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19th Nov 2016

Don’t let the result fool you – this was a better day for Manchester United than it was for Arsenal

Another missed opportunity for Arsene Wenger.

Tony Barrett

If the result, particularly the manner in which it was determined, was better for Arsenal than it was for Manchester United, it could be argued that the reverse was true of the game itself.

That Arsene Wenger got what he came for is not in dispute but overseeing a performance characterised by conservatism and lack of adventure flew in the face of what he once presided over in this fixture. Jose Mourinho’s ambition might not have yielded maximum returns but it least it was evident.

At the peak of his powers, Wenger would have gone into this game with intent. He would have recognised United’s weaknesses and exploited them. He would have set up aggressively and challenged his own players to underline their title-challenging credentials and to do damage to their rivals. Today, he did none of those things.

The point Arsenal snatched means Wenger’s approach went unpunished but such negativity suits neither the manager nor his team and it was only when events demanded greater urgency that either offered it.

If Wenger was rewarded for his belated ambition when Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain set up an 89th minute equaliser for Olivier Giroud, the combination of two of the three substitutes he had introduced after Juan Mata had given United a deserved lead averting defeat, the tactics that necessitated such a response represented a surprising lack of faith by the Frenchman in the players at his disposal.

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 19: Olivier Giroud of Arsenal (C) scores his sides first goal during the Premier League match between Manchester United and Arsenal at Old Trafford on November 19, 2016 in Manchester, England. (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)Olivier Giroud netted a fabulous equaliser for Arsenal (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)


With Mohamed Elneny and Francis Coquelin stationed in front of Laurent Koscielny and Shkodran Mustafi, Arsenal were rigid throughout. “We did not manage enough to get them out of position, our passing was not quick enough,” Wenger conceded afterwards. But this did not appear to be a problem of individuals failing to produce, it seemed to have much more to do with how their manager approached a game against Mourinho whom, of course, he has never beaten in the Premier League.

It could be argued that this is a move towards Wenger becoming more pragmatic, particularly on the back of a similarly uninspiring draw against Tottenham Hotspur in their previous game, and it could certainly be claimed with justification that he is making his team harder to beat and more durable. But, equally, Arsenal seem to have lost something regardless of an impressive statistic which shows that they have lost only once on their travels in the current calendar year.

“We need to turn these draws into wins,” Theo Walcott admitted afterwards, showing an admirable refusal to accept that this was a day when Arsenal had actually turned a defeat into a draw. With only 12 touches in the opposition penalty area, their lowest total this season, and one effort on target, there was never any realistic prospect of Arsenal securing the win that would have allowed them to go top of the Premier League and for once Mourinho’s post-match reaction provoked little argument until he overplayed his hand.

“We were the best team by far,” the United manager said. “I don’t want to say that they [Arsenal] did not want to win but they had no chances to win. They couldn’t be Arsenal, the way they normally want to play football. But they scored a goal; they were the lucky ones and we were the unlucky ones. That’s football, but at the moment we are the unluckiest team in the Premier League.”

Mourinho has been lucky enough – or, more accurately, good enough – in the past to know that better teams tend to be more fortunate than inferior ones. This was a day when little fault could be found with United’s effort, application, implementation of their manager’s tactics or overall performance but it was also another one when they failed to make their superiority pay and that lack of ruthlessness will concern Mourinho even if, publicly at least, he prefers to hide behind the vagaries of luck.

With greater cutting edge, United would probably not be reflecting on drawing a third successive home league game, the first time they have had that kind of run since April 1992, and could instead be looking back on the kind of victory that can so easily prove a turning point. As should be the case at a club which has invested so heavily in making things better, there will be disappointment that significant improvement remains elusive but this was still a step in the right direction even if there is little progress to be found in the result.

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 19: Juan Mata of Manchester United (C) celebrates scoring his sides first goal during the Premier League match between Manchester United and Arsenal at Old Trafford on November 19, 2016 in Manchester, England. (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)Juan Mata put United in front (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)


There are also signs that Mourinho is finally starting to show faith in some of his more talented players with Michael Carrick, Ander Herrera, Paul Pogba, Anthony Martial, Marcus Rashford and Mata all selected and although such boldness was not rewarded as it might have been, it is hard to believe that it will not pay dividends should he continue in this vein.

“Finally I lost against Arsenal. That’s what it felt like.” Mourinho said, using his own disappointment to highlight Wenger’s poor record against him. In the end, neither manager got what they wanted but the manner in which United achieved parity undoubtedly represented progress.

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