You can’t win ’em all. Sometimes you have to accept that and yesterday’s draw against United, whilst being at home, was definitely one that I’d say “I’ll take that” given the circumstances.
And those circumstances were that we had a number of injuries, we faced a side who have picked up lots of points and are second in the table, plus we managed to keep a clean sheet and not have our momentum and form scuppered by defeat.
Before a ball was kicked and we found out the team news I was worried. United had all of their firepower to call on, but we had Tierney out, Aubameyang out and Saka also missing. I swear we are the only club who has players training absolutely fine and in the pre-match training pictures, only to be missing for matches, such is our luck. Every other team has players who are injured and make miraculous recoveries – usually to play against us – yet we seem to lose players left, right and centre. So the news that probably our most in-form player had picked up a knock in Bukayo Saka, was a real blow, to which I even saw a few United fans saying that on social media yesterday too.
Think about it the other way round: United play yesterday’s game sans their three best players. I’ve just had a look at WhoScored and that appears to be Fernandes, Rashford and Wan-Bissaka. Take those three out of the United team and you have your key playmaker for whom everything flows missing, you have your two top scorers missing, as well as a marauding full back out. United played Tuanzebe against Sheffield United in midweek and he was brought off in the second half and replaced by Shaw as they chased the game. They lost that one. So the fact that we had our main scoring threat, our in-form wide forward as well as our best left back and a key component in our left channel attacks missing in Tierney, shows just how much of an impact missing those three had.
A few people said it to me on Twitter yesterday i.e. that with those three Arsenal players back in the team we win that game and at the time I wasn’t so sure – football is never that simple and linear in terms of ‘x plus y equalling z’ – When I look at that comparison with United missing those players, I suddenly realise that actually they could have made a big difference for us.
Not that I want any of them risked mind you. We did that with Partey against Spurs and it robbed us of our best midfielder for about two months. So Mikel and his coaching staff made the right decision and the hope now has to be that Bukayo and Tierney are fit for the away trip against Wolves on Tuesday early evening.
So we started the match with a it of a handicap and I thought initially we did ok. For the first 20 to 25 minutes I thought we just shaded it, then United had more of the last 10 to 15 minutes, but in the second half we just edged it I thought. We had less possession than United (43% to 57%), but we had more shots (17 to United’s 14), we hit the bar with a good effort from Lacazette, Smith-Rowe stung the palms of De Gea and Willian should have finished a very good chance in the second half having come on from Gabriel Martinelli.
There were chances there for us and on another day then maybe we take them. But United also had chances. It was another excellent display from Leno and today I thought he showed again just how much value he is to us, tipping away a Fred shot being the pick of the bunch. I haven’t really spoken about him much this season but in nearly every game this season he’s delivered for us and that consistency has been a key part of our defensive run so far. We have conceded the second-fewest goals in the league and whilst United probably should have scored with Cavani chances, Rashford being snuffed out in the second half and a Wan-Bissaka header, the fact they didn’t is in part due to how we are setting up under Arteta.
We are becoming difficult to break down. We don’t over commit and leave ourselves exposed. This United team have picked up wins after wins this season by basically either picking off teams or relying on a bit of individual brilliance, but we looked strong and resolute defensively and as I say above, if we have one or two of our best players back in this game, maybe the story today would be different.
So let’s have a shout out to Luiz and Holding, both of whom were very solid and given my preference is not to have Holding in our team under normal circumstances, he is in form and playing very well for us. Long may this continue. On the flanks I thought both Cedric and Bellerin did ok. They were fine defensively, perhaps didn’t offer as much going forward as we would like, which I think also impacted our wide forwards. Gabby for example didn’t have the best of games and whilst he gives us energy in that wide left channel, he didn’t really create too much and Arteta even hooked him for Willian in the second half. On the other flank I thought Pepe continued his recovery of form and looked bright for most of the evening. He had a couple of good runs, a few decent moves and was unlucky with a couple of chances, one of which just inched beyond the far post as he placed the ball through Maguire’s legs. We’ve seen him bag those before and perhaps on another day one just creeps in to that corner. This is what we’ve wanted from him though; a little more consistency and Arteta will be pleased that we’re getting a tune out of our most expensive signing. Hopefully Saka is fit and we can try him wide left again against Wolves because I thought he was good against Southampton over there and with Aubameyang in self-isolation, this is exactly what we need to see from Pepe.
In the middle of the park Xhaka and Partey continue to forge that partnership too and whilst I thought the Ghanaian was a little ropey in his passing range yesterday, he did fine and it is 90 minutes under his belt. The hope is that he can put together another start on Tuesday because against Southampton he had cramp and had to go off, so hopefully he’s fit enough for our trip to the Black country.
So all in all it was a point that we have to take. I’d have taken it before the game given the injuries, we maintain the unbeaten streak we’re on, it is another clean sheet so we can go again hopefully with confidence and some players returning for what will be another tough game in this run that we are on.
Ooh, one more thing to point out and I thought i’d leave it until the end so it doesn’t seem like the classic “all the refs are against us” moaning of your classic football fan. Bruno Fernandes’ “tackle” on Granit Xhaka. In real time it was a foul, looked a little nasty, Xhaka made no meal of it and VAR just said carry on. Compare that to Longstaff screeching when Emile Smith-Rowe had his red card overturned, or indeed Fernandes howling in the game when he won a free kick on the edge of our box. I ask you this: had Granit Xhaka completed the same action against Fernandes, do you think the United player would have given the same reaction as ours? And do you think the referee and VAR would have ignored even a yellow card for the challenge? Of course they wouldn’t. And we are now living in an age where the slow-motion replays are basically being used as the key evidence in sending players off. Go have a look at some of the stills and videos going around of that “challenge”. It looks terrible. Yet nothing.
But United get a raw deal, right? B*llocks.
Anyway, catch you all tomorrow, probably with a team update, given the games are thick and fast right now.