It ended a draw, but very little else about this chaotic match at Old Trafford was balanced, making it one from which it’s very difficult to draw conclusions.
Before anything, there is the question over whether this was a “good” game. It was undeniably entertaining, but that was more the entertainment you get from farcical comedy rather than high-quality drama, especially when you consider the bizarre nature of all four goals.
There is then the bigger question over whether this 2-2 was actually a good result for either side. The buoyant feel of it made it seem like Manchester United had stopped a rot – as well as stopping a previously surging Arsenal – but they’re now four games without a win, 18 points behind Manchester City as early as December and have fallen back behind Bournemouth and Leicester City with that lamentable negative goal difference.
While there is still a sense of progression around Arsenal, they themselves have now fallen back behind Tottenham and outside of the top four, because they were not at their best and maybe wasted a best chance to win at Old Trafford for the first time since 2006 – especially against that United starting line-up.
One widespread pre-game prediction was that Jose Mourinho’s initial XI should have been levelled.
Then again, perhaps that in itself points to the main discussion. A manager who is mainly in the job because he is cited as a “proven winner” has succeeded in convincing so many people – not least a crowd who enthusiastically back him – that it’s so difficult for United to win.
It so often felt like the very controversial team selection played into that, as much as what was actually right to play this game. And what of the debate over that? Did the result justify that Paul Pogba and Romelu Lukaku were dropped, or did Mourinho eventually turning to them reflect that they were more than match tactics.
The initial change didn’t change anything about the team, pointing to deeper problems. They were still so defensively inept. United again conceded first, and they again conceded from a set-piece.
The only surprise was the main culprit: David De Gea, who committed a howler. He was once more left a little exposed, mind, and it was telling that he was still one of their better performers with two late saves to rescue the result.
Having complained of being able to play no centre-halves, Mourinho ended up staring three, but none were able to get any kind of contact on a 25th-minute Arsenal corner.
Shkodran Mustafi was left to get good contact on his header, but it still shouldn’t have been enough to beat such a goalkeeper. This was not to be one of his vintage saves. It was a collector’s piece of an error.
De Gea awkwardly palmed the ball into the air, but only enough so it rather farcically dropped behind him and the goal-line. The United clearances and complaints were irrelevant. It was 1-0 Arsenal. But not for long.
There has long been a statistical argument that United only finished second last season, and have actually over-performed relative to performance, because De Gea makes a disproportionately large number of improbable saves – even for him.
Maybe this is the offset, the levelling-out… except it wasn’t long until United were level. And that’s because Unai Emery hasn’t yet sorted out Arsenal’s own defending. That’s still one big problem with them.
Marcos Rojo – back in the team for the first time in 206 days after injury – fired over a free-kick, with Bernd Leno doing well to push it away. No Arsenal player bothered to follow it or mark up, though, allowing Ander Herrera to creditably chase the ball and cut it back for Martial to finish.
Some of United’s resilience remains, but there was now a new chaos to the game. There was also a new bite to United, whose players were perhaps mindful of Mourinho’s “mad dog” comments after the Southampton match. Rojo and Jesse Lingard were booked. It was inevitable that the away side would respond as Hector Bellerin received a yellow for his own foul.
A tone had been set, and it had the desired effect of disrupting the sleekness of Arsenal’s counter-attacks. That wasn’t helped when Aaron Ramsey had to go off injured, taking away that key connection between midfield and forward line, especially with Alex Lacazette on the bench for tactical reasons.
There was a telling moment when it seemed the previously quiet Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang was put through on goal, only for Eric Bailly – another returned to the team – chased back to get ahead of the Gabonese striker and supremely outmuscle him.
Emery eventually buckled, and brought on Lacazette for Alex Iwobi, with Mourinho doing much the same and introducing Lukaku.
Neither did too much to impose much control on the match, as the farcical 180-second spell kicked off at the 67th minute were to prove. Lacazette’s introduction did give Arsenal more of a connection up front, but that still doesn’t explain how Rojo was so spooked into just giving the ball away near the halfway line. The French striker elegantly interchanged with Henrikh Mkhitaryan to go through on goal. There was nothing elegant about what happened next, though. Rojo slid in, with the ball somehow deflecting off Lacazette and in as De Gea committed himself the other way.
The game wasn’t quite blowing that way, though. It was still all over the place, as was Arsenal’s defence, and Lingard was allowed effectively slide-tackle an equaliser 60 seconds later.
Some might have raised a chuckle that Marouane Fellaini was brought on before Pogba, but the fact the midfielder quickly followed meant there was no last punchline. Nor, however, was there a late twist as a Mkhitaryan strike was flagged for offside. (© Independent News Service)
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