It was a throwback to when Arsenal and United would sit on top the tree and throw the gauntlet down to battle out a titanic game. This time, Arsenal were the ones coming into the game as favourites. Deservedly so. United were able to go ahead with a wonder strike from Rashford but were pegged back by a header from Nketiah. In the second half, Saka would emulate Rashford with an amazing strike but Martinez was able to peg the Gunners back with a header from a corner. Both goals, while different, were kind of the same descriptions of each other: a long range strike and a header off a second phase. Unfortunately, United were not able to emulate Arsenal’s winner as Nketiah deflected in a strike to send the Emirates into pandemonium. On the balance of play, it was clear who the better team were and it was obvious within those last 30 minutes as the game was square. A tough week in London to put behind us as the game still come thick and fast.
After 7 months, if you said that Man Utd would be in January facing the top of the table clash with the prospect of moving within 5 points of them, albeit with a game more, plenty would have been ecstatic of that. The fact it is Arsenal that we had to go away doesn’t change much because with the way they have played this season, it will be just as difficult to come away with the 3 points like we did in September against the Gunners.
Not too long ago, our opponents found themselves in this situation and incrementally, with additions to the personnel, they managed to get the point they are at now with as the current runaway leaders. United are perhaps about 2 years behind in both understanding the system and having the requisite players to fully make it blossom. Nothing would enshrine those problems areas more than today.
The lack of Casemiro today showed both how much he is missed, how much we need a suitable back up for him and how much the others lack the things that he brings. This is not the subtleties of the defensive midfield that Casemiro has mastered and few will. This is just the basics like being able to win duels or just being able to compete properly in duels. Even like the coverage of the top of the box to protect against cut backs, something that Arsenal constantly look for. Even at the age of 30, he is able to cover ground.
In Eriksen and McTominay, the man who came in today to replace the Brazilian, had a garganutan task ahead of them in order to replicate that. For the most part, they were unable to. Even the whole team shape was more open without the Casemiro influence on the pitch. Eriksen, for the Saka goal, was unable to match the shuffle of the feet before the Englishman was able to arrow it into the bottom corner. The gap between them was wide enough that Odegaard was able to flitter in & around the two of them and dizzy them. If we are to be able to withstand and stamp our authority on games on the ball, we need to do it off the ball. Currently we have unable to.
We are pressurised even more with the fact that on the ball, we aren’t close to the zenith at all. There are pressure points that if teams push, they will get the joy required to hurt us. You saw it on the first goal when De Gea passed to Wan Bissaka off a goal kick. Both of them are not good on the ball. The pass that was played to Wan Bissaka was not the best in the first place and then the right back decided to try to dribble out rather than clear lines and reset. It led to a corner and from that Xhaka crossed to Nketiah on the second phase to level. The whole game, De Gea was passing back to the player he received the ball from, rather than switching the angle to separate the press.
While Ten Hag has spoken about changing the culture and attitude, you can see the difference in the last 30 mins as Arsenal mounted the pressure on us. We sagged back and back while Arsenal wore us down with possessional attrition. Fred came on simply to stop the fact that Saka had his way inside and outside of Shaw. Outside of that, Ten Hag essentially sat on the sidelines and prayed to the heavens that the team he sent out would be able to keep out Arsenal. It is something that he has done at times this season where he has sat on his hands with substitutions. Even if the options there aren’t the best, something has to be made of it. Unfortunately, it cost us in the end as the weary players continued to make mistakes and were unable to cover the spaces that were opened up.