Never thought I’d say this but it felt like Arsenal dropped points at Old Trafford tonight. The Gunners could have and maybe should have won. Manchester United were disorganized and there for the taking. But Arsenal didn’t take advantage. They were the architects of their own demise. Isn’t that a familiar refrain?
Ben White forgot how to mark on two of the United goals. And for the other, Martin Ødegaard put in an absolutely insane sliding challenge from behind in the box to concede a penalty. More generally, the team completely stopped playing after going 1-0 up and allowed United back into the match after the home side had started absolutely dreadfully.
White was not the only player to blame on either of the first two goals, either (and he hit a handful of really impressive long passes to be fair to him). On the first, Mohamed Elneny and Thomas Partey were both in no man’s land, doing little to influence the play. On the second, Emile Smith Rowe lost possession, Nuno Tavares had, maybe understandably, bombed forward and was out of position, Gabriel was perhaps a bit slow to close down, and Partey was once again was not doing much positionally.
Arsenal really need Thomas Partey to find his game. He’s been poor the last two matches. He is the midfield engine for the Gunners, and right now, he’s a Dacia. I don’t know if it’s form, fitness, not playing next to Granit Xhaka, or something else, but Partey is not anywhere close to the level that Arsenal need him to be to win matches.
The Gunners also need more out of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. I’ll grant that his energy was good tonight; he did well when Arsenal were out of possession. He even worked himself into position for some shots and one or two bonafide chances. But he didn’t convert them. The Gunners need their striker and club captain, the man they pay to score the bulk of their goals, to actually score. It’s as simple as that.
It’s disheartening that once again the two most senior players on the pitch for Arsenal put in the poorest performances. And Mikel Arteta might have hinted at that in his post-match comments when he said, “the senior players have to lead and the younger players have to follow.” You expect young players to make mistakes, like Ødegaard’s silly challenge to concede the penalty. You accept those. They come with the territory of rebuilding a team and trusting young players week-in, week-out. But you need more than Arsenal are getting from the veterans.
To be fair to Aubameyang, he at least managed to get into position for chances that he didn’t convert. Neither Eddie Nketiah nor Alexandre Lacazette, who were late-ish changes, managed anything of note. They were non-impact subs. And what does it say about Nicolas Pépé that he couldn’t get onto the pitch ahead of two attackers who aren’t going to be at the club next season and may not be here as soon as next month? Nothing good.
And while there is plenty of blame to go around, it’s also tough not to feel a bit hard done by. Arsenal probably should have had a penalty at the end of the first half for a Harry Maguire pull back on Tomiyasu. The announcers thought so. The studio commentators thought so. The internet thought so. The only people who didn’t think so were Martin Atkinson and the VAR, aka the only two people who matter. For the life of me, I cannot figure out why it wasn’t given anything more than the shadow-review supposedly given to all incidents.
Sidenote on the Ødegaard penalty: Martin Atkinson was in a great position to see and call that during live action. He didn’t. The penalty was correctly given on VAR. I see three possible issues / explanations. One: “clear and obvious error” is an utterly meaningless phrase. How can you make a clear and obvious error on something you saw perfectly? Which brings us to two: Martin Atkinson is a horrible referee who should not be refereeing at this level. If he did see an incident clearly and still got the call wrong, how can you allow him to continue calling matches? Option three is the only possible savior for Atkinson: that the angle didn’t allow him to properly see the nature of the contact. And somehow I doubt that’s the case. For what it’s worth, I think both #1 and #2 are correct.
Again though, it’s not Martin Atkinson’s fault Arsenal lost tonight. The match was there for the taking, and the Gunners didn’t take it. They made too many mistakes, didn’t take the chances they had, and didn’t generate enough attacking threat, generally.
Not that I need to be fair to Martin Atkinson, he did get the Arsenal first goal correct. Eventually. What a strange sequence. Fred stepped on David De Gea, who went to ground feigning injury. Emile Smith Rowe scored (on a very nice volley) into the empty net. Initially, Atkinson waved it off, perhaps because he thought De Gea had been fouled. Crucially, he did not blow his whistle before the ball went into the net. There was no foul. There was no whistle. There was no legitimate reason to chalk the goal off. And with assistance from VAR, he got it right. Congratulations for doing your job, Martin.
I don’t think Arsenal played poorly tonight. They were mostly fine. Some good performances, some poor ones, and some critical individual mistakes harshly punished. A draw would have been a “fairer” result. But legitimately feeling that Arsenal dropped points at Old Trafford (to a mediocre United side, mind) is progress. I’ll take it. The Gunners are still in a good position to make something of the season.