Manchester United 2-2 Arsenal: 16 Conclusions

Date published: Thursday 6th December 2018 12:18

1) If Sunday’s game at the Emirates was a great advert for the Premier League, Wednesday’s match at Old Trafford was the equivalent of the Go Compare man and Barry Scott shouting over each other at a Barclays cash machine, desperately trying to attract the attention of Richard Keys and Andy Gray. Arsenal 4-2 Tottenham was a classic where the immense quality on show outweighed the mistakes. Manchester United 2-2 Arsenal will soon be forgotten for being the precise opposite, the numerous and baffling mistakes outweighing any semblance of quality.

All four goals were a result of individual errors, not individual brilliance. Only five players completed 90% of their passes, and 15 managed less than 80%. The two sides were level for 85 of 90 minutes. Marcos Rojo had the most sodding shots.

The best games between the biggest sides must have an element of human failure, with one or two errors serving only to highlight the otherwise excellent quality and standard. It was still entertaining, but the fine line between genius and stupidity was crossed with reckless abandon.

 

2) It is difficult to say who will be most pleased with this result. United came from behind twice to draw with an Arsenal side who looked drained both mentally and physically after the victory over Tottenham just 72 hours prior. The hosts managed to hold a team now unbeaten in 20 games; the visitors drew away against a side that have lost at home just three times in the Premier League since September 2016.

“The result is not the best but not the worst,” said Unai Emery, with a message Jose Mourinho would likely echo. The former could not quite come up with a game plan to beat a team with no distinguishable style, while the latter did well enough to combat a team whose tactics change completely about five times each game. This is more a point earned than two lost for both.

 

3) For all Mourinho’s complaints about a lack of financial backing, he started with a defence signed for £30m more than Arsenal’s (£84.7m v £54.7m), and a midfield worth more than twice as much (£69m v £33m). United’s bench was signed for more (£244.9m) than Arsenal’s entire matchday squad put together (£232.4m).

When you can afford to completely omit a midfielder you yourself lobbied for and signed for £47m this summer, there really is no violin small enough to play as background music to your complaints of a lack of investment. Fred, right said or otherwise, was too sexy for both United’s starting line-up and their bench. Woe is Jose.

 

4) Considering Arsenal stunned Tottenham by bursting out of the blocks on Sunday, with United having gone two goals down in 20 minutes to Southampton a day prior, few expected the hosts to start the brighter of the two sides. Yet Mourinho’s November plea for more “intensity” and “desire” from his players was belatedly answered, at least in the opening ten minutes.

The Old Trafford nerves were settled by neat interchanges between Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford, the latter of whom tested Bernd Leno from 20 yards. Then came a wasted corner, as United looked to take the initiative early instead of having to wrestle for it against all odds later on. Arsenal seemed disorganised and disconcerted, almost surprised that the sleeping giant had awoken so abruptly.

 

5) Perhaps there should be no consternation at United’s impressive start. It was just last month that Mourinho offered some rather curious excuses for a heavy Manchester derby defeat. He suggested that City had benefited from playing “two friendly matches at home against Southampton and Shakhtar,” while his United side faced a “a super difficult match of a high, demanding level” at Juventus.

“The physical fatigue and the mental fatigue leads to mistakes,” he added. “The concentration of the big matches, they dry you. You are dry inside. To be ready again for another big match is not easy.”

No wonder then that Arsenal looked lethargic early on, having battled to victory against Tottenham in what was undeniably a “big match” on Sunday. United, meanwhile, only drew their “friendly” with Southampton just under 24 hours earlier. If anything, the difference from kick-off should have been more stark.

 

6) The challenge for United has always been to maintain that same level instead of shifting back down through the gears. They have the ability to hurt any opponent, but their confidence levels and belief in the gameplan seems to sap away with each passing minute they fail to capitalise on any discernible dominance.

So it proved. United started at a sprint but soon slipped back into a collective amble as they allowed Arsenal to rediscover their bearings and play their way into the game. The hosts refused to press the visitors until they had ventured well beyond the halfway line. United could have put the cat among the pigeons by applying constant early pressure off the ball, but instead decided to tickle its belly, offer it some treats and let it curl down in front of the fireplace.

