Sunday’s Premier League clash between Manchester United and Arsenal was billed as season defining for both sides; indeed few would have argued that this game didn’t have a degree of importance attached to it. One languishing in mid-table and the other apparently on the verge of a return to the glory days of old, what did we learn on Sunday?
Despite the hype in the build up to the game, clearly 90 minutes of football in November was never going to decide the outcome for either club come May, so no this wasn’t a definitive result; there are still major questions about the post-Ferguson era United in the same way that Arsenal’s title challenge is still in the main intact. What the game did highlight was the fact that this could well be the most open of title races in recent times, with teams from 1st all the way down to 7th looking set to be in the shakeup.
This was a much more important result for United than Arsenal in this sense, an eleven point deficit with an impending media storm would have most likely spelt the end of the defence of the title this season, at least in theory. By winning on Sunday, United not only showed their ability to beat the very best in the league, but also confirmed that those who had already written them off were wholly wrong to do so.
You could gather this sense of importance largely from the way the United boss spoke after the game:
“We knew we had to win today at all costs,” Moyes said.
“We knew we could not afford to lose, we couldn’t let Arsenal get 11 points away from us. The other results today and yesterday gave us a boost and we are right back in it now. It’s a massive lift, a great weekend for us ahead of the international break. Our aim is to be top or thereabouts at the new year.”
In previous seasons you could have expected a frustrated and irritable Wenger, but the Frenchman was as relaxed as ever, philosophical in defeat:
“I am disappointed to lose any game, but I felt we were a bit nervous at the start,” Wenger said. “We didn’t play our game. We showed nervousness and gave United confidence by making a mistake at our first set-piece. Why were we nervous? Maybe because we haven’t won here for a long time. We rushed our game too much and lost too many balls. In the second half we were composed, had a real go and played our usual game.”
Of course this game was an opportunity to all but end United’s title challenge, but losing to them on the weekend isn’t the end of the world for Arsenal. Arsenal have already shown their mettle against the top sides and losing to United isn’t going to suddenly derail their meteoric rise to the top, in fact if anything it may just be the perfect way of keeping those bulging expectations in check.
For United though this game did represent a crossroads. Losing would have meant this was going to be a season to rebuild and reassess rather than to achieve anything notable, a major dent in the new chapter at United. Victory may well mask some of their early season shortcomings, but for Moyes it really gives a bit more impetus to his tenure. Beating one of the supposed ‘big four’ has allowed the Scot to assert himself and perhaps prove a few of the doubters wrong.
It means that United have put themselves in a position to challenge at the top of the table, not definitive by any means but Sunday was all about staying in contention rather than facing the ignominy of a Champions League dogfight at best. Arsenal were poor first half and a little better in the second, but that said you would struggle to argue that United were head and shoulder above their North London visitors. This wasn’t a performance to suggest that Arsenal’s challenge was on the verge of collapse or that United were suddenly going to see a huge revival in form, but as is so often the case with these clashes it isn’t so much how you win that ultimately matters.
Sunday’s game was a much-needed reminder to people that is impossible to write any of the top teams off in November. No clues were given as to how the sides will wind up come May, just that this league, as is so often the case, will no doubt twist and turn throughout the year.
Come May it is still anyone’s guess who will be lifting the most coveted of prizes.