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16 Conclusions on Ole, Arteta and…

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Arsenal should be happier with their lot than Manchester United. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has some issues to sort out, like Marcus Rashford.

 

1) When Jorge Valdano compared Liverpool’s narrow win over Chelsea in the second leg of their Champions League semi-final in 2007 to ‘a sh*t hanging from a stick’, he did so out of frustration at two teams – and in particular two managers – who were theoretically capable of so much more. He lamented a high-stakes game that he felt was indicative of how football was changing to become ‘very intense, very collective, very tactical, very physical and very direct’. He longed specifically for ‘a short pass’, ‘a feint’, ‘a change of pace, ‘a one-two’, ‘a nutmeg’, ‘a backheel’ or, honestly, just ‘any creative licence, any moments of exquisite skill’.

You get the sense he would have enjoyed this far more despite the score. That he would have appreciated the many million step overs of Nicolas Pepe, or Luke Shaw’s continued fine impression of an entire left wing. Arsenal and Manchester United was not a classic and the result guarantees it will be long forgotten by this time next weekend, but it was actually pretty bloody fun. Rather than two great teams playing within themselves and trying to keep things tight, this was two inherently flawed sides showing brief flashes of excellence, happy to leave things as open as possible in the hope they would get the decisive goal that never came.

 

2) Speaking of sh*t hanging from places, Scott McTominay staying on the pitch for as long as he did when quite clearly suffering with a dicky tummy was weird. It took about 20 minutes after the problem became apparent for him to be substituted. Any longer and his future BBC presenting career would have been marred by a handful of people replying to every one of his social media tweets with a reminder of his stomach troubles about 30 years later.

And of course Donny van de Beek didn’t replace him. The Dutchman has now played 38 minutes of Manchester United’s last 11 Premier League games. Even if he was bought only because an unmissable opportunity presented itself, or with next season in mind, there is no period of bedding in long enough to explain his continued omission at a club quite evidently suffering from fatigue.

 

3) It was simultaneously a quality match lacking in quality, the strange stench of a basketball game with no hoops filling the air. Every move seemed to result in either a chance or a situation where the final ball or decision was sorely lacking. It was bizarre. You get the feeling that both Arsenal and Manchester United sensed vulnerability in the other and set out to target those weaknesses but subconsciously held something back for fear committing too much and getting hurt.

They had 30 shots between them but only three on target each. It felt like they were pulling their punches because they didn’t trust themselves to land a knockout blow.

 

4) This will reflect worse on Manchester United. They were both the title challengers who had seen their closest contenders pull four points clear earlier in the day, as well as the team with something to prove after disappointment in midweek. There had to be a response after the Sheffield United defeat but this was only a slight improvement in performance at best.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is a wonderful momentum manager. When his players find their groove and hit form he is sensational at harnessing and nurturing it. He probably deserves far more credit for that. But there is cause to doubt his ability in terms of changing the course of those tides himself instead of simply riding them for better or worse. Manchester United face Southampton, Everton and West Ham in their next three games and each will require much better than this.

 

5) And that record against Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City and Tottenham is cause for concern. Manchester United have faced those five sides in the Premier League this season on six occasions, losing twice, drawing 0-0 four times and scoring only once: a Bruno Fernandes penalty in the 6-1 thrashing by Spurs in October.

It’s a curious development, considering those were the sides Solskjaer was proving his coaching acumen against in individual games in 2018/19 and 2019/20, while struggling when faced with teams in mid-table or the bottom half. Now the inverse is true: he has overhauled their form versus poorer teams – Wednesday aside – seemingly at the expense of results and displays against their direct rivals. Frank Lampard has won a Big Six Premier League match more recently.

 

6) That is not to say Arsenal should be celebrating a home draw in which they struggled to gain a foothold for large periods. It should be taken for precisely what it is: another point in their recent renaissance, the continuation of their unbeaten league run and proof they can at least compete against teams currently occupying the kind of position they want to be in.

Mikel Arteta will be most pleased that it came without their two most important players in Bukayo Saka and Kieran Tierney, as well as captain Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. They might need at least one of them to return if they wish to convert this sort of result into a victory more often but at least they are no longer entirely dependent on the availability of a handful of players when it comes to holding their own as a bare minimum.

 

7) They even sacrificed their most influential player of the first half and it did not cost them too much of their rhythm. Gabriel Martinelli was removed at half-time but Arsenal coped admirably without him after sending Willian on as a replacement.

Martinelli is such an electric player. He is constantly in motion, a bundle of positive energy. Within two first-half minutes he glided past Aaron Wan-Bissaka and McTominay and almost found an unmarked Alexandre Lacazette in the area with a curling delivery, before intercepting Paul Pogba’s ball to Marcus Rashford with an excellent diving header after the forward drifted into space at the back post. From artistry to awareness in a matter of moments.

His defensive work was actually more impressive than what he offered going forward, although Cedric’s strange positioning meant it needed to be. Without Martinelli, Arsenal would have been behind by the time he was substituted.

 

8) It is credit to Willian that his absence was not terminal. The Brazilian does not carry that same spark or vitality but those 45 second-half minutes were considerably better than what he has offered for most of this season.

It was a strange tactical move. “There was something that we were not doing right in that position,” Arteta explained after the game, seemingly dissatisfied with either Martinelli or, in particular, Martinelli’s partnership with the more exposed Cedric. But Willian stepped into the role well, provided a little more protection to his right-back and still offered plenty going forward.

