A bad performance but a good point.
Following Saturday’s lunchtime game, there has been a lot of wringing of hands around large sections of the online Goonersphere. The usual dramatic phrases for those who need a thesaurus or some concept of nuance have been thrown around, and a tabloid-esque sense of outrage has been all too evident.
Well, reality check time kids. Despite the fact that we looked leggy, inhibited and more destabilised by our changes (while they were largely improved by theirs), and despite a number of players being far from their best, we nicked a point away at Man United.
Lots of people have been quick to point fingers, laugh and undermine our old rivals (and with an unholy axis of Rooney and Mourinho it’s hard to resist), but the fact remains that Man United are the biggest and most successful club in the country, and historically our record up there is pretty awful.
“That’s all history, and doesn’t apply now”, people have tried saying this weekend. Well, they have the best paid manager of all time, who is probably as good as anyone else in Europe at stopping the opposition from playing, and not so long ago had a four year unbeaten home record.
And even if you think the odious one is a busted flush, they still have an extraordinary amount of quality in their squad. While they haven’t had a cohesive team for three years, they have an embarrassment of riches at their disposal. Figuratively and literally.
It’s hard to argue with the fact that their title winning squad four years ago (when Arsenal first felt able to risk an annual net spend on transfers) was better than ours. This is hardly surprising with a net spend approximately £40 million a year more than our non-spend for the Arsenal austerity decade. Since then, despite Arsenal’s net transfer spend eclipsing the club’s previous 120-odd years, United have spent more than double we have, both in gross and net terms. Putting it simply, the difference is £275 million from an already stronger starting position and a geographical advantage when it comes to youth recruitment.
That’s a lot of cheese, and that’s before we get into wages, signing on fees and agents payments.
To look at it another way, that’s Martial, Pogba, Zlatan, Mikhitaryan, Bailly, De Gea, Mata and Depay more than we’ve spent. Which would make our squad the best in Europe, and one in which those parts would undoubtedly be better used than the majority have been at United.
No matter how you dress it up, if Arsene had another £275m to spend on players over the last four years, accordingly we’d have a significantly better team and squad.
Crucially the transfer fees imply a certain degree of guaranteed quality. While the Man United team clearly could be functioning more successfully then it has been for the last three years, none of these footballers are mugs. Even as a dysfunctional unit, nothing can change the fact that these are some of the most talented players in Europe, and as such can always provide a stern test unless you catch them cold. Even at the weekend, their starting XI cost twice ours, and most of the time you pay what you get for.
So despite United’s variable form, it was a good point by any realistic measuring stick.
This is not to justify the performance. While Mourinho’s deep defensive line and finally selecting a well balanced midfield undoubtedly nullified some of our threat, between minutes 30 and 75, we just weren’t good enough.
I could understand Wenger’s reluctance to throw Xhaka into this one, but without him, and in the continued absence of Cazorla, the supply line to a closely marshalled Ozil was largely cut off. Coquelin was excellent as a ball-winner but in the second half was out-numbered, and Elneny was tidy and mobile without bringing much beyond that. This wasn’t helped by Ramsey looking very much like someone who has virtually no experience of playing on the left wing. This had the dual effect of hamstringing us as an attacking force, whilst exposing an out of form Monreal defensively against a rampant and reinvigorated Antonio Valencia.
On the right, Theo was Theo. Despite his improved work rate, he is only really effective in games where we have controlled midfield possession or space to counterattack into. He still gave Darmian a tricky afternoon and set up two of our three best chances despite not really contributing when we were under pressure. That said, as he subsequently confessed, he lost Mata for the host’s goal, and should have pressured his full back more once booked.
Behind him, Corporal Jenkinson looked very much like a man who has barely played in a year, and the partnership between the two was non-existent. Which is hardly surprising, given that they haven’t been in the same line-up for over three years. Wenger can’t really be faulted on this one, as being without Bellerin, with Debuchy only just returning to playing while Jenkinson is still short of match fitness is hard to legislate for.
Elsewhere, Ozil had little or no space to operate in and let his frustration get the better of him at times, and Sanchez was guilty of coming too deep when we actually had decent possession in the first half, before ploughing a relatively lone furrow in the second.
Beyond an honourable mention for Coquelin’s fire fighting, it was only really Cech, Koscielny and Mustafi that maintained their top form and limited United to half chances, apart from the goal, which none were at fault for.
Of course, as has been the case before this season, it was the now much vaunted depth of the squad that snatched us a draw, with some great wing play form the Ox (clever recognition of United weakening their left side defensively) and us overloading the box creating an opportunity for the man with the best goals per minute ratio in the league to equalise.
And what a header it was! Boom! Now he is being utilised as the plan B he was always intended for, Giroud is proving his worth in spectacular fashion.
Given the team’s anaemic attacking display up to that point in the second half, it was a great goal to snatch a good point. While there have to be concerns about the way that a few injuries have disrupted the side, not to mention certain players struggling for form, I’d have bitten your hand off for that point at the start of the season and would have taken it pre-match.
We now have the third of our titanic trio of horror fixtures in November on the immediate horizon, and a fourth match unbeaten this month will give us a great chance of topping our Champions League group while being only three points off the top of the league table. Which is a position I’d have signed up for in August.
There are of course question marks about that game. Should Giroud be rewarded with a start? Can we afford to give Sanchez a rest? Will Xhaka come back into midfield? Iwobi or The Ox on the left? Will Gibbs return at left back?
I personally would like to see all these things come to pass, but it will be a very tough fixture for sure. Our visitors from across the pond seem to have rediscovered their form, and Edinson Cavani is in the middle of one of his purple patches. All things considered, I’d probably take a draw in this game too, though of course a win confirms us as group winners and lets us rotate heavily in the visit to Basel in December.
As is so often the case at this point of the year, things are finely poised!