* The late goal changes the narrative from Arsenal’s flawed character to Arsenal having the character of potential champions but the late goal does not change one thing: Arsenal were abject. Like ridiculously bad. Their first and only shot on target was their 89th-minute goal. Their first and only shot of the second half was their 89th-minute goal. Having seen Manchester United line up with the clearly flawed central defence of Marcos Rojo and Phil Jones, they should have smelled blood. Instead they could smell only the p*** in their own pants as once again an Arsenal side turned up at Old Trafford and lost their nerve.
* That they eventually picked up a point that leaves them unbeaten away from home this season (their only Premier League away defeat of 2016 was at Old Trafford in February) owed a great deal to their ridiculous strength in depth this season. Arsene Wenger could look to the bench and see a man who scored 16 Premier League goals last season, a £33.8m central midfielder and one of English football’s most talented – if brittle – players. Two of them combined to score a goal that really was not deserved. If the standard line is that picking up points from a poor performance is the mark of champions, then give them the title now. They were utterly rotten and yet they have somehow emerged with a point.
* Olivier Giroud has scored more Premier League goals as a substitute for Arsenal than any other player (10). It’s a record that should make him feel simultaneously proud but very, very afraid. Nobody craves the status of ‘impact sub’ and yet he is so bloody good at it. He is Plan B for Bloody Brilliant; everything that frustrates you about Giroud when he starts (too static, too reliant on the right kind of service) makes him a massive asset off the bench. When you need to change your plan, he is Mr USwitch, taking all the hassle out of finding the right result.
Giroud has scored three goals from seven shots in just 109 minutes this season. That’s just ridiculous. And it’s the kind of ridiculous record that will keep him on the bench, as illogical as that may seem to some.
* We need to talk about Alexis Sanchez. Having criticised Wayne Rooney over many years for nominally playing as a striker but dropping deeper and deeper in search of the ball, we owe the same kicking to Sanchez. He is not a natural striker – and that is undoubtedly one of his strengths, making him difficult to pin down – but his performance against Manchester United was like a parody. There were times when his frustration with the lack of service caused him to drop so deep in search of the ball that he was behind Mo Elneny and was the obvious (poor) cover for Nacho Monreal.
Needless to say, that’s exactly where United wanted to see him – close to the half-way line, spraying balls out to the right-back and losing possession in key areas. Nobody on the pitch lost possession more times than the Chilean (27); it was like a latter-day Rooney tribute act without the wine-stained lips and ‘mashing’ of a piano.
* But did Wenger cause that frustration with his team selection? The non-selection of Xhaka smacked of fear that the Swiss midfielder is too hot-headed for a traditionally fiery game, particularly when he would be going toe to toe with the increasingly tetchy Ander Herrera. You would expect effort aplenty from a central midfield of Elneny and Francis Coquelin (who produced a series of excellent tackles when it felt like Herrera and Paul Pogba could start to have fun) but there is a distinct lack of creativity and drive. With Theo Walcott and Aaron Ramsey the wide players who have an infuriating habit of drifting inside too early, Sanchez presumably felt like the only way he could conceivably make something happen was to go looking for the ball – largely he found it, and then lost it.
* Nobody in that front four of Arsenal’s covered themselves in any glory. Between them they were dispossessed 13 times and lost the ball through poor touches a further ten times. And they were by no means forced into being so wasteful and ineffective; it was all of their own making. The supposed rejuvenation of Theo Walcott now seems like an old story (he has neither scored nor assisted in his last three games and was once again disappointing for England in midweek), Mesut Ozil played like he was trying to prove all his doubters right, his touch entirely escaping him (barring a satisfying nutmeg on Michael Carrick) and Aaron Ramsey looks a very long way away from the player of 2013/14. We cannot repeat this often enough: He is clearly not a winger. He may well be the second-best No.10 at Arsenal, but that should mean a place on the bench, not a shoehorned spot on the wing or in deep midfield.
* “I am watching a team that is the unluckiest in the Premier League,” said Jose Mourinho. Hmmm. The rest of us are watching a team that is one of the most forgettable in the Premier League. In just about every area of the pitch, United were okay. They’re an alright Premier League team. The defence was decent but was put under almost no pressure; the midfield was functional without being dominant; the attacking players showed effort but lacked dynamism. They narrowly deserved victory but not because they did anything astonishingly well, but because they were marginally better than the abject Arsenal.
Before the game, talk was of Anthony Martial having fun, fun, fun against Carl Jenkinson, whose name was not trending on Twitter before kick-off because thousands of people wanted to wish him well. But this was about as much fun as listening to a p***ed-up non-pianist on the piano. United must have sensed Arsenal’s initial nervousness and yet they utterly failed to take advantage. Martial looked like a man who had not started a Premier League game since August and Rashford looked like a man who has been playing wide all season and was then expected to make an impact as a lone striker. That his finest moment – a wonderful cross from the right that found Pogba inexplicably offside – came from a wide position was no surprise.
