A 1-1 draw and thereby not the worst result for either side… but maybe the worst match between these sides in two decades.
That this can even be argued illustrates how bad it got at Old Trafford between Manchester United and Arsenal. “Clear and obvious error” was the theme of the night, but VAR lamentably couldn’t call for most of them. The system may have even have added to the tragicomedy of mistakes if it did indeed miss a penalty for a Sead Kolasinac handball.
You could say a fixture that is ostensibly about getting into the top four ended up looking like a mid-table match, but there are mid-table sides that seem to have better ideas about what they want to be than either of these teams at the moment.
The reasons for that have been done to death for both these clubs of late, and we’ve pretty much exhausted any discussion about the glory days between 1997 and 2005, but there was still a grim novelty in just how poor this got; how it plumbed new depths even compared to those great days.
It’s why it’s difficult to read too much into the actual result, other than saying it will prolong the struggle for both teams. Because, for all potential talk of what the result you mean, you still can’t get away from what these teams fundamentally are right now.
It was simply a match between a side who struggle to attack against a side who struggle to defend. The game thereby kind of came down to which of these two factors would decide it, rather than either of them really kicking on or going up a level. Most of this match, after all, stayed at ground floor.
It was impossible to escape the feeling that this was a nadir, as illustrated by so many bad moments. Low quality characterised it, and those two major flaws predictably ended up cancelling each other out. It instead most seemed a competition for the worst moment, and you could pretty much take your pick.
A stand-out, however, was a total blow-out. It was in the 33rd minute when Granit Xhaka stepped up for a free-kick within range of goal… and ballooned it out towards the corner flag. There had only been one shot on target by that point, from Andreas Pereira, and it was often as if the low standard was dragging down the application of even the better players.
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang was put through on goal in the first half only to kind of check his run and then play a ball towards Nicolas Pepe that seemed to have been delivered in slow motion. It was much the same when Marcus Rashford was played in by Paul Pogba, although he does have the reasonable excuse of recently returning from injury.
And it was simply inevitable, then, that blatant errors were going to characterise both goals. The one Arsenal gave away was arguably worse, because of how systemic it was. They somehow conspired to gift United one of the few attacking situations they are comfortable in, which was a counter-attack – and from their own corner.
Even then, Arsenal had seven players in their own box by the time the ball was worked to McTominay. Two seemed to duck, one got a touch, with that only helping the ball into the top corner. The finish, at the least, was a moment almost entirely out of synch with the rest of the game.
The equaliser wasn’t. Harry Maguire displayed slowness of thought as well as feet in playing Aubameyang at least five yards onside, with the linesman somehow missing the big red body mere feet in front of him. The flag went up, but Aubameyang nicely clipped in for a goal that was belatedly given through VAR.
There did seem a hesitation from the United defenders, but then the briefing to every squad at the start of the season was to play to the whistle and conclusion of play. And that was pretty much the conclusion of play.
You could even find fault with the mistakes after that, as none of them were quite calamitous enough to give us late drama, or a decisive moment. Rashford did go close with a free-kick but… it wasn’t good enough.
The story of the game. The story of these two teams right now.
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