United And Arsenal Enthrall Old Trafford With An All-Action Draw
Wednesday’s match between Manchester United and Arsenal was a worthy advert for the Premier League. The storylines and drama surrounding the match more than atoned for the lack of quality on display.
Both teams lacked a cutting edge, which is can be expected for a rare midweek match that represented the third game in a week for each side. On Saturday United had clawed back from a two goal deficit to salvage a point against Southampton. Arsenal triumphed in a frenetic North London Derby on Sunday, and was handicapped with one less day of rest.
The fans certainly were not jaded by the busy winter schedules and created an electric atmosphere at Old Trafford. Gooners were still buzzing after victory over Spurs and arrived greedy for a second famous result in four days.
United’s recent struggles meant the opportunity was there for Arsenal to win at Old Trafford in the league for the first time in 2006 and extend their unbeaten run to an astounding 20 matches in the process.
Even though United languished in 8th position and was riddled with injuries, fans were buoyed by their incredible record home to Arsenal and the fact that their manager Jose Mourinho needed their support, with his dismissal a real possibility should they suffer a heavy defeat. Their mouths also watered as they sensed with the possibility of ending another Arsenal unbeaten run. The Gunners’ 49 match league unbeaten streak was contentiously terminated at Old Trafford in 2004.
The massive stadium was energized even further by the sight of boxer and United fan Tyson Fury, the global sports star of the moment, on the pitch pregame to lift United’s spirits.
The match itself resembled a game of FIFA between two friends after a night on the town – passionate, but sloppy. The opener came in the 26th minute as Shkodran Mustafi headed an Arsenal corner off the ground but on target. The header had significant power but was straight at David De Gea and should have been easy work for the Spaniard. Many consider to be the best goalie in the world, but he was able to manage was to palm the ball back over his head. He turned and watched as it travelled agonizingly slowly towards his goal.
The United defense cleared the ball off the line and play continued momentarily. The ref eventually signaled for a goal after he received the assistance of goal line technology. De Gea feigned disbelief at the call in an attempt to hide his blushes.
The travelling supporters were in dreamland as they could not believe the same man who recently had made a Premier League record 14 saves against them the last time the two sides met had just gifted them a goal. They managed to coordinate a few ironic chants of “Jose Mourinho, we want you to stay,” before they were unceremoniously pegged back.
United won a central free kick 25 yards out and Marco Rojo unleashed a sharp effort to Leno’s left. The keeper dove quickly to deflect the shot wide but the ball managed to stay in play. Arsenal were slow to react, perhaps wishing more than expecting that the ball would roll out for a corner. Herrera, who appeared to be offside, reacted first and squared to Martial to hammer home from close range. Arsenal was again unable to preserve a lead heading into halftime and lost Holding and Ramsey to injury in the first frame as well.
As both attacks began to look blunted, ten minutes into the stanza opposing strikers Lukaku and Lacazette were introduced. Action immediately ensued. After a sloppy turnover by Rojo in his own half, Mkhitaryan and Lacazette twice exchanged passes on an Arsenal break. Lacazette took a slightly heavy touch at the top of the 18 yard box and shifted his body to shoot from 12 yards away. As he prepared to shoot, Rojo and Bailly converged on the striker, causing a spectacular storm of flailing limbs.
Unsure of what to make of scene in front of him, De Gea guessed left only to see the ball emerge from the pile of bodies and roll to his right and into the net. If ever there was a goal for the Dubious Goals Committee to review, this was it. Despite Lacazette’s efforts to claim the goal, the strike was ultimately ruled a Rojo own goal.
Astoundingly, the Arsenal supporters celebrated their second goal for less time than their first. United equalized directly from the kickoff in the 70th minute. From the restart, the ball was lumped forward towards an unfocused Arsenal defense. It fell to the weaker right foot of Kolasinac, a player still regaining fitness after a long injury layoff. The fatigue of mind and body was visible as he took an awkward touch in an attempt to control the ball that resembled a pass back to his keeper.
Unsure whether to come or stay, Leno was left in no man’s land. Lingard reacted first to race behind the defense and poke the ball past the helpless keeper. The United fans couldn’t believe they had been gifted such a soft goal. Lingard danced for them in the corner while Gooners everywhere wondered if they really are hexed at Old Trafford.
A Breathless Finale
There was drama to come as Mourinho played his last two cards, bringing Fellaini and Pogba off the bench. Pogba did not start the game for reasons known only to the mercurial midfielder and his manager. United saw how successful the long ball was for them for the goal and continued with that strategy for the rest of the match, causing the Arsenal defense some nervy moments. But it was Arsenal who should have found the winner, as Aubameyang and Mkhitaryan failed to convert a series of chances.
The clearest came after Kolasinac located Aubameyang with a lovely draw back. The striker got his shot on frame, only to be denied by a brilliant instinctual kick save from De Gea. Mkhitaryan had the ball in the back of the net in stoppage time, but was correctly flagged for offside. The match finished 2-2 with exhaustion visible on the faces of players, coaches and fans.
When the dust settles, Manchester United will be happier with the result. Though Mourinho attempted to show his side deserved the win when he lamented “we scored 4 goals and drew 2-2,” as all goals did touch a United player last. In many ways United and Mourinho resemble Arsenal and Wenger near the end of the Frenchman’s time at the club. Whenever a defeat could end his reign, he’d manage to pull a result out of his hat. That is what Mourinho has done here.
The draw keeps United’s faint hope for the top four alive and extends Mourinho’s run as manager. As they leave Old Trafford, Arsenal will wonder what might have been had they kept their defensive concentration. Notwithstanding their regret, Arsenal’s unbeaten run now stands at 20 and they are level on points with Chelsea for 4th place. Most fans would have taken 4 points from their consecutive games with Spurs and United if offered it before hand, so the Gunners will march on confidently as the Emery revolution remains on course.
Photo credit to PJB PRO via Flickr