Arsenal split the reward with Manchester United in a match that felt like a draw, even if the 0-0 scoreline felt unjustified. Both teams had opportunities to score, and both teams were let off the hook for their errors. One would imagine Manchester is kicking themselves a little bit harder than Arsenal because, while three points would have gone a long way for the Gunners, grabbing one point and 4 out of 6 on the season against the Red Devils keeps Arsenal moving forward.
Yesterday’s match came with a feeling of ‘high stakes’. There was something real to play for and, for the first time in what has felt like a long time, the reward at stake was positive.
Arsenal have earned those stakes. Their recent form and success built those stakes. There have been games this year with meaning, but almost exclusively negative.
“If Arsenal don’t get a win today, their chance at the title is probably over”. “If Arsenal don’t get a result here they will find themselves slipping into the lower fourth of the table”. “A loss today well and truly puts them in a relegation scrap”. Must-win game after must-win game with fear of negative repercussion. Not yesterday.
Arsenal’s stakes this time around were an opportunity to climb their way into immediate contention for European spots. Not claiming one for themselves, but putting their name in the mix. Demanding that people talk about them in the same breath as Everton, Tottenham, dark horse West Ham, even fourth place Liverpool, or third place Leicester. It was a nice change of pace and a well-earned reward for the team and Mikel.
Late team news made the outset of the opportunity a bit bleaker, but there was still a prize to play for. Kieran Tierney didn’t pass his late assessment and Bukayo Saka was determined to have a sore hip and left out for precautionary measures. These two would join Aubameyang as absentees meaning Arsenal would have to face current second place side Manchester United without three of their best playmakers.
The match started off with Arsenal under a bit more pressure from United than many will have predicted. United’s pressure numbers have risen since the first time Arsenal clashed with them, but United clearly looked to take a page out of teams like City, Liverpool, Leeds, and Southampton’s playbook by getting after Arsenal early.
Arsenal weathered the storm and the match turned into a cagey affair — a feeling it would maintain for most of the match. However, cagey doesn’t mean entirely void of events or chances. Before things had even hit full swing, Arsenal fans were incensed as Cedric was shown a yellow card for a relatively innocuous tackle, while Bruno Fernandes was given nothing for a studs-up raking down Xhaka’s calf. VAR even looked at it and determined ‘play on’?
A United corner kick, half-cleared by Arsenal would fall to Fred whose placed, scoop shot forced an incredible save from Leno at full stretch. Later in the half, Gabriel Martinelli made what was likely a goal-saving intervention by sneaking his way front of a cross destined for a completely unmarked Rashford on the back post. Late in the half, a smashed cross from Shaw managed to find an unmarked Rashford on the back post, but Leno was quick off his line and Rashford decided to take a few touches allowing Arsenal to throw bodies in between and spoil the danger.
In the attacking end, Arsenal had a counter attack chance, spurred on by Emile Smith Rowe carrying it up the pitch and finding Pepe. Pepe would would give Shaw and Maguire not 1, 2, or 3 stepovers, but easily 6 or 7 before trying to squeeze a low curler into the bottom corner. The shot went just wide. Toward the end of the half, it was United asking all the questions and Arsenal, really needing a reset, were saved by the timely whistle for half time.
The second half began with an immediate substitution of Martinelli for Willian, and moments later one of Arsenal’s best chances would fall to Willian’s feet from a Bellerin cross. He takes the touch to get it out and goes to place the shot but has it blocked. Many will have wished he just put this laces through it and lashed it at the keeper. Or that it would have still been Gabi occupying that space.
Arsenal continued to apply some pressure but in the 58th minute, Cavani would be the guy to miss one of the most clear cut chances of the match as he pushed his shot wide from inside the six. A huge let off for Arsenal.