He was predictably hounded by the majority for what was actually a brilliant Wan-Bissaka block when well placed to score at the back post, while the same critics that scoffed each time he gave the ball away would have put it down to the inevitable drawbacks of a naturally more risk-taking style if it was Martinelli. It does feel like opinions of Willian are so embedded by now that they will not change for many regardless of any evidence of improvement. But this was better.

 

9) He ended the game with more key passes in 45 minutes than Bruno Fernandes managed in 90, so that’s something. The Portuguese is without a goal or an assist – crosses parried out by French goalkeepers directly at the feet of Edinson Cavani do not count – in his last five Premier League games. Manchester United have scored at a rate of 0.8 goals per match in that time, compared to 2.06 in the 16 fixtures previous.

Even with obvious issues in terms of sample size, it is no coincidence that their attacking output has deteriorated so drastically with the creative fulcrum clearly running on fumes. His only real impact here, aside from the unpunished one he left on Granit Xhaka’s Achilles, was to shoot wide after turning David Luiz well on the half-hour mark.

“He’s not tired, no, no chance,” Solskjaer doth protested too much earlier this month. “He is one of the players that runs and covers the ground in every single game. He’s not tired and if I ask him he’ll say there’s absolutely no chance that he’s tired.”

It’s enough to make you wonder what a manager is there for. Manchester United might dread the thought but in this of all seasons any short-term hit they would incur by resting Fernandes is worth the long-term gain of him being able to actually recharge both physically and mentally.

 

10) One player Manchester United could rely on far more is Cavani. As strange as it sounds, if you ignore his finishing this was a sensational centre-forward performance from the Uruguayan. His movement is divine and his intelligence unmatched, but his one-touch link play is crucial to giving them another dimension instead of driving from the wings or giving Fernandes the ball.

But yes, his work in front of goal let him down massively, which is peculiar as that is the one upgrade he seemed to guarantee on Manchester United’s existing strikers when he joined. He should have scored presentable chances on the hour and just before full-time. Yet one incident that summed his game up was the air-shot in the 67th minute that he followed up immediately with a great ball out to Shaw, whose dangerous cross was squeezed away.

 

11) Lacazette might have been even better, owing to the fact he was not nearly as profligate as he rarely had the opportunity to shoot. When he did, the Frenchman at least tested David de Gea in the first half – although he spurned better passing options in the process – while hitting the crossbar with a free-kick in the second.

He actually won the foul that led to that chance, proving a handful for Victor Lindelof and Harry Maguire on more than one occasion, getting the latter booked. He was tasked with occupying two centre-halves at once and did so admirably, making up for what he lacked in support with work-rate and fine close control.

 

12) Pepe and Emile Smith Rowe did help when they could. The 20-year-old had a couple of customary line-busting runs from deeper positions that unsettled the opposition defence. He is such a fluid player who so rarely wastes his time on the ball and just injects excitement into matches.

As for Pepe, that was excellent. He married intent and skill with work ethic and intelligence, even if that final flourish was lacking. No player created more chances and four efforts with none on target said more about a player trying to find the corners but just missing as opposed to someone shooting aimlessly. If Arsenal were to score it would have involved him in some way.

 

13) Such a positive performance came up against a fine opponent in Shaw, whose rejuvenation continues unabated. But it should actually be said that Manchester United’s defence as a whole was quietly impressive. Wan-Bissaka has his limitations but covered his flank well and could have scored with a first-half header. Lindelof coasted through at times; he reads the game exceptionally and while Eric Bailly is the more popular choice, the Swede seems a solid option in this kind of game. His Premier League clean sheets this campaign have come against Chelsea, Manchester City, Liverpool, Arsenal and the slight exception to the rule that is West Brom.

 

14) The opposite side to that coin was Luiz and Rob Holding, who stood firm, stayed compact and remained focused throughout. Holding managed more than twice as many clearances as any other player while Luiz marshalled the back line well. Cedric improved markedly in the second half. Hector Bellerin was more effective than most people noticed on the right. And Bernd Leno’s save from Fred in particular was crucial. Neither side put in flawless defensive performances, but they were both at least fully committed in and probably deserving of ensuring their goals were not breached.

 

15) It is not often that Rashford gets taken off without scoring or assisting a goal first. This was the first time Solskjaer substituted him in such a scenario since the decable away at Basaksehir in November. In Premier League terms Rashford was last replaced without a goal or an assist against West Ham in July.

That is a reflection of two things: his ability to produce something from nothing, even when playing poorly; and an understandable tiredness that is really starting to underpin his performances. He has not scored a Premier League goal since the winner against Wolves in December, nor assisted one since laying on the decisive strike at Burnley five games ago. It is enough for the Daily Telegraph to start wondering where his head’s at.

In reality, it is just an out-of-sorts player making the wrong decisions with worrying regularity. He had Cedric on the back foot but failed to press home that advantage. He opted not to shoot when Shaw’s cross fell to him unmarked at the back post in the first half. He chose to when there were far better options late in the second shortly before his removal.

Rashford summed up this game quite nicely: thrilling at first and promising in intermittent spells thereafter but ultimately disappointing.

 

16) Roy Keane should stop gatekeeping celebrations. Unless he genuinely thinks that a centre-half shouldn’t express his delight at stopping a free-kick going in the top corner in a tight game against a difficult opponent. In which case he shouldn’t be offering his opinion under the proviso that it is ‘expert’ in any way other than garnering social media engagement and snotty paragraphs from people who have been spending their week on Reddit trying to figure out what short-selling is.

Matt Stead

 





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