Arsenal suffer their first setback of the season at Old Trafford, and first loss since last season. A challenge like this was always going to happen. Didn’t mean it had to happen yesterday, didn’t mean it needed to happen soon, doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt, but sports teams lose games, they just do. Now it’s about dissecting the good parts, addressing the growth opportunities, cleaning up the errors and responding.
No Arsenal fan likes losing at Manchester United. Few would argue against them being the second most hated league-mate behind Tottenham. Even worse is watching Arsenal lose 3-1 in a match where they control for most the game. It’s hard to get into statements like “deserved to win”, “were the better team” because at the end of the day the scoreboard tells you Manchester United achieved the goal three times, Arsenal did it once, and they leave with three points.What you can say is that the scoreline yesterday does not reflect the performances of the two teams. But it does reflect the effective punishment Arsenal received for their mistakes. And while performances absolutely matter, pointing to a good performance that comes without a result, can only provide safeguards for ensuring we don’t go overboard with our criticisms, and act as a barometer for speculating future results.
United came out of the gates hot, but Arsenal weathered the storm and began to impose themselves. A major catalyst was the controversial moment Ødegaard nips in, steals the ball from Eriksen, and Arsenal counter-attack for a Martinelli goal. Unfortunately, after about three dozen replays and a clinical dissection, VAR overrules the “clear and obvious error”…
A conflicting moment for me. There’s a lot of ways to look at this situation. It’s soft, incredibly soft. Eriksen should be punished for holding onto the ball that long in the middle of the park. However, had the roles been reversed I’d probably be demanding a foul considering Ødegaard’s tackle comes through the back of Eriksen and his first contacts are the body. But, the ref on the field is there and hasn’t called it a foul; it doesn’t feel like it meets the threshold for the league’s rising standards for VAR intervention; and when it takes that long, it hardly feels “clear an obvious”. For the league to take a step forward, referees need to make their call on the field and stick with it, even in the face of a video autopsy slowed down the millisecond. It benefits the game exactly 0%.
After that moment, we started to see Arsenal exert control over the game, but we also saw them punished for their mistakes. A goal against the run of play saw Ødegaard late to pressure the center back, then Sambi late to close down his man in the midfield, and Gabriel feels he has to try and stretch himself to make the play. I don’t think he will feel the same when he watches it back, but a theme of today’s errors felt like Arsenal putting themselves in bad structural shape, a little slow to press or close men down, and getting punched hard for it.
Often times it’s said games are won and lost in the little moments. Well, yesterday it felt like Arsenal lost in the big moments. Arsenal had 48 touches in the box, 16 shots, and only 3 on target. 77% of the game was played in the middle-third or United’s defensive third. Arsenal struggled to find the final ball or apply the finishing touch to put a stamp on their movements and it cost them. United were barely present in dangerous areas, had only 17 touches in the box, but created 6 shots on target, 5 big chances, and finished off three of them.
In my blog before the game I wrote about United’s desire to transition. Well, lo and behold, United score on three counter attacks, two of which were against the run of play. It was unfortunate United’s second goal came just six minutes after Arsenal dominated the second half and earned an equalizer.
Many will have feelings about Arteta’s use of substitutions on the day. In the 73rd minute, he platooned in Nketiah, Vieira, and Smith Rowe to change the system and push for a result. It’s possible the change was too severe, or maybe unrehearsed, as just two minutes after making the change, Arsenal were caught out again and beaten. Arsenal overcommit to the left side, and Eriksen seems the open lane right down the middle to gash through Arsenal’s center again. He squares it to Rashford for an easy tap in and third goal.
Personally, I like the intent behind the switches. We saw Arsenal really go for it against Fulham and it paid off. It didn’t yesterday, but I want to see Arsenal be a team that tries to make the tactical switches and go for points. This one didn’t pan out, but I believe if you make switches like that across the season, you will come out ahead. Just need to work on how to do it without shaking up the structure too much, too fast.
We’ve all read this script before – going into Old Trafford and walking away with nothing. We have seen good performances at Old Trafford result in losses. But it’s important for this young team to learn and grow from it, which starts with addressing the good, the bad, and the down right ugly.
I wrote more about the game today than usual, so let’s whip through the Standouts, Worries, and some opportunities ahead.
