In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Arsenal and Manchester United were the class of the soccer world. Each club had an iconic manager in Arsene Wenger and Sir Alex Ferguson, respectively, countless stars, and competed for silverware every season. If a club was lifting a trophy in England, odds are that they were wearing a red shirt.
In the years since then, however, things have drastically changed. Both managers have moved on and, unsurprisingly, results have dropped off. But the on-field performance in a dire draw on Monday revealed how far the two clubs have truly fallen.
A boring night at Old Trafford
Meetings between Arsenal and Manchester United used to be a marquee event, but Monday night’s draw was quite a different affair. While a soggy pitch didn’t help matters, neither team did their part to lift the crowd; it took nearly half an hour for either side to manage a shot on goal.
Scott McTominay gave United a lead shortly before halftime, but that scoreline didn’t last for long. In the 58th minute, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang chipped the ball over David de Gea; the linesman flagged the goal for offside but, after a VAR review, the game was tied. After that, Arsenal sat back, seemingly content with a draw, with Bernd Leno making a smart save in the final minutes to ensure that both teams shared the points. It was an uninspiring performance from two teams who frankly looked mediocre on the night.
Arsenal’s confused identity under Unai Emery
At the moment, Arsenal’s biggest issue seems to be a lack of identity. When Unai Emery took over as manager, he promised to make his team the “protagonists” of each game. But, after more than a year in charge, the Spaniard hasn’t delivered.
While there are certainly injury issues, Emery doesn’t seem to know how to best use his current squad. Arsenal have a world-class attack and a weak defense, but they set up conservatively and try to grind out results; it doesn’t help that summer signing Nicolas Pepe hasn’t settled into his new surrounding yet. Granit Xhaka was named captain and holds down the defensive midfield role, while Lucas Torreira, who is more mobile and can easier plug the gaps of Arsenal’s leaky defense, either sits on the bench or plays higher up the pitch.
There are definitely some bright spots, like Aubameyang’s goal scoring touch and Matteo Guendouzi’s clear potential in the midfield, but the club is currently lurching between minor crises and dull wins. It’s one thing to eke out results, but no supporter wants to see their team play boring soccer AND fail to win.
Can Ole Gunnar Solskjaer succeed at United?
Last season, Manchester United made the bold decision to name Ole Gunnar Solskjaer their manager. Despite his success as the clubs caretaker, however, there were clear signs the Norwegian was out of his depth.
This season, United spent over $180 million in the transfer window, but they still have holes in the squad. Harry Maguire and Aaron Wan-Bissaka are capable players but, despite their price tag, they aren’t going to automatically give United a world-class defense. The midfield is solely dependent on Paul Pogba for quality and, while the attack has some skillful young players, there’s no out and out star striker you can rely on to score in a big moment.
While Solskjaer might not be an elite manager, he’s working with a squad with clear limitations. United sorely need a proper sporting director but, at the end of the day, any coach has to do the best he can with the players at his disposal; it’s up to him to implement a system that works and it’s not yet clear is Ole can do that.
Can either club make the Champions League
Barring an unforeseen occurrence, either Manchester City or Liverpool will win the Premier League this season. In a sense, that makes it easier for Arsenal and Manchester United; their only domestic goal will to finish in the top four and qualify the Champions League.
On paper, both clubs can make it, but it won’t be an easy road given the overall quality of the league; beyond the traditional “Big Six,” West Ham and Leicester are also making a push for the European places. If performances don’t improve however, both Arsenal and Manchester United could find themselves playing in the Europa League, or worse, and Emery and Solskjaer could be looking a job.