Manchester United 1-1 Arsenal: 16 Conclusions

Date published: Tuesday 1st October 2019 12:34

1) If the essence of football is to exploit the weaknesses of your opponent and exemplify your own strengths, Arsenal and Manchester United might well be relegation candidates. The visitors have been making comical defending an art form for long enough to open their own dedicated gallery, relying on individual brilliance in attack to spare them. The hosts are much the opposite, with their solid foundations at the back too often let down by profligacy when it matters.

So quite how Arsenal made United look inherently dangerous and an attacking threat while creating little to nothing themselves, while United allowed Arsenal to produce their best defensive performance of the season in contrast to their general panic, is a mystery. It sounds like a contradiction precisely because it is. These are two particularly confusing and confused sides.

 

2) At least Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has a defined idea, which is more than can be said for Unai Emery. The United manager has targeted players to fit a certain criteria: young, British and ‘hungry’. He wants to play counter-attacking football with swift, skilful forwards supplied by a solid but stylish midfield base, backed up by a domineering defence.

But the scale of the rebuild can be neatly summed up by 33-year-old converted winger Ashley Young featuring at right-back, centre-half Axel Tuanzebe making his second Premier League start at left-back, any one of the attacking muddle of Andreas Pereira, Daniel James, Jesse Lingard or Marcus Rashford leading the line at any one time, and youth product Scott McTominay easily outperforming record signing Paul Pogba.

It is also encapsulated by two wins in 12 Premier League games, a club record seven Premier League games without an away win, a run of scoring more than one goal in just three of their last 21 games, a run of three clean sheets in their last 24 games, and a worse record in Solskjaer’s first 28 Premier League games than Jose Mourinho’s last 28.

“We are at the start of building something, and I felt today, as well, we are going somewhere,” he said after the game. You can see why Ed Woodward and the Glazers installed such a diligent lightning rod. If Solskjaer considered those 90 minutes a clear example of what he wants, then he can only ever be the right answer to the wrong question.

 

3) This really was Arsenal’s chance. The Gunners had not won at Old Trafford in the Premier League since 2006, nor at Stamford Bridge, Anfield, the Etihad or any of Tottenham’s homes since at least 2015. Their last victory away at a fellow Big Six side came in January 2015 against Manchester City.

Presented with a bottom-half Manchester United side with their myriad issues, Arsenal had to approach this game with swagger, confidence and intention. It is not often they will come up against a team in as vulnerable and alien a position as they find themselves in.

Yet they tiptoed into the match, briefly broke into a full sprint and then backpedalled their way to a draw. The calls for the team currently in fourth after finishing fifth last season to sack their manager are patently foolish, but are born from such frustrations as challenging a drunk, broken former heavyweight champion to a boxing match and fearing a wild knockout blow instead of trying to land any punches yourself.

 

4) The bar may have been lowered, but there was encouragement for Arsenal. The timing of United’s goal was potentially catastrophic, completely changing the complexion of what had been an uninspiring but even game. Capitulation tends to follow chaos, but they stood firm and did not concede another shot on target until the 73rd minute, long after they had equalised.

Credit once again goes to the insatiable Matteo Guendouzi, but also to David Luiz for a performance that will likely go under the radar. He repelled everything that came his way – no player made more clearances (6) or blocked more shots (3) – and his distribution was finally as advertised. If that is the rule rather than the many recent exceptions, Arsenal will be happy with their investment. If.

 

5) Those who thought Tuanzebe would be the full-back under the most pressure forgot that this was Calum Chambers’ first Premier League start at right-back for Arsenal in almost 18 months. His last games there for the Gunners came in a 2-1 defeat to Newcastle in April 2018, and a loss by the same scoreline to Brighton a month prior. In both instances, a fast and tricky winger (Kenedy and Jose Izquierdo) exposed his discomfort.

It seemed as though history might repeat itself in the opening stages. Better defenders have been rabbited by the headlights of Daniel James, who won a corner from Chambers and earned him a booking in the first ten minutes for dragging him back on the counter.

But this is a different Chambers even to the one that returned from Middlesbrough in 2017. The 24-year-old was voted Fulham’s Player of the Season in 2018/19 and looks considerably improved, particularly in terms of his physicality. When James returned to the well on the quarter-hour mark, he was marshalled out by a player who had quickly solved the Welshman’s puzzle. It does rather feel as though he could replace Sokratis at centre-half – especially when Hector Bellerin is back – but such reliable versatility is a valuable commodity.

