PL Hangover: Manchester United Unlucky Not Phenomenal; Arsenal Simply Wretched

Alex Dunn@@aldunn80Featured ColumnistNovember 21, 2016

Jose Mourinho should take more from Saturday's game than Arsene Wenger despite late disappointment.
Jose Mourinho should take more from Saturday's game than Arsene Wenger despite late disappointment.Rui Vieira/Associated Press

As Jose Mourinho was at pains to point out—three times, just in case anyone at the back missed it the first two times—Manchester United's draw against Arsenal on Saturday felt like a defeat.

Conversely for a man who since arriving in Manchester for his dream job has worn a mood greyer than a Lowry skyline, it was delivered in a tone light enough to suggest he was as happy with his side's performance as he was disappointed about the result. 

As he departed his post-match press conference stage left, there was a sense mischievous Mourinho may finally be breaking free from the cocoon of miserableness he has been encased in thus far on his northern sojourn.

A drunk uncle at a wedding convinced he's got a good joke no one is listening to, he quipped, per BBC Match of the Day, "So finally I lost against Arsene. Finally I lost against Arsene. Finally I lost against Arsene."

While Mourinho may have sounded like someone summoning a ghost in the film Beetlejuice, it is the Manchester United manager who continues to haunt his Arsenal counterpart Arsene Wenger.

Olivier Giroud scoring the first goal a Wenger side has managed against a Mourinho team since 2007—the first an Arsenal substitute has ever scored at Old Trafford in the Premier League—far from exorcises the fact Saturday's result extends the Frenchman's sequence of failing to beat his nemesis to 14 competitive matches and counting.

A pair of handshakes between Mourinho and Wenger pre- and post-match was so cursory an action replay was required to ascertain whether any physical contact had actually taken place. 

The highlight of the whole afternoon arrived at full-time when it looked as though the two managers would have to share a long walk down the touchline together. The Frenchman ducking to the side while pretending to mess with his zip, like making an imaginary phone call when confronted with a charity worker on the street, was a work of no little genius.

In an earlier interview with Sky Sports immediately after the game, Mourinho had hailed his side's performance as "phenomenal" while declaring Manchester United to be the "unluckiest team in the league."

While phenomenal may be overstretching it a little, they certainly deserved more than a 1-1 draw. It all means United have now drawn three consecutive home games in the Premier League for the first time since 1992.

Even the briefest of looks at the numbers suggests Mourinho may have a point on the luck front. In United's last three league games at Old Trafford against Stoke City (1-1), Burnley (0-0) and Arsenal (1-1), they have had 74 shots to their opponents' 14. Arsenal have averaged 14 shots per game this season but managed only five on Saturday.

As Mourinho lamented, if United had got the wins it would be hard to dispute they didn't deserve, being six points better off would put them in the UEFA Champions League places. On the flip side, to use a crude but nonetheless pertinent proverb, if my aunt had balls she'd be my uncle.

On Saturday, United were superior to Arsenal in every department. Mourinho's side are starting to move the ball so much quicker, with a leggy Arsenal made to look less than ordinary for the majority of the game. Alexis Sanchez appeared to be so jet-lagged it wouldn't have been a surprise had he reappeared for the second half wearing sunglasses and clutching a pillow.

The legendary adman Paul Arden says in his business the key to getting a client to buy into one of his ideas is to show them what they asked for first, and once they are relaxed and feeling magnanimous, then hit them with what they really need even if they don't know it yet.

Saturday felt a bit like that in terms of Mourinho's selection.

If United had allowed the home crowd to pick the team via an X-Factor style format, the front six that started would have caused little dissension in the stands. Except perhaps for Louis Walsh, who'd be leading the Stretford End in a "Vote for Shrek" chant having painted his last remaining act Wayne Rooney green for his performance.

With Zlatan Ibrahimovic suspended and Rooney in any case unable to get to Old Trafford until the second half due to a prior piano lesson he already had booked, the prospect of Marcus Rashford through the middle, flanked by Juan Mata and Anthony Martial, whetted the appetite.

