Football Features

“Solskjaer’s weaknesses on full display” – Winners and Losers as Man Utd and Arsenal play out a bore draw

By Muhammad Butt

Published: 20:02, 30 January 2021 | Updated: 13:13, 11 September 2021

In a dour evening of football, Manchester United and Arsenal played out a dull 0-0 draw at the Emirates.

Coming off their shock defeat to Sheffield United, Manchester United were looking to get back to winning ways but instead were achingly lifeless with their only real achievement being to prevent Arsenal, also fairly lethargic, from winning their third straight league game.

Who were the winners and losers?

Winner: David Luiz

The commentators and studio broadcasters had their fun mocking David Luiz for intensely celebrating the fact that he headed a Bruno Fernandes free-kick away from danger. And sure, that does seem a corny thing to celebrate, but in a game like this where things are very tight and a single goal could have a massive effect, blocking the free-kick of a guy who recently beat Liverpool with a free-kick is a big deal.

The last time Arsenal beat Manchester United at the Emirates, it was 2-0 at the start of 2020 and the man at the heart of their defence was David Luiz. A year hence and while much else has changed at Arsenal, that one fact has remained the same.

The Brazilian was brilliant at the Emirates, marshaling the Arsenal back-line with a supreme confidence. Rob Holding’s towering 10 clearances came because he was always free to attack the crosses United put into the box as the Brazilian was controlling the floor.

And while Arsenal didn’t win today, they did post their fourth clean sheet against Manchester United in the last five matches they’ve had with their old rivals. So hey, maybe David Luiz was right to celebrate clearing that free-kick.

Loser: Marcus Rashford

Marcus Rashford is one of the deadliest wing-forwards in the Premier League, a vibrant hurricane of movement, pace and skill. Yet all of that only comes when he’s playing left-wing. On the left he can obviously cut inside onto his right foot using his vast array of dribbling skills to unsettle opponents. He can even go outside on rare occasions, prolonging attacks to the byline.

He loses nearly all of that on the right. When played on the right, Rashford can only really dribble in one direction, and because he’s so one-directional defenders find him easier to contain even with all his skill.

Tonight he started right-wing and even though Cedric is a back-up left-back and no great shakes as a defender, Rashford rarely exposed him 1v1 because of how limited he was in what he could do. What’s worse is that by playing on the right and failing to have any impact in the game, Rashford’s confidence dropped to the point where even when he was somewhere else on the field, he couldn’t execute like usual.

Rashford really was poor. He bagged a brace and an assist on his Premier League debut against Arsenal in 2016 but hasn’t scored against them since. Today he never really at the races and when he was subbed off with 10 minutes remaining after smashing a shot into the side netting it all felt terribly familiar and inevitable.

Manchester United’s failure to sign a right-winger this summer was a ridiculous oversight, but the fact that their solution is to massively hamper the game of their best forward just to squeeze a temperamental Frenchman into the XI is even more ridiculous.

Winner: Granit Xhaka

There’s precious few players at the top level of the Premier League that are as maligned as Granit Xhaka. The Swiss central midfielder isn’t the most mobile or energetic player so he can look a bit ropey if Arsenal themselves aren’t playing with any structure.

Under Mikel Arteta, however, Cavani has been growing as a performer and presence. The midfielder was the best player on the park on Saturday night, and while that’s not much of an achievement given the low standards of midfield play, the Swiss international had the most touches (67), passes (57/59), passes inside the opponents half (28) and possessions won (9) for the Gunners.

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Loser: Edinson Cavani

There’s no doubt that Edinson Cavani is Manchester United’s best choice to lead the line. His movement and link-play are on a different level to anyone else in the squad (almost anyone else in the league, if we’re being honest, only Sergio Aguero can really match his off-the-ball sharpness in the penalty box) and we saw evidence of that tonight, we also saw Cavani’s great flaw.

He misses chances.

Two of the best chances of the night for Manchester United fell for Edinson Cavani after great crosses from United’s full-backs. But each time he failed to score what was an easy chance for a man of his ability.

The thing is, this is not new. Anyone who has watched Cavani play throughout his career knows that he misses lots of chances. He also scores lots of goals, but that’s usually because he’s playing for a side that creates lots of chances for him.

Manchester United don’t create lots of chances. For him or for anyone. Cavani is a special player, a former world-class superstar, but he absolutely needs to be furnished with more chances if he’s to score at anywhere near his previous level.

Winner: Mikel Arteta

Mikel Arteta has managed Arsenal against Manchester United three times, and in all three games he has avoided defeat. Two goals and today’s draw. In fact not only has he avoided defeat, but his side have not even conceded a single goal. This is against one of the most potent counter-attacks in the Premier League and a side who made a yearly tradition of ripping the Gunners to bits on the break.

In fact Arteta is just the second manager in the history of English league football to keep three clean sheets in his first three games against The Red Devils. That is a genuinely historic achievement that speaks volumes to Arteta’s impact on the Arsenal squad. His ability to coach the defence to structure themselves in such a way that they are in fact a solid defensive outfit.

The Gunners are unbeaten in seven games now since Christmas 2020. That’s on Arteta.

Loser: Ole Gunnar Solskjaer

After smash-and-grabbing at the Emirates in his first game against Arsenal, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has not beaten the Gunners in five attempts and what’s more he’s lost four of those. For a coach who had seemed to crack how to play in big games, Solskjaer has never once looked comfortable at handling Arsenal, both in terms of setting his side up to counter and then when he tries to actually take teams on? Forget about it. Today Arsenal didn’t have three of their five best players available and United were tepid and scattered.

Moreover, that’s now multiple big games so far this season where Solskjaer’s United have looked lifeless. Far from being a big game expert, Solskaer now seems to go into these clashes looking to get a 0-0 rather than risk anything to try and win the game. They drew with Liverpool, City, Chelsea and Arsenal. All of them 0-0. All of them eminently winnable games.

This game put Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s weaknesses and limitatons on full display. There was no little tactical coherence in midfield and absolutely none in attack where if it wasn’t improvisational genius or overlapping full-backs then it wasn’t happening. It was a slow and stodgy display waiting for one of the superstars to light it up with a goal from nowhere but the players instead looked tired and in need of saving by a system that simply wasn’t there.

Manchester United might be title challengers, but unless something dramatic changes they don’t have the quality to be true title winners.