It’s not often you see Arsene Wenger smiling at 90 minutes at Old Trafford, but he was on Saturday lunchtime after escaping with a 1-1 draw.
Wenger offered a wry smile; he looked like a man off let the hook when Olivier Giroud’s header grabbed Arsenal a share of the spoils.
Wenger had thrown on Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain for fill-in right back Carl Jenkinson and the sub paid off in a big way as his peach of a cross, from the right, was powered home by fellow sub Giroud.
The knives would have been out for Wenger after a performance for 89 minutes that was utter tripe. The fact that Giroud’s goal was their first effort on target tells you all you need to know about the previous 88 minutes. Wenger and Arsenal got away with one.
One chance, one goal
It was summed up by Juan Mata: “They had one chance and they take a point.”
They hadn’t lost since the opening day of the season, but they looked far from the side which hammered Chelsea in September and seemed to be heading for a defeat until their squad strength paid dividends.
Wenger opted for a central midfield pair of Mohamed Elneny and Francis Coquelin, both of who were subbed, and they both looked immobile as United’s midfield held the upper hand. The French boss also decided to leave Granit Xhaka on the bench, probably with concerns over his big-game temperament.
The £33.8million summer signing has been sent off twice this season for club and country and with the prospect of Ander Herrera nibbling at the Swiss star’s ankles the Gunners boss opted to leave him out. It was a decision that paid off – but only just.
Wenger’s men look disjointed and lacked midfield drive from the two holding incumbents and only when Oxlade-Chamberlain came on and combined with Giroud did they threaten a United back four marshalled by Marcos Rojo and Phil Jones.
Wenger would have been rubbing his hands pre-match when he saw that pair on the United team sheet, but Arsenal never looked like upsetting them. So deep was Sanchez that he almost looked like a third holding midfielder. The very fact that he held the furthest position forward of the Arsenal XI, yet he was often in his own half, suggests Arsenal were playing in the wrong areas.
Sanchez was busy and completed four take-ons in the first half, despite his mammoth journey back from South America, and rather than blaming the Chile striker’s lack of fitness and sharpness it was his positioning which was noticeable. He threatened United’s two vulnerable centre-backs only once – early on when he headed way wide after Theo Walcott had headed a cross back into the danger area.
Jones and Rojo, who have only played together once in the recent win at Swansea, could have played with a cigar for 89 minutes until Giroud launched himself in the box and Wenger breathed a sigh of relief.
Arsenal’s midfield talisman Mesut Ozil put in a 5/10 performance and but for his first-half nutmeg on the steady-away Michael Carrick he would have gone unnoticed.
As for United, it was a performance which was more efficient than spectacular and it looked like being good enough to spoil Wenger’s day again for the majority of the game.
Jose Mourinho may well reflect on a penalty that wasn’t given in the first period.
Ryan Giggs was the black sheep at half-time – the only Sky Sports pundit to claim United should have had a spot-kick. Albeit a “soft one”, but Andre Mariner disagreed and it cost United a deserved half-time lead because they edged it despite having only 46% possession.
— Manchester United (@ManUtds_News) November 19, 2016
In fact United’s good work was heralded on just 45% possession as they forced Arsenal to play on the break in the first period before pushing them even further back in the second half with Arsenal far too content to have possession in non-threatening areas.
The Gunners looked all set to go down without a fight, Wenger would have been criticised for playing a ‘tired’ Sanchez and leaving out their big summer signing but instead they toughed out a point from a game they never looked like getting anything from.
Does it show character? We’re always told that picking up points when you’re not playing well is a characteristic of champions and if that’s the case then Wenger’s men might just have showed on Saturday that they can go one better than last season and win the league.