Rooney, who played well when he came on in the second half and looked sharper than he has for some time, called out the press after the game for writing his obituary too soon. He described the reporting of his drinking session while away on international duty with England, which ended at 5 a.m., as "disgraceful", per the Sunday Times' Jonathan Northcroft.

On this fighting form, he may well consider taking Mourinho to court for the line the Portuguese used to explain his omission on Saturday, per the Times' Paul Hirst: "I believed ones like Mata, Martial and Rashford were faster than Wayne, better attacking opponents one to one in the last line. I thought it was the best option."

Slower than Mata? Perry Mason would have Mourinho up on a charge of slander before the end of the day.

Rashford has been widely criticised for his performance, and not just for his part in Arsenal's goal. He allowed Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain to beat him far too easily, before the Arsenal substitute whipped in the cross for a Giroud headed equaliser so manly it was a surprise the ball hadn't grown a beard by the time David De Gea had retrieved it from his goal.

At times, particularly in the first half, Rashford was isolated, and too often the ball failed to stick. There was, though, enough intelligence in his elusive running and smart hold-up play when pulling wide to suggest Ibrahimovic shouldn't be a shoo-in to start every week. 

Schooled in the ways of Arden, Mourinho may disagree.

Martial tested Petr Cech a couple of times with punchy efforts from the edge of the area, yet it was no surprise when it was the Frenchman who departed for Rooney and not Rashford. The problem with his ice-cool demeanour is when things are not running for him it can make him look aloof to the point of being sulky. At £57.6 million, it's not the best of looks.

If he continues to go backwards from last season's form at the same rate, he could be back in the womb by Christmas.

In midfield, it has always seemed blindingly obvious to everyone, expect perhaps Mourinho, that Michael Carrick, Ander Herrera and Paul Pogba would complement each other as a unit. So it proved on Saturday.

Sitting imperiously at the base of United's spine, human beta-blocker Carrick was a calming influence all afternoon. Quietly pulling his team-mates into position while always having one eye on dropping into the back four whenever Phil Jones or in particular Marcos Rojo would lose concentration and wander, the 35-year-old gave a masterclass in game-management.

Ozil may have won the Internet over the weekend with a delicious nutmeg on United's captain for the day, but Carrick's influence on the game was twice that of the German.

He also showed up the limitations of Mohamed Elneny and Francis Coquelin, accentuated by the fact they were playing together. Wenger's uncharacteristic conservatism in fielding two workmanlike holding midfielders made Arsenal's transitions too often slow and unimaginative.

As Carrick demonstrated throughout, an inventive five-yard pass to make space at the start of a counter-attack can often dictate the rhythm of the game. After the win at Swansea City prior to the international break, Mourinho had said he'd love to play Carrick every week. If only he was in a position to make that call.

Arsenal missed Santi Cazorla, as any side would, which made the benching of continuity king in-waiting Alex Iwobi all the more questionable. Granit Xhaka seems a lot at the best part of £35 million if his combustible nature isn't to be trusted in big matches. It's a bit like spending a fortune on a Paul Smith suit but never wearing it because the trousers make your rear look big.

Pogba looks infinitely more comfortable with what he is being asked to do when in a three. To the left of Carrick, he regularly burst from deep—with and without the ball. Arsenal struggled to subdue his rangy athleticism all afternoon. He might not look like the world's most expensive player, but he looks like a player all of a sudden. And that's a vast improvement on where he was just a few weeks ago. 

Herrera, too, has finally found his role at United. Whether Mourinho has reinvented the player, or the player has looked at the situation and reinvented himself, is largely immaterial.

What's important is United finally have a mobile central midfielder ready to put his foot in, and as is increasingly apparent, leave it there if the game requires it. Herrera the hatchet/holding man has shown against both Liverpool and Arsenal he may prove to be a solution that for once won't require executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward's signature.  

No longer tied to the touchline as a hostage is tied to a chair, Mata revelled in the freedom of being able to find pockets of space in between the lines where he is most effective. The Spaniard is no fool. He knows everything Mourinho gives comes with a caveat.