Control over long stretches – at a tough ground
Seems like a soft one especially when you lose 3-1, but for this team to walk into Old Trafford and control 60% of the game, its a promising sign. I think it’s fair to say that Arsenal will win a lot of games playing like that. Coming into the day, I thought Arenal would have 50% possession max, so to see them impose themselves like that stood out. United started on the front foot but Arsenal weathered it and punched back with a high amount of composure. They could have folded after the first goal against the run of play. They could have folded after half time, and they could have folded after conceding a second.
Unfortunately two of United’s goals were very against the run of play and punished Arsenal for mistakes and giveaways. A similar winning recipe for how United beat Liverpool but it stings. Play like that, hold that confidence and results will follow.
It’s hard to identify individual standouts when it felt like no one had a complete performance but Saka managed to get the goal, create a chance, have 4 other shots and showed signs of continued progression. He also delivered a superb ball to Martinelli before that goal was chalked off. He could have had the goal, an assist, and maybe more but he and the team as a whole lacked the final ball and finishing touch. Expectations surrounding him are high, but this makes it three straight games with a goal contribution. He now has 2 assists, 1 goal, and created the Crystal Palace own goal. Stick with him through this, fans!
Similar to Saka, Jesus’ performance felt incomplete given the results of his work, but he battled out there and was, arguably, Arsenal’s best player. He managed to create 5 chances and 2 shots, including a snapshot curler he couldn’t quite steer on frame. He was fouled 8 times (!!) by United defenders, but Arsenal couldn’t get the numbers forward to help him or take away that attention and give him space, nor could they quite finish off his five chances. A shame he’s not rewarded with a goal contribution, but it should give fans real faith that he will show up in the big games.
Changes to structure and tactics to accommodate:
Let’s talk about something everyone is considering – Sambi’s individual play was decent, but you have to ask if the team is forced to change too much to support him, and thus lower the ceiling of potential. Sambi looked okay, Xhaka looked average in comparison to how he has been. Xhaka played much deeper in our setup, although not necessarily deeper on the pitch considering our dominance of space, but Arsenal missed the extra body forward when we in the attack, and Xhaka looked caught between two minds: support the attack with numbers or protect the try to stay defensively responsible.
In the end, we were slow to push forward and close men down, too slow to initiate the counter-press that has been an effective tool for us to sustain pressure and deny counters, and we got caught in between and punished in transition. Does Luiz fix that? I can’t say for sure but Elneny and Partey are maybe more self-reliant in a 4-3-3 and allow us to play the way we saw in our opening four matches.
This isn’t to say Sambi is no good, nor to say we cannot win with him in specific games — I’ve actually been more impressed than I thought I would be, yesterday included — but we knew he would be put under more pressure against United than he was against Villa, and that Xhaka wouldn’t be able to support as comprehensively. It leaves me worried not about the individual game, but what happens as footage forms, opposition prepares to exploit him, and Arsenal are reliant on him for stretches of matches. Here’s to hoping Partey’s injury heals cleanly and he’s back sooner than later. He just IS a difference-maker.
Not his best day. Yesterday’s performance felt a lot like Ramsdale versus Leicester City, except we didn’t win this time. Gabriel tried to make plays all day but in the end he stretches us on their first goal, he was less secure on the ball in possession, and seemingly played a bit outside of himself which came off as erratic at times.
It’s suggests a player caught in bad spaces, in between minds, and unable to make plays as he was a step or two behind, or late. We have seen it once or twice now, and while it’s may not be enough to make rash removals because of, it IS something to keep an eye on with Tomiyasu healthy and pushing for minutes.
First stumble means first time this team must respond. A major issue last year was that 1 loss seemed to become 2 or 3 before we blinked. Need to challenge ourselves to grow in this regard and bounce back immediately. October presents a month of challenging fixtures, but Arsenal still have a real opportunity to get 21 points from their first 8 matches before that starts. They have a perfect opportunity with Europa League group stage matches and fixtures against Everton and a decent but beatable Brentford team. It’s important that finish off this start to the season in fine form.
Europa League matches:
The Europa League offers a great opportunity for bouncing back, it comes midweek so the team can forget about this, and it’s great for getting others involved. A real opportunity to raise the competition level internally, rest some legs, and get minutes into Vieira, Smith Rowe, Eddie, Tierney, Tomiyasu and a few others. Have to use this time well!
Overall, it was a frustrating day. Could a day when you control at Old Trafford only to lose and suffer your first loss of the year not be? But the performance showed a team that could possess in enemy territory, didn’t entirely lose their identity in the heat of a major game, but they were naive with a few flaws to iron out in the midfield structure, and defensive partnership between the two. Learn from it, but don’t lose confidence because of it.