Manchester United cling onto a fun draw with Arsenal, but where has the grit and quality gone? - (2021)
Great football between great teams can be enthralling. Football between one great team and one poor team can be enjoyable too, although usually provokes interest rather than intrigue. Football between two poor teams is often hugely entertaining, although not always aesthetically. But for the perfect football recipe, you need good players doing things badly.
Neither Arsenal nor Manchester United ever had Wednesday’s match between two hands. Instead it ebbed and flowed like the gripping prose of a slightly trashy crime novel, never quite earning the reader’s respect but still leaving them mighty keen to discover the identity of the killer. It was rollicking fun. That is intended as compliment and insult.
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Usually the impetus shifted due to error – misplaced pass or missed interception – than any act of wondrous skill. For a period of five or six minutes following Manchester United’s second equaliser, the game became It’s A Knockout. It was as if both teams had been forced to play without communication between one another. A writhing, pulsating mass of individuals unable to perform as two teams. The greatest fuel for each team to succeed was the flaws of their opponent.
There are myriad ways of exposing Manchester United’s current problems. Their manager, in charge of squad with the biggest wage bill in the Premier League, resorted to talking up Everton’s summer spending in his pre-match press conference. Marco Silva is four months into his Goodison project. Jose Mourinho is 30 months into his, and times have never been worse.
And then there’s the most expensive player in the history of British football and the biggest earner in the history of British football, Paul Pogba and Alexis Sanchez. The pair were viewed as indicators of Manchester United’s might when arriving at Old Trafford. Now they are emblems of a very different movement. Perhaps movement is an unsuitable word – one was lying up injured and unwanted, the other sat on a substitutes’ bench that doubled up as naughty step.
Rolling the dice
United’s starting XI was Mourinho resorting to his extremes in desperate hope of forcing a reaction. No manager has made more game-to-game changes than him, but this was something special even by those standards. Joining Pogba on the bench were Romelu Lukaku, Juan Mata and Marouane Fellaini. “There isn't space for people that are not ready to give it their all,” wrote Mourinho in his programme notes. You don’t need Bletchley Park’s help to decode that message.
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But amid all that competition, it is the total lack of response to adversity from anyone at Manchester United that has been the most disappointing and disturbing. Key players are underperforming, the manager is in battle mode and the usual suspects on Manchester United’s board are busily serving hot drinks from their chocolate teapot. When the going gets tough, the tough get…erm, where has everyone gone?
A lack of fight
This was better from Manchester United, albeit in comparison to their recent wretched standards. There was plenty of early intensity, as demanded by their manager with reference to “mad dogs”. Marcus Rashford played as a No. 9 and held the ball up particularly well to bring others into play. In an unfamiliar defence, Eric Bailly was probably the game’s best player. Having been frozen out by Mourinho, Bailly surely merits another chance.
But they had their moments of ineptitude, as is their new custom. Shortly after scoring their second equaliser, Arsenal had three clear chances in the space of 30 seconds. It included substitute Henrikh Mkhitaryan stabbing the ball further over the bar than he was from goal. Unai Emery will be frustrated at both his side’s profligacy and their inability to hold on to a lead. The defensive incompetence has not quite disappeared.
It was disappointing too that it was United who settled most for the point in the game’s final throes, allowing Arsenal onto them while playing slow and direct in possession. For a team supposedly intent on chasing a top-four place, there was little panic to get a late winner. Are home draws enough when the away form is so poor?
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Arsenal have typically been the canary down Manchester United’s mine. Even with confidence low and performance level lower, United held a curse over Arsene Wenger’s team. United had won eight and drawn four of their last 12 home league games against Arsenal. With a new manager and new mood, these things shouldn't still hold resonance. But they can.
This was proof that Arsenal no longer fear Manchester United, and no longer should. If a draw is better than abject defeat, that is hardly the standards United have long lived by. Mourinho’s side are 16 points behind Liverpool in second after only 15 matches, eight points from the top four and behind Bournemouth after 40 per cent of the season. Improvement? Sure. But only because it can’t get much worse.
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