That United can seemingly only keep up intensity levels for ten minutes at a time suggests one of two things. Perhaps it is actually a part of the game plan, which means Mourinho does not trust his players to retain control for longer periods. If not, it is a sign that the players themselves simply don’t feel confident enough to take the bull by the horns for fear of the reaction if they fall off.

 

7) When Arsenal did settle, they decided to fight fire with ice. They did not react with similar short bursts of pace, power or strength, but instead built slowly and patiently, waiting for their time to strike.

From the 15th minute to the 26th, the Gunners completed 104 passes to United’s 13. They focused mainly down the left-hand side, with Rob Holding, Matteo Guendouzi, Lucas Torreira and Sead Kolasinac all combining well and revelling in the lack of pressing from the opposition.

United, for the most part, were happy chasing shadows as nothing suggested Arsenal were about to strike. Guendouzi had their first shot in the sixth minute, but it was blocked, and Hector Bellerin had their second attempt in the 21st, but shanked it wide. The hosts thought the visitors were being held at arm’s length, and few would have disagreed.

 

8) United therefore did not account for a knockout blow being delivered via a header. After concerted pressure the Gunners won their second corner in the 26th minute. Torreira floated it in, Chris Smalling slipped as he opened the door for Shkodran Mustafi, and the centre-half bounced his header into the ground. It seemed like a routine save, particularly for a keeper of David de Gea’s quality, yet the ball slipped through his hands and over the line before Ander Herrera could clear it.

With the opener, United had already conceded as many Premier League goals at Old Trafford this season as they did in all of 2017/18 (9), and De Gea had made his first mistake leading to a league goal since October 2016. It was a horrible misjudgement of the flight of the ball, and only highlighted just how peerless he was last season. United as a whole are performing at a similar level to last campaign, but De Gea reverting to his phenomenal mean instead of his miraculous zenith has seen them fall from second to eighth.

 

9) For the 11th time in 21 games this season, United had conceded the first goal. They had recovered on five of the previous ten occasions, and were made to wait just four minutes to make that six here.

As on Sunday, Arsenal managed to shoot themselves in the foot despite aiming the rifle at their prey. Individual mistakes were the only thing that allowed Tottenham back in the game at the Emirates, and Guendouzi’s needless concession of a free-kick led to United’s equaliser. Martial is a dangerous player to let run towards your own goal, but he was surrounded by defenders when his countryman stopped him in his tracks.

The levels of surprise at seeing Rojo step up to take the free-kick were surpassed only by the fact that he almost beat Leno, who palmed his effort to the side. Herrera, who had broken from the wall and was marginally offside, kept the ball in play and centered it for Martial to score.

Guendouzi’s initial mistake turned out to be only the first page in a catalogue of defensive errors, as Alex Iwobi, Holding and a number of others simply watched on as Herrera’s ball found a grateful Martial six yards out. With no intervention forthcoming, United were level. But yet again, Arsenal had been their own worst enemy.

 

10) There were 14 fouls in the first half; about half of them came in a frantic five-minute spell as half-time beckoned, as what once seemed a rather tame and friendly meeting suddenly threatened to boil over.

First came Mustafi’s booking for a poor tackle on Rashford. From the resulting free-kick, Rojo was fortunate not to be sent off for scything Guendouzi down in Arsenal’s penalty area. Lingard followed him into Andre Marriner’s book for persistent fouling shortly thereafter, with Bellerin and Matic completing the set for dissent and a pullback on Aubameyang respectively. There were six bookings all game, and the first five all came within the 37th and 42nd minutes.

It was hardly the second coming of Roy Keane and Patrick Vieira tearing strips out of each other as soon as they crossed paths in the tunnel, but it was a welcome bit of needle in a game seemingly struck by a collective bout of belonephobia.

