Amidst the orgy of swooning and sycophantic adulation towards Manchester United last night (Friday) there was a simple truth that was very much overlooked: they weren’t actually that great.
Just us at Wembley a few weeks ago, United skated by on staggering good fortune coupled with excellent finishing, while their opponents squandered the opportunities presented to them through their domination of the ball and territory.
Inevitably, however, there was a feeding frenzy post-match; a desperation to throw as many plaudits as possible at United for their brilliance – it was as infuriating as it was baffling.
Any pundit who thought to look beyond the score line – as few of the bother to do in this reactionary world – it was clear to see that, while shrewd, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s foundation is built on sand – an enormous gamble that relies as much on the opponent being inefficient as it does on United putting away chances at an alarmingly high rate.
At the moment, anything within 18 yards of the goal is going in for them. If they have three shots on goal, they score all of them. At the other end, they cede possession and space and simply hope the opponent fails to score.
In terms of its success to date, it’s undeniably potent. However, just as Arsenal discovered earlier this season, scoring at an insanely high rate cannot be sustained in the long term, and United will almost certainly discover this.
What frustrated above all else in our FA Cup fourth round clash was that Arsenal were not the team to prove the lie of Solskjaer’s revolution. In Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette, we have two strikers capable of scoring from anywhere inside the box and yet, between them, they only had a single goal to celebrate.
Against a poor defence, they failed to make the most of the opportunities that came their way and the price for that was obvious come the final whistle. Aubameyang, in particular, was wasteful with the ball, giving it away and passing to no-one on innumerate occasions.
Playing on the break and hoping for the best is a tried and trusted technique for United at Arsenal and it was maddening to see the Gunners fall for it again. That’s not to say the approach was wrong from Unai Emery, simply that not enough credence was given to the obvious trap that had been set.
We weren’t helped by the absence of our two best defenders in Hector Bellerin and Rob Holding and we were, unbelievably, further hamstrung by the loss of our next two best defenders on the night, with both Sokratis and Laurent Koscielney going down to what look like nasty injuries. The rate at which our paper thin squad has lost key players this season is frightful and it simply didn’t help our cause.
That said, United’s two opening goals were instances in which we found ourselves caught with our pants around our ankles. We were over exposed at the top of the pitch with no cause to be at that stage of the game and two or three simple passes were enough to undo us, as has so often been the case over the years.
I understand that we want to squeeze the play into the opponent’s third and play our football there, so far away from our own goal, but the frequency with which our opponents have been able to break free of trouble and bear down on our goal with one long punt is vexatious to say the least.
Those follies aside, though, I can’t say it was a bad performance. I saw what the manager was trying to and I thought it was good.
He found a great deal of joy through Alex Iwobi and Sead Kolasinac and Aaron Ramsey was picking up some excellent positions in small pockets of space. Lacazette and Aubameyang were winning the ball back in the same areas they had done a week previously and the midfield was standing up to the battle admirably.
The only thing missing, as the score line will surely tell you, is end product. For all Iwobi’s aggressive intent, he cut back inside far too often. His threat was, more often than not, contained by simply showing him the line. Time and again he opted to cut inside and pick the short pass to Ramsey or Xhaka beside him.
On the other side of the pitch, Ainsley Maitland-Niles was excellent in his tussle with Paul Pogba and Alexis Sanchez but he offered very little going forward and was not often sought by his team mates, which was an opportunity wasted. In an attacking sense, he didn’t have the same options afforded to Kolasinac and while capable, you could see what we were missing, and will continue to miss, in Bellerin.
All things considered, I don’t think it was a bad performance from Arsenal and the score does little to reflect the true nature of the game – despite the headline-grabbing over simplications of second-rate TV pundits.
The injuries to our defenders were far more concerning for me than the level of performance and may finally force the manager’s hand in the transfer market if he retains any hope of making a bid for a top four place.
One thing’s for sure – if he has some irons in the fire, it’s time to pull them out.