* When Gary Neville was searching for a Man of the Match he unsurprisingly came across the name of Manchester United’s right-back, but Herrera made a very strong case. He was key to United’s pressing, leading the way in interceptions, and it was his intelligent run behind Arsenal’s left-back that brought United’s opener when it came. He might be fostering a reputation for being a sneaky sod (four fouls/no bookings is a ratio that tells a story) but he has an eagerness to get on the ball that can only be admired. The addition of Michael Carrick as a safety net certainly aids both him and Pogba (‘promising’ as long as you ignore the price tag), giving them licence to find space further up the pitch. Manchester United’s player of an average season so far?
Man United vs. Arsenal
Most chances created: Herrera (3)
Most final 3rd passes: Herrera (26)
Most interceptions: Herrera (5)
— Statman Dave (@StatmanDave) November 19, 2016
* If you’re a disciple to the mantra of “that’s a foul anywhere else on the pitch,” then yes, that was a penalty when Antonio Valencia went down after a little grapple with Nacho Monreal. And yet, it would still feel like a cheap spot-kick; personally I feel like the bar should be a little higher/lower for a near-certain (75-80%) goal. What looked like a nailed-on penalty on first viewing became less and less certain with every replay – both players used their arms but only one went down. The situation was summed up by this conversation between Ryan Giggs and Graeme Souness at half-time…
Giggs: “Monreal puts an arm out, it’s a penalty.”
Souness: “What about Valencia’s forearm smash?”
Giggs: “Where you want him to put his arm?”
* Jose Mourinho’s reaction to the decision was a) predictable, b) understandable and c) very, very funny. But Arsene Wenger also had a right to feel aggrieved with the officials, having seen Matteo Darmian commit three fouls in the opening 45 minutes. He was incredibly lucky that the only foul that wasn’t booking-worthy was the one that attracted the booking. Certainly, his late and high challenge on Carl Jenkinson would have probably been punished with a yellow card had he not been quite harshly booked just a few minutes before for barely clipping Theo Walcott.
* At half-time, Wenger’s team talk should have been: “Lads, it’s Marcos Rojo and Phil Jones.” The Arsenal players should have been told that they had got away with 45 poor minutes but they had the chance to put things right. So how the bloody hell did they emerge looking even more cowed and even less dynamic? How could they have somehow got worse? How could every first-half mistake be repeated with added apathy?
Manchester United did not have to be any good at all to be rather a lot better than Arsenal in the opening 25 minutes of the second half and Mourinho made absolutely the right changes in bringing on Wayne Rooney for the disappointing Martial and Daley Blind for Darmian – turning a left-sided dead end into potentially United’s most potent area of the pitch.
In the end, neither substitute was involved in the goal, with credit going in equal parts to Pogba, Herrera and Juan Mata, whose finish was sublime. United had the 1-0 lead their superiority merited and Arsenal were reeling. They say that teams are the most vulnerable in the five minutes after they have scored but that’s only relevant when the opposition are not Arsenal at Old Trafford, who seemed to accept their fate as an inevitability. There was an air of ‘this always happens, we didn’t expect anything else’ in manager, players and fans.
* Back to Walcott for a second and his mistake for United’s goal. Having praised him for improving his diligence this season, he deserves censure for allowing Mata space to take his shot from just outside the box. The good news is that Walcott himself realises his mistake – “defensively I want to (cover that). I’ve been doing that all season. I knew that was my man to get in there. So on a personal level that’s very disappointing for myself” – so it should mean that there is no repetition of the error. Watch this space.
* Had United held on, this would have been a game-changer for Mourinho. Going into this clash, he had picked up only five points from six games against top-half sides; their only win over decent opposition came at home to a Southampton side still finding their feet in August. It might have been a scrappy 1-0 win but it would have been a scrappy 1-0 win over title contenders. And that’s why you appoint Jose Mourinho. You don’t want to have to sit through the dull football and listen to all his nonsense and then end up with just a point at home. Again.
That’s the first time Manchester United have drawn three league games in a row at Old Trafford since April 1992 and that series of results lost them the title to Leeds United. Oh for those heady days of home draws costing the title. Right now it’s costing them nothing more than a place in the top four.
* While Mourinho got it absolutely right with his first two substitutions, he missed a trick with his third. Having scored the goal and then failed to take advantage of Arsenal looking resigned to their fate, United were right to slow the game down and settle for 1-0. In defensive forward/foward-thinking defender Ashley Young, Mourinho had the perfect man on the bench to help United over the line. Had he come on for Rashford, Oxlade-Chamberlain would have never made the cross which Giroud so brilliantly powered home. You might say hindsight is 20/20 but surely this is exactly Mourinho’s forte – closing out games by utilising his utility men. It’s unlike him to miss a trick.
* The truth is that Arsenal have not really played exceptionally in the Premier League since that 3-0 dismantling of Chelsea back in September, so to be unbeaten since the opening day of the season is a testament to something, whether you believe that is ‘character’ or simply having a squad of players that are among the best in the country. Do they look like potential champions right now? Honestly, no. They will need to have much better days than this to not look exactly what they currently are: Fourth-favourites for the title.
* We will leave the last word to Ryan Giggs: “Not one Man Utd player played bad and not one Arsenal player played well.” And that, ladies and gentlemen, is top-class punditry.