1) Arsenal were very, very good at Old Trafford and full value for their win. There are plenty of positives and we’ll get to them, but let’s get a quick negative out of the way (there are also plenty of United negatives to look forward to, fellow miserabilists).
It’s a bit “If my aunty had bollocks” but we really weren’t all that far away here from talking about a huge opportunity missed for Arsenal. They dominated this game apart from a mildly fraught final few minutes yet created very little. Three half-decent chances and one shot on target before United gave away a sloppy penalty doesn’t do justice to the scale of Arsenal’s superiority. This time it didn’t matter, but across a season where opportunity knocks for everyone, there will be times when it really will.
2) That out of the way, let’s move on to what Arsenal did well. Because, until slightly weirdly and unnecessarily panicking a bit and bringing on all the centre-backs in the last few minutes, it was literally everything else. They controlled the game completely and the Arteta Plan is obvious and getting plenty of buy-in. Thomas Partey was immense. The best players make the game look easy, but few as emphatically as Partey. He made controlling the midfield at Old Trafford look like a walk in the park; that’s a remarkable thing no matter how compliant the opposition. He does everything well. In an era of number sixes and number eights he’s ‘just’ a midfielder.
The clearest indication came after 10 minutes, Partey winning the ball on the edge of his own box and instigating a quick break that ended with him on the ball in United’s. Arsenal are still nearer the start than the end of their journey to where Mikel Arteta wants them to be, and they may be a touch unlucky that this wide-open season didn’t come a year or two further down the road. But Partey has already made a tangible difference to the solidity and dynamism of this Arsenal side and his presence will drag them up the table. The question is just how far, and just how bad the puns are going to get.
3) At the most basic level, this game was a huge win for Arteta and a huge loss for Solskjaer. This was a game won by systems and tactics. Arsenal got theirs spot on. Even in his wildest dreams, Arteta surely could not have believed the shape of the game would so perfectly match his vision. It sounds glib to say all that was missing was a goal, because goals are important and, as previously discussed, their absence is a concern for Arsenal – four teams in the bottom half have scored more league goals than the Gunners (United are not one of them) – but everything else really was immaculate.
4) For Solskjaer, though, a huge step back after the thrills of midweek. Diamonds Aren’t Forever. The shape that worked so well against Leipzig was completely smashed apart by Arsenal. United had to change for the second half, but the personnel was now wrong. Pogba was forced out of position on the left, from where he contributed even less than he had in the first half and conceded the penalty.
5) In a game of few clear-cut chances, the penalty becomes even more significant. It spoke to the mindset of both sides. Arsenal’s players, who wouldn’t be human if they weren’t at least starting to worry about the absence of a goal to match the performance, retained their shape and patience, sticking to the plan and trusting in it to come good. They kept the ball for almost two minutes before winning the decisive penalty. United passively stood off, allowing the game to be played on the opposition’s terms; then came the individual error to compound the general lethargy. It’s easy to say that Pogba absent-mindedly failing to either spot or track the run from Hector Bellerin and then sticking out a lazy leg to concede the spot-kick summed up his and United’s entire performance, but it’s also true. It was so bad.
6) The numbers are now desperately stark for United. One point – that earned in a goalless snoozefest – from four home Premier League games, marking United’s worst start to a home season since 1972. The worst part is that there is almost no mitigation: their performances have got precisely what they’ve deserved. Arsenal may not have carved United apart in the way their north London rivals did, but they had a similar air of absolute control, of the game being played the way they wanted it played. Three of the four games may have been against ‘Big Six’ opposition, but even this United would not expect and should not accept being so conspicuously and frequently second best at a ground that has lost its aura. Playing at Old Trafford just shouldn’t be this easy.
7) The only Arsenal player to make more tackles than Partey was Gabriel, who was the only player close to the Ghanaian on either side. It looks like another weakness addressed, another problem solved as Arsenal take that long road back to where they once were. His one dodgy moment could have cut his involvement short, however, chopping down Mason Greenwood in the second half having been booked in the first for cynically but correctly halting a rare United breakaway.
8) But the main takeaway from Gabriel and Arsenal’s performance until a slightly manic final five minutes was just how secure and in control they were. For large parts of the game United couldn’t even get through the first line of pressing from Arsenal’s attackers. They almost never got through the midfield. They never got through the defence. Arteta is now in charge of the meanest defence in the Premier League this season despite having faced four of last season’s top five, and three of them away from home.
Both these clubs are a huge distance away from where they once were and long to be again, but the direction of travel is clear. Arsenal are on a clear straight road, while United keep turning corners and turning corners and never actually arriving anywhere.
9) Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s goal drought is over. Massive for him and the club, because see point 1). This Arsenal team isn’t full of goals, and whatever the understandable reasons for having Aubameyang operate from the left, the sterility of Arsenal’s first-half dominance left you wondering whether they wouldn’t have been better off with Aubameyang through the centre and the excellent Bukayo Saka pushed forward on the left. The penalty was dispatched without fuss, but Aubameyang had been a touch peripheral. It’s hyper-critical, but when Arsenal get as much right as they did, you find yourself looking for where they can make those marginal gains needed to take the next step. There was one shot flashed wide from a central position early in the second half that showed the danger Aubameyang can pose down the middle. Even if he remains nominally on the left, you’d think a bit more encouragement to drift towards the centre might be wise. If we’ve learned nothing else in this country over the last few years, it’s that you win nothing coming from that far left. You need the centre ground.
10) A rare quiet afternoon for Mike Dean in charge of such a big game. Got Arsenal’s penalty spot on and also correctly turned down Nemanja Matic’s desperate late appeals for one at the end. Was probably just about right to keep Gabriel on the pitch for that slightly foolish and undeniably risky tackle on Greenwood. Dean always gives you something, though, and did so with a “What could I possibly do?” shrug having failed to get himself out of the way of a ball raked crossfield from 35 yards away. Worth remembering next time a defender has a penalty given against them for failing to get out of the way of a ball twatted at them from half a yard.
11) For all that United were bad in that first half – and they really were spectacularly bad – they also produced arguably the most eye-catching moment when Marcus Rashford sprayed a perfectly weighted Harry Kane-esque ball through for Mason Greenwood who, as Mason Greenwood generally does, fired a shot on target despite an awkward angle.
Would it be a springboard for United to gain a foothold in the game? No. Within two minutes they needed two toenail interventions from Victor Lindelof to prevent first Aubameyang and then Alexandre Lacazette from getting a sight of goal, while Willian skimmed the crossbar.
xG map for Manchester United – Arsenal
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Nevertheless, it was enough to ensure the shots on target stats read 1-1 before Aubameyang’s penalty midway through the second half, which remains an absurd reflection on the balance of play. But it also highlighted United’s desperate fragility in that opening 45 minutes. The very first time they showed any kind of attacking intent they were instantly wide open at the back.
12) Football remains a game of ludicrously fine margins, and United came within a whisker of escaping with a wildly undeserved 1-1 draw after Mo Elneny sliced a low cross on to Bernd Leno’s face, from where it ricocheted on to the post and away to safety. It would have been grossly unfair on the excellent Elneny as well as making up a good 50% of Leno’s entire contribution to the game, but it was a reminder. This game was more of a high-wire act than it needed to be for Arsenal.
13) Arsenal were at their weakest after they scored. Perhaps even they couldn’t quite believe it could be this easy to get a first league win at Old Trafford and suspected they were being lured into some kind of trap. It almost became self-fulfilling. Bringing Shkodran Mustafi on for Aubameyang with a good few minutes left in the game smacked of slight desperation that was entirely unmerited on all previous evidence.
14) A word on Roy Keane’s emotional post-match contribution. He was correct in the round: there are clearly huge problems and massive reasons for concern about Manchester United at the moment, but he surely focused on the wrong things. Decrying a lack of effort and enthusiasm, a dearth of leaders and nobody prepared to roll up their sleeves and just bloody well win a football match for Manchester United Football Club. It’s just not what modern football is. It’s an incredibly fast and technical game where that kind of simplistic appeal to emotion is only likely to make things worse. And if you want to illustrate that point further, who precisely are the old-school blood and thunder leaders in the Arsenal team that had just run rings round United for 90 minutes? It should go without saying, but United didn’t lose this game because they didn’t want it enough. Pogba wasn’t awful because he wasn’t trying or didn’t care. They played badly in a system ill-suited to cope with the system being deployed by their opponents, who played well. Really, this game only needs one conclusion and that was it, just there.
15) United have a wider problem now: there is no-one else to share the spotlight. After the daftness that began the season, all the other big clubs are right now feeling reasonably content with life. City have responded to the Leicester farrago by sacrificing some flair for solidity, with results to match. Liverpool are top of the league and relentlessly winning awkward games again instead of losing them 7-2. Spurs are bloody second, for chrissakes. Spurs! Chelsea haven’t done anything silly since the Southampton game, and Arsenal have just done, well, this and are right in the mix having ticked off a lot of unpleasant fixtures already. At least United had the sense to throw in the 6-1 on the same day Liverpool lost 7-2. This performance, just as bad as the Spurs game in its own subtler way, will stand alone.
The roundabout will turn again soon enough and someone else will once again take their turn as PREMIER LEAGUE CRISIS CLUB. But right now, there’s nobody else. The next couple of days are going to be all about United and this absolute debacle of a performance. Maybe being a Premier League manager isn’t quite so safe a gig as we thought it was all the way back in the ancient history of Friday.
16) A final stat to sum up Manchester United’s afternoon. They managed eight attempts on goal in all, although anyone who can remember them all is a better man than I am. Two were on target, three were off target and three were blocked. Half of them came from Harry Maguire. It was a bad day.