Seven minutes later, it was Arsenal’s turn to come close. Lacazette wins his team a free kick right on the edge of the box which he himself would put off the underside of the bar. A rocket that would freeze De Gea and rattle the framework. A minute or two later, Emile Smith Rowe would put his laces cleanly through a shot on the half volley, but De Gea rises to the occasion and has it covered the whole way. A good spell for Arsenal and a let off for United.
With ten minutes left in the game, Pepe would find space in a similar area as his first half shot and attempt almost the same finish. This time he managed to put it even closer, but still wide of the mark. It’s the type of finish that has given Pepe his name, but it’s never the easiest of finishes on the move. Maybe you’d like to see him at least hit the target a force a save, but I think if he manages that, he beats De Gea.
One of the final chances of the game, in the 89th minute, falls to Cavani once more. A ball into the box, a little behind him, sees him contort himself acrobatically to make impressive contact with the ball. Fortunately, he pushes his shot wide of the mark from on top of the six-yard box for the second time of the day.
Both teams would have felt a sense of injustice had they seen their side concede a goal, especially as late at Cavani’s chance, but both teams may also feel as though they should have, or at least could have, grabbed all three points.
Arsenal had a few good moments, a few shaky ones. Partey played some nice defense, but didn’t quite have the ball today that everyone knows he is capable of. Luiz and Holding were great in back, but Arsenal were missing that moment of magic in the attack. The Gunners grab four of six points on the season from Manchester United and extend their league form to seven straight unbeaten. They didn’t manage to jump up and level themselves with Spurs or Everton, but they keep their momentum moving forward.
As they look ahead to Tuesday against Wolves — another quick turnaround — and beyond to Aston Villa and Leeds, there are a few takeaways from this to keep eyes on and learn from.
The complete sum of Arsenals parts are still needed
Throughout the year, Arsenal have had immense depth… in numbers. When it comes to quality depth, the overhaul work continues. Having players like Pablo Mari, David Luiz, Cedric Soares, and Gabriel Martinelli continue to step up and perform makes this fact less daunting, but it’s clear after today, there is room to grow.
I think most people will forgive Arsenal for lacking some quality in specific moments when they were missing Kieran Tierney, Bukayo Saka, and Aubameyang — three of their key playmakers — but they looked impotent in certain areas of the pitch and their bench certainly looked unlikely to change the game.
Manchester came out with a clear intent to press Arsenal early and often. Arsenal reacted better in the second half as they steadied the ship, but it was a rocky ride for the first 45 minutes. It was clear that Arsenal sorely missed the quality and composure that Tierney and Saka offer. Additionally, those two players have proven time and time again this season: that when opposition ask questions with their press, they have answers.
Not only do they retain the ball, they have the ability to combine with others or go on a solo run to find the open space and beat the press.
It may not be the most genius of takes, but it’s clear that Arsenal are still in need of all their parts, or at least can’t afford to have three key ones missing. And that’s the issue. The Gunners played well today but came up short of three points, yet we aren’t completely sure how Tierney and Saka’s health stands, and we know Aubameyang is going through some personal things and currently in a period of quarantine.
With major games coming thick and fast, it’s fair to be concerned that what little firepower Arsenal have can’t be missing.
Pepe makes it two in two, which begins to ask interesting questions
He may not have put together quite the same degree of splendor as he did against Southampton, but Pepe was arguably Arsenal’s most dangerous attacking figure today, as well as, a contributor on the defensive side of the ball. If you are in agreement with that, then you have to say he has put together two great matches in a row which begins to ask questions.
On top of that, he may get a few more opportunities to really shine, given Aubameyang’s situation is a toss up at the moment. What seemed like a player destined to sit deeper in Arsenal’s pecking order, make a few potential sub appearances, and potentially be sold during the summer to recoup and reinvest funds, Pepe now stands to be someone slowly figuring this game out and understanding what he has to do to succeed.
It’s far too early to make hardline statements about him rocking the boat and upstaging the likes of Aubameyang or Saka, but it’s not to early to notice that he is beginning to ask the questions. Or at least getting us to ask the questions.
