One of the great consolations of football is that if a big game passes in slightly underwhelming fashion, then that just means there’s more space to decide how to feel about it. Arsenal’s trip to Manchester United failed to deliver the high comedy or simmering violence that has defined this fixture, and was lacking in chances, in goals, and in decent football. But the 1-1 draw means that the pessimists on either side have something properly disappointing to get their teeth into, while the optimists have a pleasing silver lining to cuddle.
The Londoners first. As ever, Arsenal are constructing a tentative, fragile bid for the title; as ever, they came to Old Trafford and cringed before United like a mistreated dog. Given that United aren’t currently very good and haven’t been for a few years now, we have to wonder if something malicious is at work here. Perhaps the architecture of Old Trafford is carefully and subtly calculated to disturb Arsenal players, to make them feel uncomfortable and ill at ease. Or perhaps the away dressing room is flooded with high-pitched noises. That would certainly explain Theo Walcott’s vaguely pained expression.
Whatever the truth, Arsenal are usually bad at Old Trafford, and Saturday lunchtime was no exception. Faced with the intimidating prospect of trying to break down a defence built around Marcos Rojo and Phil Jones, and asked to find some way around the dynamic screening of Michael Carrick, they decided that their best option was to faff around ineffectively and wait for United to take the lead, panic, and drop far too deep. The plan worked, and snatching a late and undeserved equaliser is one of life’s finer pleasures, beaten only by having a job to do and getting it done to the bare minimum required. But at the same time, we can be fairly certain that Arsenal are still, well, very Arsenal, with the inherent doom that implies.
United, by contrast, are certainly not United. Nor are they particularly Mourinho, at least not yet. As with the other disappointing home draws that Old Trafford has seen this season, United were better than their opponents but not good enough, meaning that those of a sunny disposition could admire the performance and rue their luck, while those who prefer clouds could mutter darkly about the likelihood of storms. Paul Pogba was either exciting or wasteful, Marcus Rashford either hardworking or visibly knackered, and the defensive partnership of Jones and Rojo – United’s fourth and fifth choice defenders – either resisted one of the strongest sides in the Premier League with admirable heart or clanked around like maladroit clowns.
Or both. It’s tempting to conclude, watching these games where United make most of the running but can’t find the finishes, that it’s only a matter of time. That it will click, eventually, and several somebodies will get several thumpings in a row. But it’s hard to know whether that temptation comes from a rational and dispassionate assessment of United and their players, or just because this is Manchester United. They’re really big and really expensive and they’ve got Jose Mourinho and Pogba and … well, it should just work, shouldn’t it?
Certainly, this seems to be how Arsenal view United: they’re always Manchester United, even when David Moyes is in charge. And we kind of suspect that this is how Ed Woodward views United as well. Get the sponsorship money rolling in, get the transfer money rolling out, and the football will basically take care of itself. And he might be right. But as United huff and puff their way towards some kind of coherence, never quite getting there, it’s probably time to start wondering if the optimists and pessimists. United certainly aren’t dreadful, but maybe they’re not teetering on the edge of brilliance either. Maybe they’re just sort of … okayish.