Arsenal last won at Old Trafford in 2006. Arsene Wenger has never beaten a Mourinho managed side in the Premiership. This would be his twelfth attempt and some record for a manager of Arsene Wenger’s calibre to hold, which may go some way to explaining why Arsenal arrived at Old Trafford yesterday with an inferiority complex.
On paper, Arsenal have one of the best attacking units in the Premiership; but Wenger decided to start the game with the more defensive minded Elneny in midfield instead of Xhaka—putting flesh onto the bones of his lack of confidence. If there was a time United and Mourinho were there for the taking, especially with regard to a defence comprising of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo, this was it. Alarmingly, however, they managed to not put these two to the test and gave their most listless performance of the season to date. They departed Old Trafford leaving both United’s and Mourinho’s proud records intact…but at least they didn’t lose.
Whether it was the lunchtime kick-off or the side-effects of the return from the international break, or both, the game started poorly and both sides put in a lifeless display that only flickered into life when Sanchez either ran with or without the ball. Despite concerns over his fitness, he at least brought some menace and fizz into a game desperately lacking fluency, but, as it wore on, its malignancy and especially that of his teammates rubbed off on him and he became jaded as well.
The only event of a note in the first half and moment of genuine entertainment was provided by Mourinho when United had a penalty appeal denied in the 35th minute. As Valencia made his way into the box, Monreal unwisely tried to check him with his arm and duly sent the Ecuadorian sprawling to the ground. These have been given, but it would have been very harsh on Arsenal and in any case the first contact appeared to start from outside the box; but this didn’t deter Mourinho from racing up the touchline screaming into the skies and cursing the Gods of Justice and Luck for his misfortune.
United with the home advantage could not just stand still and let the game pass them by, and as it progressed, Pogba became more instrumental. Flattering to deceive once again, he at least drove United forward on a couple of occasions, gradually forced Arsenal back, and brought United’s forwards into the game. The problem for United was that their young and dynamic forwards seemed anything but. Martial appeared unwilling to do much until the ball arrived at his feet, and it didn’t surprise many that he was substituted for Rooney on the hour. Mata ought to have a word with him about their manager’s lack of patience with forwards who don’t put in a shift, forwards and backwards, and even Rashford seemed lethargic for a large part of the game until he was switched to the left following Martial’s departure.
The lack of running and movement by Martial and Rashford (mostly Martial) contributed to an ineffectual attacking performance by United and so it was left to United’s only real player of genuine quality, Juan Mata, to open proceedings. On 68 minutes Pogba played Herrera beyond the Arsenal back four, and from the by-line the former Bilbao man cut the ball back across the face of goal and Mata finished clinically. Note that none of United’s forwards contributed meaningfully to the goal which includes Wayne Rooney, who had been on the pitch for five minutes by this point.
United took a deserved lead more by default than anything else given Arsenal’s limp display, and the goal forced Wenger to try something new. He responded by bringing on Giroud who repaid his manager’s faith by rescuing Arsenal, as he did in his return against Sunderland three weeks ago. He sent a powerful header past De Gea in the 89th minute to draw Arsenal level. It was their only effort on target in the entire game.
Mourinho looked naturally disconsolate during the post-match press conference. A golden opportunity to reduce the gap to fourth placed Arsenal to three points had gone begging, or robbed by dark forces as Mourinho appeared to allay to. “Finally, I lost against Arsene”, he declared mischievously, but we all knew what he meant. In truth, United had the better of the game but they didn’t have to be that good against a subdued Arsenal. For more certainty and sympathy, Mourinho will have to squeeze a hell of a lot more out of this team than he has done so far, but I am not sure that the sum of their parts is greater than the individual pieces. They look like what they are: an expensively assembled collection of talented individuals, similar to Real Madrid, but lacking the belief or purpose.
Arsenal were fortunate to come away with a draw. Perhaps they could chalk it up as a bad day at the office, nothing more, and if the cliché is to be believed that resilience is the stuff champions are made of, then that may hold them in good stead going forwards. But, there is no getting away from the fact that they are inching away from the top of the table with only one win in their last four—and even that against Sunderland. Their record against the big guns looks pretty abject as well; they have won only one of their last nine fixtures against serious rivals: their 3-0 demolition of Chelsea. This will count for naught if they don’t arrest this form soon or the only title they will win this season is being the flat-track bully number one.