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Arsenal 1 - Manchester United 3: oh well

A scoreline that flatters the home side.

Manchester United v Arsenal FC - Premier League Photo by Robbie Jay Barratt - AMA/Getty Images

Sometimes, it doesn’t go your way. It was a familiar script for Arsenal against Manchester United today — control the match but don’t get a result. The Gunners were clearly the better team on the afternoon, but their final touch / final ball let them down.

Mikel Arteta said it best: the difference in the match came in the two boxes. Arsenal scored one of their chances (and it was nice to see Bukayo Saka score from open play), but multiple players — Martin Ødegaard, Gabriel Jesus, Bukayo Saka, Gabriel Martinelli — failed to convert in the penalty area. They probably should have generated more chances, too, but didn’t have enough quality in the area on the day.

United scored all three of their chances, with a bit of an assist on the second, I might add. Ben White’s sliding block attempt on Marcus Rashford’s shot may have taken it over Aaron Ramsdale’s leg. That’s all they mustered. The entire match.

United didn’t generate anything from open play. All three goals came on the counter, and they were disappointingly similar. Arsenal left the middle of the pitch open and unshielded by the midfield, there was too much space between the central defenders, and somebody ran uncontested through the gap either to score or to set up the goal.

On all three, Sambi Lokonga was nowhere to be found. He has to be in the middle of the park, protecting the middle channel. Also, the Gunners were too casual with the ball and lost it in a bad area, leading to the breaks. And those breaks were particularly devastating because there weren’t routes between the defenders so much as there were gaping chasms between the Arsenal defenders. And finally, on the first in particular, Gabriel Magalhaes made a terrible decision to step up.

Mikel Arteta said he wasn’t happy with the “positional discipline” after the match. He’s right. That’s what undid his defense on all three goals. But they’ll get better. Let’s not forget this is still a young team. Sambi Lokonga is inexperienced and may not actually be a no. 6. This is just the third match the backline of Zinchenko, Saliba, Gabriel, White backline have played together. The spacing and communication will improve.

I hate doing it, but you cannot talk about this match without talking about refereeing decisions. VAR reviewing and taking away what would have been an opening goal for Arsenal was the pivotal moment in the match. Goals change games. Arsenal should have been 1-0 up and in control of the match. Look at the field tilt and expected threat. The Gunners bossed the game. And they should have been bossing it from in front, rather than level and then chasing.

It may have been a foul by Martin Ødegaard on Christian Eriksen to win the ball, which led to Gabriel Martinelli being played in to score. It may not have been. But that’s not the relevant question. The referee saw the incident on the field and did not call it a foul. Therefore, for VAR to get involved, it has to have been a clear and obvious error.

The referee had full view of the incident and didn’t give the foul. That should be the end of it. It cannot be “clear and obvious” if the referee has seen it and not given it. VAR is for “clear and obvious errors” and we simply don’t have that in this case. It is not in VAR’s purview to review and recommend an overturn. It’s the third time this weekend that VAR got involved to overturn a goal that it had no business doing.

The alternative is that a Premier League referee is incapable of correctly judging whether a foul has been committed with a clear view of what happened from 10-15 yards away. In which case, he should immediately be fired.

But if we think that Paul Tierney isn’t totally blind and incompetent, he’s backed by most of the footballing punditry. The majority of the talking heads did not think it was a foul against Ødegaard. And even with some of them admitting that it might have been, you don’t — you can’t — meet the clear and obvious standard with that much disagreement. If it’s clear and obvious, nearly everyone should think it’s a foul. And they don’t. It’s not clear and obvious. VAR was wrong to get involved.

Mikel Arteta said it after the match — it’s all about consistency. Last week, Bukayo Saka was physically picked up and thrown to the ground, no penalty. Aaron Ramsdale was grabbed and held, preventing him from making a play, but the goal stood. Today, Bukayo Saka was slid through from behind in the box. No penalty. Eddie Nketiah was grabbed, blocked off, and prevented from getting to the ball by a defender making no play on it. No penalty.

Quite simply, if the amount of contact Ødegaard made on Eriksen was a foul, then Arsenal should have had two penalties today and a clean sheet and a penalty last weekend.

I won’t even get into what was and wasn’t given as a yellow card. There’s no use in debating it. Lisandro Martinez should have been on one from the second minute. Raphael Varane from midway through the first half. Stuff like that matters. It affects the way players play. Defenders cannot be as aggressive on a card.

Fouls were judged differently for the two teams today. It’s as simple as that.

Arsenal played well enough to win today. It was plain to see. Mikel Arteta said it after the match, that his side played well enough to win. If Arsenal play like they did today every match this year, they win most of them, draw a few, and lose a couple. Unfortunately, today was one of the losses. The performance was more than good enough. Oh well. It’s important they bounce back against Everton next weekend. Arsenal had a bad habit of stacking up losses last season. They can’t afford that this year.