There were few positives to take from the draw between Arsenal and Manchester United as both sides showed plenty of flaws in a lethargic affair at Old Trafford.
Let’s begin with the positives. A 1-1 draw away to Manchester United lifted Arsenal to fourth and maintained its three-point lead over its opponent. For a side with such a miserable away record against the elite, no point is to be sniffed at. And there was at least fight having gone behind, which has not always been the case with this Arsenal side. For United there was an excellent goal from the increasingly impressive Scott McTominay. Both goalkeepers could point to a couple of decent saves. But that’s essentially it.
If alarm bells are not ringing at Old Trafford, and they seem not to be, it’s only because expectations have sunk so low. Below the top two, the table is extremely compressed, so there will be no panic on that score but there must be concern simply about the performance. It was better than in the penalty shoot-out win over Rochdale in the Carabao Cup and in the 2-0 defeat at West Ham last weekend, but it was still desperately patchy, a long way from the sort of standards United once took for granted.
Not that Arsenal was much better. It was impossible to avoid thoughts of what this game used to be. Twenty years ago, United against Arsenal was the biggest game in English football. They were two tough, skillful sides and matches between them tended to be titanic affairs, bristling with mutual antagonism but full of quality as well. This was a world away from that. This was eleventh against eighth and, certainly in the first half, it didn’t even look that good. Heavy rain didn’t help, but even taking the slippery conditions into account this before halftime was a scratchy game, littered with mistakes, low on imagination and largely devoid of structure.
Of the things holding Man United back, what's the one core issue above all others? The @Independent's @MiguelDelaney gives his thoughts on the latest Planet Fútbol TV.— Planet Fútbol (@si_soccer) September 16, 2019
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Arsenal, perhaps, having failed to win any of its 23 previous away games against other members of the Big Six (although that grouping seems increasingly generous to these two sides), was happy enough with that. Unai Emery set up with three holding midfielders, as he had in the home game against Tottenham, and was content enough to play on the break, allowing United to dominate possession.
It seemed to have an obvious route to goal down the left, with Daniel James’s pace a clear problem for Calum Chambers, an unconvincing and cumbersome right back. Chambers was booked in the 10th minute for pulling the forward back, but United then weirdly seemed to stop trying to exploit that channel. When Marcus Rashford on a break slipped in his shooting stride to squander an opportunity it felt entirely typical of the game.
And then, following another counter, there came a goal. Andreas Pereira and James led the surge, charging 70 yards unhindered between them and although James’s cross was deflected away from Rashford, the center-forward had the composure to gather the ball and lay it to the edge of the box. He was probably aiming for Paul Pogba but it fell instead for McTominay, whose shot was of a quality entirely out of keeping with everything that had preceded it and flashed into the roof of the net past an unsighted and unmoving Bernd Leno.
The temptation at that point was to assume Arsenal would wilt—as it had, for instance, after conceding the opening goal follow early resistance at Anfield earlier this season. But either Arsenal discovered some backbone or United simply isn’t good enough to crush opponents as Liverpool can.
Arsenal’s equalizer was a gift, Axel Tuanzebe giving the ball away to Bukayo Saka who played an instant ball through to Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, at which the linesman’s flag went up. Ashley Young and David De Gea both seemed to react to that and hesitate, although the whistle didn’t blow, and after Aubameyang had scored, VAR showed that Harry Maguire, dropping deep to offer a passing option, had played him on and the goal stood.
Both sides had chances after that, most notably a late free-kick from Rashford that Leno beat away, but more fundamental was the lack of any flow, any clear sense of what ether side was trying to do. Arsenal, perhaps, might have nicked it if its delivery from set-plays had been anything other than dismal, but it was dismal and so opportunity after opportunity was spurned.
United has nine points from seven games, its lowest tally at this stage of the season since 1989-90. This is probably its worst squad since then and at least 30 years ago there was a vague sense of the club moving in the right direction. Nobody has a clue which way Arsenal, with its wild inconsistency, is moving but for United, the trend is clearly to stagnation and decline.