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Monday, December 04, 2017

Thoughts on Arsenal-Manchester United on Saturday

Arsenal was on a roll.  It took it to visiting Tottenham a few weeks ago at Emirates Stadium, going up 2-0 by halftime and then was in control the rest of the way.  The Gunners went up 1-0 mid-week on Huddersfield, and then pushed the throttles hard in the second half, winning 5-0.  Those two results should have given Arsenal a ton of confidence going into its home match versus visiting United and its coach, Jose Mourinho. 

But a funny thing happened on the way to the rout.  Mourinho coached a "rope-a-dope" game, which would have been noted for its brilliance but for the fact that Arsenal dominated all but the first 11 minutes.  Mourinho sensed individual cracks in the Gunners' back line, and its forwards caused otherwise steady defenders Koscielny, Mustafi and Monreal (who was woefully out of position on United's first score) to make mistakes early.  The result -- United was up two nil after eleven minutes. 

After that, it was all Arsenal.  The Gunners ended up scoring right after half and took 33 shots in the game, with 15 of them on goal.  It was as if there were a garage door covering the net, at least in the form of United keeper David DeGea, who played an outstanding match, so much so that his coach told him after the game that he is the best keeper in the world (he is certainly atop the conversation; experts will argue and win that Bayern Munich keeper Manuel Neuer is the best keeper in the world, with DeGea and Juve's Gianluigi Buffon right behind).  DeGea was here, there and everywhere, making save after save and in the process tying a modern Premiership record for saves in a contest.  You would expect that a besieged keeper on a team staving off relegation would hold that record, not someone from the elite 6 teams in the league. 

Was this Mourinho's strategy?  To pressure Arsenal early, get his scores and the park the bus?  If so, it was brilliant, but it's hard to say whether that was the strategy or not.  True, Mourinho gets accused of parking the bus after getting a lead, but if United parked the bus this time, it was not near the croquet club and its senior citizen's tea but in a lot on the wrong side of town where people have the ability to break in and steal the bus.  Because that's precisely what happened.  Arsenal clawed and kicked and stomped near the goal, with DeGea's signature save being sticking out a foot to thwart a follow-on shot by Alexis Sanchez that would have tied the match at two and surely put the momentum squarely in Arsenal's favor.  That foot told Arsenal simply, "not today."  Yet the Gunners kept on coming, but it was shortly after that amazing save that United went on a counterattack and went up 3-1. 

You would have figured the game was over then, around the 77th minute or so, but then United start center midfielder Paul Pogba got sent off on a straight red and the Gunners' continued to threated.  The real disappointment for Arsenal, other than failing to score, was a missed call of a penalty inside the United box at the 85th minute.  Referee Andre Mariner didn't see the play as a penalty; all the commentators did.  Had Mariner called the infraction and Sanchez converted the free kick, the game would have been tied at 2-2 with a compelling five minutes to go and an added five minutes of stoppage time.  As it was, Arsenal kept pouring it on, but to no avail.

The commentators offered that it was the game of the season in the EPL, and there is no debating that here.  It's a shame for Arsenal, who was on enough of a roll that a win versus United might have suggested there is more to this team than winning a few only to lose a big one that reminds its fans of the talent gap between it and the elite teams.  And now it looks as though they might lose Alexis Sanchez, the engine of the team, either mid-season or on a free transfer after it, and that would be a devastating loss.  They also might lose center attacking midfielder Mesut Ozil, who is unparalleled when his game is on but who disappears too often to be considered among the top ten at his position in the world and command a commensurate salary.  Ozil might need a chance of scenery, but the Gunners need Sanchez to stay for a while.  If both were to leave, Arsenal is in a rebuilding mode.

But not to detract from the match -- it was compelling, it was fervent, it was action-packed, and if you told Arsenal fans before it that their team would have 15 shots on goal and control possession 75% of the time, they would have signed up for those stats.  They weren't, however, enough for their team to win the match. 

Odd, delightful, compelling match it was, with DeGea's performance one that will help define his career and delight Spanish fans as to their possibilities in the World Cup.


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