Both wings showed a real commitment to play excellent two-way football yesterday. They were up in the attack looking to get involved, and they diligently tracked back and created problems. Pepe played a pretty complete game, but it was Martinelli who came up with the largest defensive contribution on the wings. His back post intervention to intercept and head to safety a pass destined for a completely unmarked Rashford likely saved Arsenal a point. At the very least, he probably saved a goal that would have turned the whole match on its head.
Wingers in Arteta’s system need to be able to contribute with and without the ball while walking the balance of creating space for the likes of ESR or the fullback, and being tucked in and dangerous themselves. It’s been difficult getting to this point, but Pepe has figured it out the last two matches. He was whiskers away from scoring one goal, and just a little bit further from scoring with the second. Definitely something to keep an eye on, but a Pepe figuring this league and system out would be a dangerous Pepe to have down the stretch of this season.
Backline becomes tight with competition
In the lead up to this match I was adamant that Arteta needed to return Gabriel to the starting lineup and lean on his imposing figure to dominate Bruno Fernandes and help return Gabriel to form. Bruno Fernandes did struggle to get a foothold in the match, but it was the duo of Rob Holding and David Luiz that caused him problems.
Luiz won Man of the Match and Rob Holding proved once again to be a solid, consistent defender at the heart of Arsenal’s backline. Just like that, the left center back position is becoming one of the most contested spots in the lineup. I actually wrote an article at the beginning of the season about the fact that left center back would be the most interesting watch of the season for Arsenal, but it went a little differently.
My article involved Saliba at right center back and Gabriel fighting with Luiz for control as the year went on, not Gabriel controlling the position for the first half of the year only to lose it. Suddenly, Arsenal have three contenders for that spot. Discount Pablo Mari all you want, Arsenal’s defense looked very stout with him in that position. While he may only end up being the future backup man, you can count on the fact that he won’t settle into that role without a fight.
As for the rest of the season, Arsenal now have Gabriel, Luiz, and Mari fighting for the left center back role, Luiz and Rob Holding battling for the right center back spot, and even Calum Chambers floating around in the mix, albeit a distance away. That is the level of competition Arsenal and Arteta want in the side and that is the type of situation everyone wants to see at every position.
Luiz stepped up in a major way against Manchester after being a passenger during the midweek match. As eyes turn to the Wolverhampton contest, you have to imagine that Arteta will look for reasons to maintain the Luiz-Holding partnership. Gabriel will have to fight his way back, or hope for a Luiz slip up, but if Southampton wasn’t enough to change Arteta’s mind about Luiz, Gabriel may be waiting a while longer. It’s a good place to be if you’re an Arsenal fan with the second best defensive record in the league.
In my prediction blog I ventured the guess that it would be a “tough, well-contested match from both sides, much like a few months ago”. I said, “it really might come down to which midfield can control the game — not just with possession, but defensively dominate the field position as well.” Do I think I was right? Well, I don’t think I was wrong, I just am not sure either midfield or team did it for long enough stretches to beat the other side.
Both team’s had their chances to score, both team had their stints of quality play. The final note in my prediction said, “this match will probably come down to efficiency in front of net” and that it did.
In the end, neither team could produce the moment of quality to finish things off. Manchester will look like they dominated the match when it comes to xG figures, but most of that will have come from Cavani’s two misses from 6-yards out. In actuality, both teams, and their fans, will feel they could have gotten more, which probably tells you the draw was justified.
Arsenal grab a point, they move to 31 on the season, but sadly drop a spot to 9th. The Gunners have four from their last two matches which means they are 1 point away from tying the amount they picked up the first time they played the seven teams they play between the end of January, through February. The draw puts extra emphasis on getting three points in their next couple matches, but it also raises the stakes for those games as well.
Arsenal have something to play for, at least for now, and that is a nice change of pace.