At the end of the year, if one were to go over the results list and read “Man Utd Away - 1-1”, it would be easy to be pleased with the result. Old Trafford has always been a tough place to win and any point is a good point. Yet, Arsenal’s 1-1 late ditch draw is far more worrying than a surprise point.
For this is not the old Manchester United. Despite record signings and a new manager, the team has struggled. They were missing key defenders and attackers and all signs suggested that, while it would still be a tough game, Arsenal should have had their best chance to win at Old Trafford and beat Mourinho in the League than ever before.
Instead, a very disjointed and listless team was unable to find any ascendancy in the game. Man Utd nullified much of Arsenal’s dangerous players and had the run of play for all but a few moments. Not until Wenger made his substitutions did the team find impetus and that is concerning. Through baffling selections and teams being well prepared for Arsenal, as both Man Utd and Spurs were in the last two fixtures, the Gunners find themselves struggling through matches. Not losing is the best thing that is happening for the moment when it should be about winning.
Petr Cech. MOTM for me. He kept them in it, saving more than a few excellent chances. He’s still a top keeper in the league and Arsenal are lucky to have him, despite handing the Champions League to Ospina. Let’s hope he’s as good a team player as he is at keeping the ball out.
Substitutions. Getting it half right, each of Wenger’s substitutions provided the needed boost to see Arsenal claim a draw. Granit Xhaka restored some fluidity in the disastrous midfield and, for a welcome change, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain put more feet right then wrong. His movement down the flank, blasting by Man Utd’s not so Darmian and providing a perfect cross for the tying goal is the stuff we expect from the Ox. He delivered to day.
As did the surprisingly clinical Olivier Giroud. Eight of his last nine shots on goal in the league have been goals. Perhaps he should take a few more but, for now, if you need a goal, the Frenchman seems up to it.
No Bellerin. Probably the one bad thing you can’t blame on Wenger is Hector Bellerin being hurt. However, the team set up without him is glaringly stark. Arsenal have no answer for his loss and the team on the whole suffers when they can’t adjust to it. Losing Bellerin’s attacking movement while playing a black hole of a central midfield just played in the Man Utd’s hands. These four weeks cannot pass quickly enough.
The midfield. So let’s talk about the midfield. It. Was. AWFUL. Mesut Ozil was isolated. Theo Walcott was poor. Aaron Ramsey isn’t the greatest winger in the first place but on the right he’s competent; on the left, he was utterly lost. (Might as well call him Zoolander). And then, all three were backed up by the worst central pairing Arsenal has at their disposal.
Mohamed Elneny and Francis Coquelin aren’t perfect players, we can agree, but they have their strengths. None of them were very apparent on Saturday. Elneny misplayed passes and didn’t seem to know where to go. His lack of picking up any man ahead of Man Utd’s goal was a major reason Juan Mata found so much space for the shot. As for Coquelin, his day can be summed up in a simple sequence of tackling to get the ball, making a two yard backward pass to Ozil, who is immediately closed down by two opponents, Coquelin receiving the ball back and then overcooking a forward pass to no one for a goal kick. No one in the midfield played particularly well but Elneny and Coquelin were so shockingly bad, when they get another start it’ll be, for me, too soon.
Who was on the bench. Alexis over Giroud could be contested, even though one wonders what was holding Alexis’ leg together. But with Xhaka and Iwobi on the bench, Wenger’s team selection is baffling. Iwobi played one game in the international break and is a clear upgrade to Ramsey at LW. Xhaka didn’t play any games and is better than Elneny + Coquelin. Both players would have given a level of control that the midfield did not have, particularly without Bellerin, and to leave them off the pitch for so long is astonishing.
Timing. As in comedy, this is the most damning thing about the draw. Despite a lack of creativity and any real involvement in the game, Wenger waited until the 73rd minute to make a change to his side. They were getting rolled at every turn. Mourinho made two changes. Man Utd scored a goal. Arsenal had not produced a shot, on target or not, since the 39th minute. Yet, Wenger... waited.
Arsenal’s performance begged for a change yet it took going down a goal and not immediately responding for something to happen, as though Wenger expected that the team which had shown little if any life would suddenly pop up and produce. It was his substitutions that provided the tying goal. It is Wenger’s stubbornness to make them, even without admitting that his team selection was bad at the outset, that potentially cost Arsenal a better performance and perhaps a win.
There is a sneaking suspicion that for all the new signings and marquee players over the past few years, Arsenal are still individuals that are merely harder to play against but not truly any better a team. And when Wenger gets the selection wrong, there is little to look forward to.