As the former First Lady of the United States Eleanor Roosevelt famously said: "With freedom comes responsibility." In short, the only players who don’t have to graft in a Mourinho team are those sat with him on the bench.

Having been sold by Mourinho once already in his career, Mata is doing everything he can to ensure history does not repeat itself. Almost as impressive as his deftness of touch, inventiveness and technically majestic goal was his dervish work rate when United didn't have the ball. He has set the perfect blueprint for Martial and Henrikh Mkhitaryan to follow.

On another day he would have had a brace. Cech's finger-tipped low save to deny him was harder than it looked, while his cushioned finish from Herrera's clever pull-back on 68 minutes was more than deserving of the warmest of embraces he received from Mourinho upon being replaced with five minutes to go. Who'd have thought it?

Mourinho's substitutions have been criticised for being overly negative and inviting Arsenal back into the game at a time when United looked good to grab a killer second goal. It's hard to disagree.

Mata's inclination to drift inside opened up space for the fit-again Antonio Valencia to buccaneer into on the right all afternoon. With Aaron Ramsey making his first league start for Arsenal since the opening day of the season and proving neither use nor ornament on the left—his best position is in the middle or on the comfy seats next to Wenger—Nacho Moreal was more exposed than a mountain top.

The Arsenal full-back must have considered stepping off it by full-time.

At one point with Valencia bounding towards him he dived past the ball, presumably in the hope Wenger would catch him and let him weep on his chest. Referee Andre Marriner ruled against awarding United a first-half penalty when the pair had a little fumble in Arsenal's penalty box, which was probably just about the right call.

Mourinho said at full-time he didn't want to talk about it; in real time, it didn't take a body language expert to work out he felt aggrieved.

Wenger would rightly point out Matteo Darmian was fortunate to see out the first half having committed three fouls, two of which were worthy of cautions. He was booked for the other one.

No margins are as fine as in sport. Giroud rescuing his side a point, after coming off the substitutes' bench to score his eighth goal from his last nine shots on target in the league, changed the post-game narrative with regards Arsenal completely. It really shouldn't.

While it looked like Arsenal achieved the result they had arrived at Old Trafford looking for, any relief at stealing a point will have dissipated for Wenger by the time he made it back to the capital. He is far too big a romantic to take more than a sliver of consolation from the desserts accidentally being left off the bill on a disastrous date.

To give leverage to the idea this was a demonstration of Arsenal possessing the characteristics of a title-winning side, in that they were able to grind out a decent result when playing badly, would be generous to the point a billionaire philanthropist might roll their eyes.

Arsenal were wretched. They less knocked the door down than found it left on the latch. It is Rooney's liver that has become the scrutiny of national debate this past week, but for all the po-faced, holier-than-thou, pious moralising, Arsenal's lily-livered performance will be harder to stomach for most than one of the more pickled variety.

Giroud's finely conceived and beautifully executed equaliser on 87 minutes was Arsenal's first, and only, shot on target of the afternoon. They arrived in Manchester to face a United side enduring a worse start to a season in 12 years and with three-quarters of their first choice back four either injured or left sat on the naughty step.

This should have been a day when Arsenal made a statement about their title ambitions. They did. Maybe there's no shame in finishing in the top four.

For an Arsenal team that has lost just once on the road in the league this calendar year to look inhibited against opposition fielding Rojo and Jones as its centre-back partnership has to cast genuine doubts over Wenger's repeated proclamation this is a group with a special mentality.

It was telling when asked by Sky Sports' Geoff Shreeves if his players had a mental block about playing at Old Trafford, rather than be rankled—as most managers might have been—he pretty much agreed.

September's eviscerating 3-0 victory over Chelsea has not been matched since. Such a dominant performance against a fellow title rival, at least at this juncture, looks more likely to be the exception than the rule.

Gary Neville on co-commentary duty for Sky Sports was exasperated to the point of barely concealing his irritation at Arsenal's acute insipidness prior to Giroud's intervention.

"They bottle it every single year," he rasped.

Whether he was talking about away days at Old Trafford specifically or Arsenal title challenges period remains to be seen.

All stats provided by unless otherwise stated. 


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