 

6) Then there was Tuanzebe at the opposite end of the pitch, who seemed to be caught out by a lofted pass over the top to the on-rushing Chambers. The 21-year-old’s response under immense pressure was immaculate, letting the ball drop onto his toe as he ran back towards his own goal, before having the peace of mind to dribble it back through his own area and win a goal-kick.

The later error was regrettable, avoidable but also teachable, and an example of how such calm in possession at the back can sometimes backfire. Yet United should – and will – embrace that confidence instead of trying to coach and coax it out of him. That was the solitary blemish on an otherwise excellent display in a hitherto unknown position, one that started with that sublime piece of skill to turn the tables on Chambers.

 

7) To even be discussing such relatively insignificant moments tells its own story of how underwhelming those early stages were. As soaked as the pitch was, this squib was perhaps even damper.

“It’s two attacking teams,” Solskjaer said before the game, with hints of neither irony nor self-awareness. “We have to stamp our authority on the game,” he added, barely stifling the laughter.

The first effort came courtesy of Pereira, capitalising on a fortunate rebound to barge his way through Guendouzi, glide past Luiz and force a smart save out of Bernd Leno. That was in the 29th minute, the longest wait for a first attempt in any Premier League game so far this season. It was not particularly worth it.

Nicolas Pepe had an effort at the other end within a minute, but the floodgates were whimpering rather than bursting open. If this really was “two attacking teams”, what on earth does that make Manchester City?

 

8) Bukayo Saka was the craftsman of that Pepe chance, and almost opened United up again with a fine dribble soon after. The youngest player to ever start in this Premier League fixture was quite wonderful.

The assist is the sort of thing one might expect from the 18-year-old, but the way he embraced the physical challenge posed by a player almost twice his age was noteworthy. Being paired up with Young is not the straightforward task it so often seems but Saka combined an attacking menace with defensive diligence: no player for either side created more chances (2) or made more tackles (5).

Emery will face questions for his team selection, some justified, some not, and some to be mentioned later. It is only fair to credit him for showing such unerring faith in a relative unknown.

 

9) But the problem with Arsenal is that they will so often have a tendency to be Arsenal. It must be infuriating for supporters; it is a little frustrating even for a neutral.

As half-time loomed, both teams had chances. Pogba shoved Guendouzi off the ball on the halfway line before playing Rashford in, but his confidence dissolved in the rain as Sokratis closed him down. Saka and Guendouzi then tested David de Gea, with Arsenal sensing blood from the corner.

It was their own, seeping from yet another self-inflicted wound. Within 15 seconds of the delivery United had scored, a counter-attack instigated by James’ clearing header, helped on by Pereira, then aided once more by James, Rashford and finally McTominay.

A beautiful strike, brushing off Sokratis’ arm, left Leno stranded. It was just reward for a composed, professional display from a player whose very role requires him to go unnoticed. The energy and bite he adds to this side has become priceless, which is damning for United but a testament to his reliability.

There was a moment in the first half when a loose pass from a teammate almost ceded possession and launched an Arsenal counter-attack. McTominay showed both the awareness and the ability to retain the ball, ghost past two challenges and release James down the left. The water carrier’s technique is better than he is given credit for, particularly when his more illustrious partner in Pogba largely flatters to deceive.

 

10) That it came almost immediately after Arsenal released the handbrake even just a little was predictable. The lack of bravery and courage against this United side was genuinely baffling, but explained at least in part by the fact that when they did finally attack, they lost control altogether.

If Emery can fix that, he has a chance to make this reign a prosperous one. As it is, Arsenal are either needlessly reserved and risk-averse or the very definition of reckless abandon with no in between. Emery has to find a way of establishing a defensive resolve and harnessing their natural attacking instincts at the same time.

 

11) It was described as ‘an absolute condom of a midfield – one that prioritises protection but, placed under enough pressure, leaves an almighty mess’ at the start of the month when it was used against Tottenham. It lasted 63 minutes before being limply removed, with the inexplicably advanced Lucas Torreira making way for Dani Ceballos. Arsenal equalised within eight minutes of the substitution and went on to draw.

