Thursday, January 20, 2022

Man Utd 3-2 Arsenal: Gunners under-perform as Arteta overthinks

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I saw a headline last night before I went to bed which said ‘Carrick’s Parting Gift’, referencing Michael Carrick’s last game before Ralf Rangnick takes over at Man Utd. In truth, it should have been ‘Mikel Arteta’s Arsenal’s Parting Gift Which Carrick Gladly Accepted’.

I don’t think we were great last night by any means, but I still think we should have got something from the game. Instead, we handed United goals, and it’s particularly frustrating because they didn’t have to work hard to score. Their strength is in their forward line so I was always a bit cautious about what they might be capable of, but I didn’t envisage Arsenal being so generous/haphazard defensively.

We were the better team in the opening stages, and took the lead in strange fashion. Fred stood on David de Gea’s foot as United defended a corner, which must have been sore but for a keeper to go down and stay down like that was just bizarre. The ball fell for Emile Smith Rowe who guided the ball home with his left foot. The referee then blew his whistle and the assumption was he was going to disallow it. I think he would have if he could, but as it looked as if play was going to restart with de Gea taking a free kick for a foul by one of his own men, Martin Atkinson clearly got the word from on high that he couldn’t and awarded the goal.

Then we did this thing we do where we sit back. In the opening 13 minutes we made 20 passes in the United attacking third. In the remainder of the first half, we made 17. It’s a bad habit we’ve got into. Whether this is what Mikel Arteta wants or doesn’t want, his team does it a lot and it’s the manager’s job to solve this particular probme. There are games when you can successfully soak up pressure, but it hands to much momentum to the opposition, and when they have United’s quality it’s a dangerous game. So it proved. 1-0 is a nothing lead in the Premier League unless you defend properly, and we didn’t.

For the first goal, Ben White should have dealt with a clearance on the edge of the box better, Elneny doesn’t get close enough to Fred, and White leaves too much space for Bruno Fernandes to shoot beyond Ramsdale, who could do nothing about it. United’s second came when Nuno Tavares tried to intercept (no problem with this) and lay it off to Smith Rowe who was caught on his heels very slightly. The ball fell for United who broke into all the space the left back had left behind. Again, White is too interested in the ball and doesn’t get close enough to Ronaldo who is never going to miss from there. I also think you could look at Thomas Partey who has it all in front of him but doesn’t really break a sweat to get goal-side of Ronaldo or even Fred who is making a run beyond as well.

I guess that young defenders will make small errors which are punished to the maximum, and it’s how quickly they learn from them. It doesn’t make it any less frustrating though, especially when it’s compounded by a senior player. Partey was involved in our equaliser, spreading a pass to Martinelli whose cross was nicely turned in by Odegaard just two minutes after United went ahead. It’s annoying to concede, but I liked this response. I felt like it showed something about the team.

Unfortunately, the Norwegian, went from semi-hero to villain when his daft challenge on Fred handed United a penalty. VAR did its work after Atkinson initially waved play on (unlike the Maguire on Tomiyasu incident at the end of the first half which was a penalty in my opinion). Ronaldo scored. Arsenal had shot themselves in the foot again.

Saka came on, Martinelli tried to drive us back into the game with some tremendous driving play, but it wasn’t matched by any of his teammates. Arteta made changes, bringing on Lacazette and Nketiah for Aubameyang and Odegaard, but neither added anything to our potential goal threat. Saka had a couple of moments, and in the end United were comfortable. Not least because they just allowed Mohamed Elneny to have the ball knowing he wouldn’t be able to hurt them. This isn’t to criticise him, per se, he is what he is, but 36% of his completed passes took place in the last 16 minutes of the game, and he’s not the guy you want with that kind of volume of possession when you need a goal. In the same period, Partey made just 11 passes to Elneny’s 28.

The Egyptian’s selection was a surprise in the first place. He hadn’t started a Premier League game before last night, and given Nuno Tavares was keeping his place ahead of Kieran Tierney based on his performances, it was strange to me that this didn’t apply to Albert Sambi Lokonga who was very good against Newcastle. I suspect Arteta wanted an experienced partner for Partey which might allow the Ghanaian more room for expression, but it didn’t work that way.

I don’t even think Elneny was bad. He was just Elneny. Partey was really disappointing again, and while there might be some truth to the suggestion part of that was because he was more tightly marked as United allowed Elneny to have possession, he was underwhelming in his own right too. I don’t want to ring alarm bells, but even the player himself admits he is some way from his best. The simple fact is we need more from him, and the other experienced players, and I don’t think we’re getting it.

As for the subs, I thought Lacazette coming on was understandable because we needed a goal and he’s a striker, but the Eddie Nketiah decision puzzled me. This isn’t to be critical of him, but these were his first Premier League minutes of the season. What were we realistically expecting of him? That aside, we decided to use a player who rejected a contract offer this week and is going to leave in the summer for free while leaving Nicolas Pepe on the bench. The decision to use Nketiah over Pepe was odd in a footballing sense, and only raises further questions about what the hell is going on with Ivorian.

If you looked at the Arsenal bench and that United defence, who would you choose to try and grab you a goal? Pepe is an imperfect player, but that was the obvious choice for me and I don’t understand Arteta’s thinking at all. Managers have their reasons for the decisions they make, sometimes we’re not privy to all the information, but they’re still judged on them and last night Arteta got some key decisions wrong. Elneny was a mistake, which might be easy to say in hindsight, but it wasn’t as if there weren’t concerns beforehand. Again, it’s not to be critical of the player, but it felt retrograde, a step back from some of the ‘brave’ decisions which have been generally rewarded of late. The subs were poor, and poorly-timed too (Smith Rowe was exhausted looking by the hour mark).

As always any kind of defeat opens up the debate about this team, the manager and all the rest. That’s inevitable, and a reality of where we are. We’ve been playing catch up quite well since the start to the season, so any bumps in the road will feel seismic. Still, this was a chance to get something at Old Trafford and we failed. A defeat very much of our own making, and it’s very easy to scratch at the old wounds which haven’t really healed as well as you might like.

For me this was the most annoying result of the season. It’s not that I think United were absolutely there for the taking, but we should not have lost. When you manage to turn Fred from hapless gimp to key man inside the space of 90 minutes, something has gone very wrong. I think it’s within our remit as Arsenal fans to acknowledge some of the good stuff we’ve seen lately, but still be pissed off with what we did last night, and how we did it. They made me look at Ronaldo celebrate, and that’s something I never want to see.

It’s also apparent we have a ‘big’ game problem. We’ve lost to Chelsea and United, and been hammered by City and Liverpool. That’s something we have to address, along with this tendency to sit on leads which are too precarious to do that. A trip to Everton on Monday to face a team who will be desperate to bounce back from a derby defeat and a recent run of bad form will be another test, and one we can’t fail.

If your glass is half full you’d say that one win from these two games is better than two draws, but you make it more difficult to get that win when you do what we did last night.

As we played last night, there’s no podcast yet but I’ll be recording something this morning it should be available mid-morning.

Until then, take it easy.

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