but I don't know how bad it is," said Wenger, whose reaction when Wilshere left the field was one of clear frustration. Wilshere had been key to Arsenal's dominance, although he should have done better with an early chance in which David De Gea psyched him out. The Spaniard was singled out by both managers.
"Their keeper is man of the match, and that's the story of the game," Wenger said.
Van Gaal delivered his praise for De Gea with typical caveats: "He has quality. I'm used to his quality. He can improve, also, in other aspects of his game. When I say that, you think I'm crazy. But I'm not crazy."
It was De Gea's brilliance that allowed his novice trio of defenders to find their feet in the game. There was redemption for Chris Smalling, the villain of the Manchester derby, while Paddy McNair and Tyler Blackett eventually found poise to match their determination.
"I am confident I made the right decision," said van Gaal, warming to a theme of basking in glory. "To make it before the match, that's a quality decision. I can say that now, that's the life of a coach. The result always gives you the reason or not.
"I have to say I cannot do other things because I don't have many players. I think the players have done fantastic. Blackett, McNair and Luke Shaw -- how old are they?"
They proved old enough and eventually good enough to beat Arsenal. No excuse necessary.
John Brewin is a staff writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JohnBrewinESPN.