If the Premier League were Monopoly, Arsenal played their ‘Get out of jail free’ card at Old Trafford on Saturday.
Olivier Giroud’s late thumping header gave them a point few would say they deserved, but as badly as they played, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that this was a game from which they’d have taken nothing in previous years.
It’s not the first time this season that they’ve earned points with late goals. A Santi Cazorla penalty against Southampton back in September got them three points from that game, while Laurent Koscielny’s injury-time winner at Turf Moor was just enough for a 1-0 win over Burnley.
While not quite yet a trademark of this Arsenal side, it does suggest they are a team that will keep going right until the end. They don’t let their heads drop, and for that they were rewarded again when the French international equalised in the 89th minute after great work from fellow substitute Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain.
His muted reaction was, perhaps, that of a man who knew there was little to celebrate about the Gunners’ performance, but more likely he was unhappy at not starting. The focus all week was on the fitness of Alexis Sanchez, who took to the field with a heavily bandaged hamstring. His importance to Arsenal is obvious, his selection understandable, but his performance was that of a man who was far from fully fit.
To be fair to him, if he didn’t really click as an attacking force, that was true of the whole team. Arsene Wenger’s selection of Mohamed Elneny and Francis Coquelin in the centre of midfield with Aaron Ramsey on the left was clearly designed to make Arsenal defensively solid away from home, but it also left them somewhat stagnant going forward.
It was probably their worst performance of the season, and one wonders if the psychological aspects that surround this fixture played a part.
Wenger has never managed a win over arch-rival Jose Mourinho in the Premier League, and Arsenal’s record at Old Trafford is terrible, the last win coming in 2006.
Even if you were to suggest that they were more Clark Kent than Superman on Saturday, the Theatre of Dreams is as close to footballing Kryptonite as you’re ever going to get. It came close to being another day when they choked on the big stage. Instead they dug deep and left for London with a point.
The Arsenal manager needs to assess this performance and, in particular, the centre of his midfield. Coquelin and Elneny are both tidy on the ball, and defensively aware, but without someone like Santi Cazorla adding the craft alongside them, they’re just too similar and the impact it has on the team is obvious.
Aaron Ramsey will undoubtedly come in for criticism for another poor performance, but until the Welshman is given a real chance in his favoured central role, that has to be framed in the context of a man being played out of position.
With Cazorla likely to be sidelined for some weeks to come, Wenger must find a partnership that really works.
It was clear against United that they needed something different in the middle, so one of Ramsey or Granit Xhaka has to play alongside either Coquelin or Elneny.
Or, if Wenger really wanted to try something, the summer’s £35m signing and the Welshman could just prove a replica of the Arteta-Ramsey partnership that was very effective a couple of years ago.
Xhaka, like the Spaniard, can read and control the game from deep, allowing Ramsey and his brilliant engine to propel him from box to box.
It’s obvious Wenger wants the 25-year-old in his team, but can’t seem to find a way to do it effectively. He has to give him a chance in the middle, but if Ramsey can’t dovetail with one of his partners, his manager might view him as a fine player, but one incompatible with this current team.
Ultimately, although there are few positives to draw from the performance Saturday lunchtime, the fact Arsenal remain unbeaten since the opening day is a sign that there’s more to this team than this 1-1 draw suggests.
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