 

11) Emery made his three substitutions even earlier than he had to great effect against Tottenham, but his hand was forced this time around. Holding was stretchered off in the 36th minute for Stephan Lichtsteiner, with Henrikh Mkhitaryan replacing the injured Aaron Ramsey at half-time. Alexandre Lacazette was introduced in the 64th minute for Alex Iwobi as Emery gambled at 1-1.

It seemed to pay off when Lacazette helped force Arsenal into the lead through Rojo’s inexplicable ineptitude three minutes after coming on, but one does wonder what Emery had planned before injuries played their part. Had Mkhitaryan and Lacazette been able to come on at the same time, that combination of movement and pace could have panicked the United defence as much as Tottenham’s at the weekend.

 

12) Regardless of who Arsenal brought on, their approach remained the same: target a right-hand side where Premier League debutant Diogo Dalot was partnered with Eric Bailly, making his first appearance since October.

Dalot was promising in attack but struggled under constant defensive pressure. Kolasinac was a menace down that side with more touches (70) than every Arsenal player aside from Guendouzi (98) and Torreira (78). No player made more key passes (3) than the Bosnian, who was one of the game’s better and more important players.

How ironic then that it was his mistake that let United in for their immediate equaliser after Rojo’s own goal. The Argentinean’s hopeful ball forward was not cleared by the Arsenal defence, with Kolasinac’s touch both too long for him to control, and too short to reach Leno. Lingard stole in to make it 2-2 as the biggest thorn in United’s side stabbed Arsenal in the back.

 

13) United’s defence does deserve great credit. It did not look watertight, but Rojo, Bailly, Dalot and Matteo Darmian had played 399 Premier League minutes between them this season. They restricted the country’s most in-form forward to one huge chance, which De Gea saved to prove that not everything Aubameyang touches turns to goals.

Bailly in particular has surely played his way back into contention after finally making his return to the side. The Ivorian had not played since being substituted in the first half of the 3-2 win over Newcastle ten games ago. Mourinho would do well to remember he is a) a £30m centre-half, and b) he signed him.

 

14) Nemanja Matic was named man of the match by Steve McManaman, but Rashford felt a more worthy recipient. He led the line well before moving out wide and remaining a regular threat.

The 21-year-old had two shots, both of which were on target, and created two chances. He and Lingard were also the only players to maintain something of a press later into the game to ensure Arsenal were never as comfortable as they were for that first-half spell.

Rashford will point to one particular moment as proof he can rival ineffective substitute Romelu Lukaku for a centre-forward role. The Englishman received the ball on the halfway line, facing his own goal, with Sokratis bearing down on him. He held play up before releasing Dalot with a wonderful pass to launch a counter-attack. It eventually came to nothing, but it was more than Lukaku managed in 28 minutes.

 

15) This was only Arsenal’s seventh point in 11 games against fellow Big Six opposition since the start of last season. The progress under Emery continues, but there is obvious and understandable room for improvement.

The suspended Granit Xhaka was sorely missed on Wednesday, as bizarre a sentence as that may have seemed not so long ago. Guendouzi and Torreira were good, but neither have the range of passing the Swiss possesses. This was the first Premier League game Xhaka missed since February 2017, and Arsenal really did notice it.

The wing-backs in particular missed his long diagonal passes, the sort that carved Tottenham open on numerous occasions on Sunday. Had Bellerin received better service, Arsenal might be celebrating a famous win.

 

16) As it is, Mourinho will be welcoming a necessary draw. He made seven changes to his starting line-up, meaning he has now made 46 in the Premier League this season – more than any other side.

If that alone didn’t elicit a response, his programme notes absolutely had to. “There isn’t space for people that are not ready to give it their all,” he wrote, a message so pointed it almost pierced through his public visage, causing his mask to slip.

Whether a 2-2 draw with Arsenal, coming from behind twice at home before holding on in the closing stages, was the response Mourinho wanted, only he knows. But the gap to fourth is now eight points, the gap to first a further ten, and United have won one of their last five games, have a negative goal difference after 15 games, and have conceded more goals than all but the current bottom five. It is going to get worse before it gets better – if it ever does under the current manager.

Matt Stead

 


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