That the exact same change took just 55 minutes to come to fruition at Old Trafford speaks volumes of how well the repeat experiment went. That it took three minutes to pay dividends is more of an indictment on Emery than it is an example of his ability to change the course of a game. Torreira was dreadful and almost entirely anonymous, save for one scuffed chance shortly before his removal. And as he would be, a defensive midfielder asked to play a more attacking role. As soon as Ceballos came on, he looked more natural and Arsenal more fluid.

The substitution will go down as match-changing. Hell, Emery might even consider the fact that Arsenal didn’t lose as ammunition to support the unambitious Torreira, Xhaka, Guendouzi midfield trio. They have never lost in the five Premier League games that system has been used in from the start. But both those last two draws only came after Emery decided to clear up his own shit instead of staring blankly at it, wondering why it just won’t flush. Maybe start two of them with Ceballos next time?

 

12) His persistence with Torreira, who built his reputation on tackling, intercepting and providing energy in front of the defence, as some sort of attacking fulcrum is particularly baffling given Mesut Ozil’s current situation. For all his foibles, his is the sort of passing and movement that could have eviscerated United’s defence and given Aubameyang more than scraps to feed off.

His omission from the match-day squad for the first three Premier League games was fair, considering the circumstances. He was then an unused substitute against Tottenham, played for 71 minutes against Watford, was bizarrely rested in the Europa League despite again remaining on the bench for the next game against Aston Villa, then was captain in the League Cup before being dropped altogether on Monday.

If he does not fit into plans for the future, immediate or long-term, then ostracise him. If he is a bit-part player, give him the right parts. This non-management suits neither highest earner, manager nor club.

 

13) Aubameyang was the biggest victim in terms of that lack of service. Then came his party trick of taking the one chance he receives. United’s throw-in turned into Arsenal’s equaliser courtesy of Pepe’s press, Tuanzebe’s lapse, Saka’s pass and Aubameyang’s finish.

His and Arsenal’s relationship might be the unhealthiest in the entire Premier League; no club depends on any one player more so than the Gunners do on the Gabonese. This season alone, he has scored winners against Newcastle, Burnley and Aston Villa, as well both goals against Watford and equalisers against Tottenham and now United. The rather crude calculations add that up to an extra nine points of their overall 12.

Arsene Wenger once described 27-31 as “the golden age of a football player, the age when you know your job”. Adding that “once you get to 27 you realise it’s time to capitalise on what you have learned and efficiency takes a little bit over the playing mood” seems particularly pertinent when it comes to the efficiency of Aubameyang, a player he signed when he was 28. The Premier League will probably never appreciate a player of such unique brilliance, at least not until he has long gone.

 

14) It is worth noting just how preposterous the decision was to initially rule the goal offside. Maguire was directly in front of the linesman as he tried forlornly to race forward beyond Aubameyang. It was somehow enough to dupe the official, whose raised flag inexplicably distracted Young as Aubameyang finished.

Replays showed that Aubameyang was quite easily onside, that United had committed one of football’s greatest sins in not playing to the whistle, and that VAR was a necessary nuisance. It quite rightly stood and, as has been mentioned recently, the technology was given the chance to do something positive in ruling a goal in instead of out.

That would be all well and good if it was implemented properly to award a penalty for Sead Kolasinac’s handball in the minutes prior. It seemed clear and obvious enough. Clearly and obviously not. Although it did rather fit into an otherwise poorly refereed game. How was Xhaka not booked for pulling Lingard back before United’s goal?

 

15) Is there a faster land mammal than Ashley Young rushing to surround a referee? These are meant to be conclusions, so here we go:

No.

 

16) Arsenal are fourth. United are 10th. Both have a multitude of troublesome injuries. One fanbase is relatively content with their manager while the other undeniably is not.

The remarkable thing is that Arsenal are four points behind the reigning champions and still have such considerable room for non-manager-dependent improvement. Bellerin and Kieran Tierney are automatic upgrades on their current full-back options. Chambers or Rob Holding are more suited to the centre-back spot alongside Luiz than Sokratis. Alexandre Lacazette will share Aubameyang’s goal burden and diversify their attack when he returns.

But can the same be said for United? Anthony Martial would make them more of a threat, while Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Luke Shaw were sorely missed. But their issues feel more systemic and ingrained, with a lower ceiling of development compared to Arsenal. Perhaps that’s why Solskjaer’s position seems more secure than Emery: the former is matching humble expectations – on and off the pitch and however outlandish – more effectively than the latter.

Matt Stead

 

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