Phil Jones sums up the one all tie with Arsenal this way: “Like we’ve been slapped 6-0” is the heading of story written by The Telegraphs James Drucker.
“Phil Jones had summed up the mood in the Old Trafford dressing room when he admitted it “feels like we have been slapped 6-0”, but however understandable their frustration at the moment, this is no time for Manchester United to start feeling sorry for themselves. They deserved to beat Arsenal, just as they did Stoke City and Burnley in their previous two home Premier League outings, but on each occasion they were held to draws that felt like defeats and the combined effect could prove very damaging come the end of the season.
Had they taken the extra six points that have been squandered in those matches, results manager Jose Mourinho has described as “miracles” by virtue of their perceived injustice, United would now sit fourth in the table, a point above Arsenal. Instead, they trail Arsene Wenger’s side by six points and, just as troublingly, a five point gap has also opened up to Tottenham Hotspur in fifth. With another tricky run of fixtures to come, starting at home to West Ham United on Sunday and continuing against Everton, Spurs and Crystal Palace, the margin for error is reducing all the time.
United have scored just once from their last 72 attempts on goal at Old Trafford in the league and only once – in 2004/05 – have had fewer points from their opening 12 games in the Premier League era.
“There is no need to panic yet,” defender Jones said. “We have been playing well and creating chances, it is just that bit of luck that we need and hopefully it will come soon. Sometimes the luck is not on your side but it will change.
“It is crazy. If we had won then we would have been three points behind Arsenal. Arsenal have had a world class season and we are supposed to have had an average season. That is just the way the Premier League works.”
The narrative would have been very different had Arsenal not scored from their only effort on target in the entire game in the last minute, when Olivier Giroud headed home fellow substitute Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s cross after Marcus Rashford was beaten too easily down the right flank. Wenger praised his side’s “resilience” and talked up the “great harmony” in his squad after cancelling out Juan Mata’s superb finish but it was hard to characterise this as some sort of defiant last stand.
It was little more than a fortunate smash and grab and, certainly up until Giroud’s late intervention, it was a game that raised more questions about Arsenal’s title credentials. When the euphoria of what Wenger said “feels more than a draw” has subsided, the Arsenal manager will surely ask how his side failed to create so little and ask so few questions of a makeshift United defence that had seemed there for the taking. Instead, he watched on as Mesut Ozil disappeared from view, Aaron Ramsey resembled a square peg in a round hole on the left flank and Alexis Sanchez became increasingly isolated upfront. “In the second half, we didn’t give him [Sanchez] enough service,” said Wenger, who has still to inflict a Premier League defeat on Mourinho, even if his nemesis kept insisting that “finally, I have lost to Arsene”. “We dropped off too much, we played too many balls in our own half and we did not have enough support. We didn’t come out any more.”
As dismayed as Mourinho may have been at Andre Marriner’s failure to award United a penalty in the first half for a challenge by Nacho Monreal on Antonio Valencia, Wenger had good reason to feel similarly aggrieved by the referee’s decision not to dismiss Matteo Darmian shortly before. The United left back, already booked for a foul on Theo Walcott, caught Carl Jenkinson with his studs but escaped with a warning.
By the end, though, Wenger could have no complaints. Arsenal were sloppy in possession, there was no urgency and there was a marked lack of conviction against opponents who have now won just two of their past nine league games. By contrast, United looked far more assured in midfield with Michael Carrick screening behind Paul Pogba and Ander Herrera, who combined impressively for Mata’s goal and were impressive throughout.
“Pogba, Carrick, Herrera – they are playing very well,” Mourinho said. “Pogba is adapting much better to the intensity of the competition and he is much more confident.”
Jones also won his manager’s praise with a strong, assured display marshalling a hotchpotch back four on only his second appearance since January 2 and the centre-half is hopeful he now has a clear run, free from the injuries that have plagued him.
“It is awful but as a footballer you can’t feel sorry for yourself, go into a little hole and never come out of your home,” Jones said. “I have worked hard on my fitness, it has been tough mentally for me and I can’t put into words how frustrating it has been but that is behind me and I want to move forward. I was fit for a good few weeks before the Swansea game but I wanted to make sure that I was 100 per cent right going into the first game.”
There are positives for Mourinho. But he desperately needs points to go with the performances.