Arsenal miss chance to cross psychological hurdle at Manchester United
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It’s a while since Arsenal and Manchester United were genuine title rivals – yet any clash between the pair at Old Trafford somehow retains great significance.
That’s largely because Gunners fans fondly recall the early years of the millennium, when a result in Manchester – and back then, that could only mean United, not City – was usually a good measure of their prospects of silverware.
However, despite United’s recent decline, more than a decade has passed since Emmanuel Adebayor’s late strike sent the Arsenal faithful back to London with three Premier League points to crow about.
During those barren years, the 8-2 drubbing in 2011 is undoubtedly the one that still makes traumatised supporters awaken in a cold sweat.
But there have been many other Old Trafford disappointments – the ones that have played a part in derailing what seemed certain to be a successful campaign.
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Not least, it must be said, last season, when Arsenal were clear favourites for the title. Their 3-2 defeat at United began a run of one point in three games – on top of Champions League and FA Cup exits – as Leicester raced past them to claim the crown.
So how should Saturday’s 1-1 draw be viewed? A point gained, given the tardiness of Olivier Giroud’s equaliser?
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Or, given the nature of the Gunners’ performance – they were second best for the entirety of the second half and managed no other shots on target – proof that their mental fragility will always resurface at crunch time?
If we take the positive approach, it should be seen as an encouraging sign that Arsene Wenger’s side have developed a habit of scoring vital goals late in games this season.
Southampton and Burnley were both dispatched by last-minute goals – perhaps fortuitously – and then there was the Champions League tie in Bulgaria, when Arsenal came from 2-0 down to triumph over Ludogorets.
That suggests strength of character, desire to never give up and the ability to salvage one point or three when the performance barely merits it, as was the case in Manchester.
The flip side of that analysis is that the Gunners’ limp display indicated they may still be lacking the stomach for the big occasion. And, whatever United’s current fortunes, it is a big occasion.
Again, senior players such as Mesut Ozil and Theo Walcott – who have performed so well in other games this season – went missing for much of the 90 minutes.
Others, such as Aaron Ramsey, grew visibly frustrated and resorted to careless challenges in the second half. Meanwhile, a lack of natural width meant Arsenal created next to nothing all game.
United were generally first to the ball and looked sharper, especially in the centre of the park, where Mohamed Elneny and Francis Coquelin made an awkward pairing.
Both Elneny and Coquelin are decent players in their own right, but they look too similar in style to build an effective partnership in the Gunners’ midfield.
It would seem preferable to play one alongside Granit Xhaka – or even, dare we suggest, alter the formation and include a more attack-minded player such as Alex Iwobi in a midfield quartet?
Maybe the criticism seems churlish, given the overall picture. Arsenal are unbeaten since the opening day of the season, three points off the Premier League summit and still in all the cup competitions.
Nevertheless, this was an opportunity for Wenger’s side to re-establish supremacy over the club who, for so long, set the benchmark in English football.
It didn’t happen and so the doubts, for now, will remain.