“Gunner. Red Bull. Legend” ran the giant New York fan banner showing Thierry Henry in a divided shirt, and Arsène Wenger had spoken this week of his hope that the player might be allowed to play a half for each team, particularly since he had only one recognized striker in his squad for this trip.
In the event, Arsenal started the game without any outright strikers. Suitably emboldened, their hosts took the game to them early on. Indeed Henry almost gave the game its fairy tale storyline as early as the fifth minute but it was in keeping with the early run of play that New York took the lead in the 32nd minute. Henry’s corner was floated to the back post, where Ibrahim Sekagya headed down for Bradley Wright-Phillips to bundle the ball home at close range, and to make Arsenal the first Premier League side to lose to MLS opposition.
Arsenal tried to respond, with a couple of dangerous darts and shots by Jack Wilshere before half-time, but New York were good value for their lead at half-time. Arsenal made seven changes at half-time, and did introduce a striker – Chuba Akpom coming in for Mikel Arteta.
They duly looked more direct early in the second 45, especially after Henry was withdrawn in the 53rd minute, to a round of sentimental applause. Arsenal fans looked to be cheering again three minutes later when Abou Diaby had the ball in the net, only for the goal to be called back for an offside.
Briefly Arsenal’s pressure appeared to be building, as the Red Bulls began to sit deeper, inviting trouble. But as the half went on the hosts continued to gamely try to take the game to Arsenal, even as the visitors began to look more dangerous on the counter, while Akpom should have scored after beating the offside trap in the 79th minute, but Luis Robles was out well to block.
At the other end the New York substitute Peguy Luyindula had a free header that should have put the game away a couple of minutes later, before an even better close range chance fell to his team-mate Andre Akpan late on.
In the event it didn’t matter as New York saw the game out. Arsenal could have done with an Henry.
“It was our first game, and I believe physically it was a bit too high for us for a first game, because some of the players came back just last Monday and had to play a game today that was a bit too high a level,” said Wenger. “It was not ideal. But we got away with it, without any injuries and the bad thing is that we couldn’t score and lost the game. The good thing is that we gained something physically as well but we lacked a bit of pace without any centre forward.
“Thierry can be dangerous from anywhere and you can see today why he was a great player because when he played in midfield his passing was excellent and his vision as well.
“When our opponent is better than us, we have to say, “well done” and that was the case today.”