Manchester United 1 – 1 Arsenal
At 4.30pm, it looked like we’d got away with it. And to some extent, no matter the result at the Riverside this afternoon, we did on many levels.
On the face of it, a point at Old Trafford isn’t a bad result. With the psychological factors at play – Wenger v Mourinho, poor record – a draw is one of the better visits to that part of Manchester. They are sixth as well, although we did Spurs more of a favour with the result as they snatched their win and opened up a six-point gap to United.
And I have no issue with the point. Disappointing, given that it is another poor United team who have denied us victory and following on from the draw against Spurs, we may yet rue some of the four dropped points.
Where I have a problem was a genuinely poor team performance. There was no zip, a lack of zest and a team which looked like it needed a week of zzzzzzz.
In spite of a collection of very good players – with the odd world-class one thrown in for good measure – we were distinctly average and utterly uninspired. In a performance where you looked for someone to take the team but the scruff of the neck and shake some life it, the players were all dragged down to the lowest level.
Defensively, we got away with it on occasions, which is entirely in keeping with the performance. Cech did well on the whole with some timely saves. An understandably nervous Carl Jenkinson wasn’t Hector Bellerin but did little wrong whilst I thought Mustafi and Koscielny dealt with the United attack in a manner we expect. Nacho was subdued again, struggling to hit his form and culpable, along with Theo Walcott, for Mata’s goal. The left side is something of an issue at the moment in an almost inexplicable way.
It’s not hard to understand why Arsène picked the midfield that he did but positionally, playing Aaron Ramsey on the left highlighted the folly of shooing square pegs into round holes. If Ramsey is to play on a flank, it has to be the right; he’s a central midfielder by trade and although can fit in on the right, on the left it is a failed experiment. And Old Trafford isn’t the place to experiment.
There is a fair amount of flak flying against the Welshman once again. A deeper examination really needs to look at Arsène’s decisions where to play him. He isn’t as dynamic for club as he is for country simply because for the latter, he plays in his favoured role. Wenger uses him on the flanks not in the centre, almost as if trying to not leave him out so that he doesn’t get fed up and leave the club.
Or highlight the gap between his performances for the two, Ramsey for Wales is picked for the Euro 2016 Team of the Tournament. Ramsey for Arsenal is in no danger of being picked any team of the year. Whilst you expect some adaptability from players, putting Ramsey on the left wing was only ever going to draw criticism of the player, far more than if he played on the right.
With Elneny and Coquelin together, there was a calming influence alongside the Frenchman, not one – Xhaka – who could fray tempers. I understand that but neither of the pair which started is dynamic; they win the ball, retain possession well but lack the driving force which, without a quick player on the left, we needed because the attacks such as they were, tended toward the right or centre. Easy for United to snuff out and predictable.
The attacking trio were to some extent, deprived of meaningful possession. Who knows, perhaps the zip would have been injected into the performance had Alexis not missed a sitter early in the game when he headed wide, which was harder to achieve than scoring from his position of six yards out of the goal.
United’s goal when it came was a catalogue of errors on our part and well-finished by Mata. His performance highlighted how much we miss Santi Cazorla; the two Spaniards offer the energy both sides need and we certainly played poorly yesterday.
With Mesut Özil neutralised by our performance as much as the United midfield which left Theo running a lone furrow on the right, outnumbered and Alexis dropping deeper and deeper to get the ball with only Walcott making runs ahead of him.
The equaliser when it came, was directly as a result of substitutions made. Oxlade-Chamberlain’s surging run was met with Giroud’s towering header. Everything that we needed in less than a minute. Would the result have been different if they had played from the start? Who knows, probably not.
But we’re in the results business and still fourth, a maximum of three points off the top at the end of this weekend. Arsène praised his side’s resilience as you would expect, without any (public) sense of self-criticism emerging. His view of a physical battle in midfield underpinned his team selection but if that was genuinely the case, he neutered his own team by leaving the combative Xhaka out of the starting line-up.
The result begs a number of questions about the psychology of this fixture. A decade without a win in the Premier League is more of a hurdle for the manager to overcome than the players; he is the only constant in all of that time. His problem in overcoming a Mourinho side is down to the predictability of Arsenal’s play.
The players have to do their part, obviously, with performance levels and that was as much of a problem as the tactics yesterday but Arsène does need to plan differently for Mourinho. The Portuguese seems to have got into his head, drawing conservatism out of Wenger rather than invention. The media loves the rivalry but thrives on the hex. Arsène needs to nail that one to stop the rot trotted out.
Eyes turn toward Europe and PSG on Tuesday. A quick turnaround for the players and a certain change to the starting line-up in midfield and attack. The Premier League is on the back-burner