As Arsenal succumbed to a counter-attacking-inspired 2-1 defeat on Saturday, courtesy of Manchester United, the same old arguments emerged.
The Gunners are too wasteful in front of goal, too easily exposed on the counter and too arrogant in their own ability to get forward – which in turn links to the relentless debate over Arsene Wenger’s philosophical stubbornness, which in turn links to his persistent refusal to invest heavily in defence or a top-class centre-forward.
It’s now 1,302 days since they’ve beaten Manchester United, 1,122 since a victory over Chelsea and 838 since they’ve claimed three points off Manchester City in the Premier League.
Clearly, although the Red Devils’ win on Saturday came with a slice of fortune – quite literally, as the ball spooned off Kieran Gibbs’ flailing foot into an unmanned goal as Wojceich Szczesny collapsed injured for United’s first in a 2-1 victory – Arsenal’s pathetic record against top clubs has been going on too long to be considered a coincidence; they’ve taken just 69 points from a possible 187 against the Premier League’s top trio over the last decade.
Yet, let’s give some credit where it’s due here, rather than simply provide more firepower for the ever-growing ‘Arsene Out’ brigade. For all Arsenal’s tribulations on Saturday, novice United defenders Chris Smalling, Patrick McNair, and Tyler Blackett put in an incredible collective display, performing way beyond their means.
On paper, this is possibly the worst Manchester United backline I’ve ever seen – even direr than the ad hoc Antonio Valencia, Michael Carrick, Patrick McNair and Luke Shaw combination that ended the Manchester derby.
They’ve amassed just 100 Premier League appearances and 183 competitive appearances between them, 159 of which are Smalling’s, and boast an average age of just 21. According to Phil Neville, McNair even struggled to make the academy’s starting Xi during his eleven months as David Moyes’ right-hand man and Smalling’s last Premier League outing witnessed one of the most pointless double-bookings of all time.
Yet, against Arsenal, they were organised, combative and united – no easy feat when making your first ever outing together as a back three in a formation United haven’t used since a scoreless draw with Burnley back in August. There were no familiarities for Smalling, Blackett and McNair on Saturday afternoon – for the latter two, not even Premier League football – but they simply got on with the job.
Things were made even harder when left wing-back Luke Shaw limped off injured in the 16th minute to be replaced by the defensively ill-equipped Ashley Young, amid a period of complete dominance by the home side.
Support from midfield was surprisingly limited as Arsenal pushed and pushed in the opening half an hour, on occasions even ending up in a point-blank stare-down with David De Gea, but be it a full-blooded tackle or a millimetres’ worth of stud, United’s three centre-backs fought tooth and nail to nullify Arsenal’s threat and the seeming inevitability that they’d score. At times, they were defending within the width of the six yard box alone.
Certain opportunities should have definitely been taken – Jack Wilshere broke through twice and Danny Welbeck could have punished his former employers early on – but the majority were effectively reduced to narrow angles, long-range efforts and snapshots, despite the relentless pressure of Arsenal’s attack, giving De Gea every chance to keep it even.
Smalling’s performance stood out in particular, considering the negative reception he’s received this season. It’s been largely justified in my opinion – he’s spent much of the campaign looking nervously out of his depth – but the Arsenal clash was pure redemption.
Not only did the England international make more interceptions, five, and more clearances, 16, than any player for either side, in addition to the second-most successful aerial duels, four, and a stunning last-second challenge to stop Danny Welbeck in the penalty area, but he furthermore commanded and controlled the rookie centre-backs adjacent to him, demonstrating the leadership and organisation United’s defence has disturbingly lacked since Rio Ferdinand, Patrice Evra and Nemanja Vidic left in the summer.
But without all three in top form – in fact, largely performing way beyond their means – it would have been an incredibly different ninety minutes. Manchester United went 1-0 up without even recording a shot on target and that couldn’t have happened without Blackett, McNair and Smalling’s heroics at the other end.
From that moment, United’s second goal always felt inevitable, predictably enough through a handful of direct passes on the counter-attack to release Wayne Rooney into a one-on-one with Wojciech Szczesny, but the thirty-minute gap between both strikes required Blackett, McNair and Smalling to soak up increasingly adventurous Arsenal attacks.
It eventually took a sensational strike from the returning Olivier Grioud for the Gunners to breach United’s three centre-backs, preventing the clean sheet their performances deserved.
Yet, rather than overseeing another window of prolific spending at Old Trafford to improve United’s quality in defence in January, the cheap alternative is staring Louis van Gaal in the face.
Arsenal were unquestionably wasteful and an intentional game-plan on Wenger’s part would have tested them considerably more. But if the United boss can maintain his exemplary record of developing young players, he now has two that appear ready for regular roles in the first team squad.