Six hundred and fifty-five passes, 33 shots, two penalty appeals and 11 consecutive games unbeaten at Emirates Stadium later, Arsenal were defeated by Manchester United in an intense clash in north London.
On the basis of general play and chances created the Gunners probably didn’t deserve to lose the game, but questions should be asked over the familiar defensive vulnerabilities which were shown inside 11 minutes on Saturday evening as United scored twice in quick succession.
Arsene Wenger’s side have long been accused of looking weak in games against the top six but September’s 0-0 draw against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, coupled with Saturday’s performance against Jose Mourinho’s men, proved that they possess a squad more than capable of creating chances against the league’s best sides.
Defensively, neither Arsenal nor United looked particularly solid at the back and the main difference between the two was David de Gea who made 14 key saves for an under-siege United side.
“I think the quality of our performance was good but we were not decisive enough,” said Wenger after the game. “I believe at the back, we didn’t start well at all and we put ourselves in a very difficult position.”
“Despite that, there were enough chances to come back and I don’t know if you have watched many top-level games, but when you have 33 shots on goal in a game of that stature, it means that our dominance was top class.
“I’m angry and disappointed because at the end, we have nothing to show for it and even at 2-1, we made another mistake at the back that made the game even more difficult.”
Mourinho hasn’t won any of his last 11 away league games against ‘big six’ opposition until Saturday’s game and it once again shows that he has the upper hand over Wenger.
The decision to play two forwards took Wenger by surprise according to United defender Chris Smalling, and whether the Frenchman was under-prepared or expecting to face a different shape becomes an irrelevance when you see the schoolboy mistakes Arsenal made in the opening few minutes.
Arsenal rarely dominate games against the top six in such impressive fashion and the 75 per cent possession played into Mourinho’s hands. The Portuguese is renowned for encouraging the home side to have more of the ball when his teams play away games and hitting the opposition on the counter attack is exactly what he wanted.
Jesse Lingard has come under criticism in recent seasons but made no mistake with either finish, looking like a livewire upfront alongside the likes of Anthony Martial and Romelu Lukau.
Wenger’s men won’t be title challengers this season for the simple reason that they cannot cut out their defensive mistakes. Three consecutive clean sheets followed by a defeat to United is classic Arsenal.
Laurent Koscielny in particular looked a shadow of his usual self perhaps due to playing three games in six days with his troublesome achilles injury. His mistakes for the first and third goals were an indictment of how lapses in concentration have cost Arsenal in big games over the years, with Alexis Sanchez’s back heel culminating in the eventual sucker punch goal.
The third goal assisted by Pogba showcased his compatriot’s physicality but it was a case of Koscielny going too tight to his national team pal.Wenger opted to bring on Alex Iwobi when Shkodran Mustafi came off after the second goal and the German had ample time to make a backpass to the keeper or clear it upfield.
Indeed, Wenger’s instructions to his centre half – who has been impressive of late – would have been to keep it on the floor and look for a midfield player, even though the latter clearly wasn’t an option due to the midfield pairing’s poor position and Nacho Monreal being closed down.
It’s worth noting that they conceded chances in games against Burnley and Huddersfield, but perhaps the £200m+ firepower of United was too hot to handle on a chilly evening in north London.
Added to that, the central midfield pairing of Granit Xhaka and Aaron Ramsey continues to leave Arsenal’s defence vulnerable as neither player has the defensive discipline to anchor the midfield in front of the back three.
There were several positives for Arsenal including Alexandre Lacazette, who has now scored more home goals in the league this season than any other player.
Ramsey offers little defensive protection alongside Xhaka in central midfield yet his attacking contributions cannot be questioned. He has had a hand in seven goals in his last seven league games and continues to look dangerous in the final third.
United have won more Premier League away games at Arsenal than any other side and while the game may not have the same significance or fear factor among the players it once had, the atmosphere inside Emirates Stadium told its own story – as did the result that shone a light on Arsenal’s own defensive problems in the opening 11 minutes.
Source: Sporting News