A tail of two penalties. And two teams going in opposite directions. This was not the Chelski game. This was harder work, more nerve wracking and therefore less enjoyable to watch. Not because of United but us. The team picked itself after Wednesday. That perfect start seemed to surprise us. But we dominated them from the start and deservedly went 2-0 up before they pulled one back.
Today though, I felt that we lost our way for periods of the first half and for a large part of the second. And most of the cause was individual mistakes and sloppiness. And both can be traced back to our fullbacks.
Two, for me, was the theme of the day – two unreliable full-backs, two solid mid-field players, two captains both on the bench and two penalties.
Even with the first goal to his credit Tavares was an unmitigated disaster today. A complete liability. You could see his confidence ebb away from him as the game went on. In the first half a lovely Ronaldo flick put through Elanga in a foot race with Tavares which he lost and was close to conceding a penalty and being sent off. Ramsdale bailed us out of that. But in the second half he continued to find ways to give the ball away in simple situations. He holds onto the ball for too long. He overcomplicates his possession and allows the attacker to close down the space. You can see the damage he does to Gabriels mental state. There were times when he was shouting at Tavares to get into the right position. Then, of course, there was their penalty. Who the fuck jumps up leading with their hand? By the end I was screaming at Arteta to get him off the pitch. And especially after he gave the ball away again and then pulled the guys short for a yellow card. Then I was shouting at the ref to send him off thus ensuring he could not play against West Ham. To say that Tavares is young and developing is like saying my bald head still has a chance of growing back a full head of vibrant, lush, long hair. It ain’t going to happen. He lacks commons football sense and will continue to disrupt our defense.
On the other side we had Cedric continuing to make poor passing decisions and generally destabilize our own defense. Sancho was running rings round him – as, to be fair, he would to most defenders. But a prime example was when Ramsdale made another save at his near post and, as the ball bobbled, rather than allowing Ramsdale to collect it, he hoofed it out but miscued for a corner. Thankfully, we had the pleasure of Tomi making a cameo appearance in the last few minutes. Maybe, we can switch one liability for another. Cedric can switch to the left and consign Tavares to the bench.
This was a vital victory. We deserved to win but, man, we used up that luck we did not have against Southampton. They hit the bar, had a marginal offside goal disallowed and, most importantly of all – the match turning point – missed their penalty. At this stage we had lost control of the game. As the second half wore on we could not keep the ball or impose ourself. But fortunately, we were saved by Xhaka with an immense goal. Which, we were lucky, was not deemed offside. Eddie obscured the view of De Gea. But this was a worthy reward for Xhaka. With Elneny alongside him he is able to play a more central role. All good things, like on Wednesday, ran through him. He does not have to play so deep – that is what Elneny does – and consistently was able to release Odegaard and Saka. As immense as Saka was today, I thought Xhaka was the key. And it was a pleasure to see him lap up the adulation from the crowd after his goal – we’ve not seen that in many years.
Elneny is helping this team. He picks up the ball from the defense and keeps the ball flowing. He takes pressure off of White and Gabriel. He is available to receive and keeps it simple. And, given the space United afforded both him and Xhaka, he was able to link up play in a way that Sambi can’t. Between them, these two provide a solid springboard to help feed both Odegaard and Saka. I exclude ESR because today he was somewhat peripheral. But after his masterful goal on Wednesday, that can be forgiven. But if I was Martinelli, sitting on the bench, I’d be pissed.
Eddie should still retain his place. Though he missed a key opportunity he worked hard, linked up well and gives pace and energy to us. Unfortunately, the goal he did score was offside – it looked offside in real-time – but amazingly VAR then helped us with a penalty. Again, luck was favouring us today. In prior games we’d not have got that call. BTW, how shabby was their defense. Even without the forehead of Maguire, Varane and Dalot conspired to gift us our first goal. And then Dalot was careless with charging into Saka.
Saka was immense today. All good things run through him. His partnership with Odegaard continues to blossom. I love the fact that he took the penalty and was not intimidated by the wait or the United players. That two penalties in two games and both because of fouls on Saka. It’s the Noah’s Ark of football.
Odegaard continues to create and influence this team in pivotal ways. His vision is Ozil-like but with a workethic lacking in the German. We saw him work hard and chase back to help out his team. But in the final third you want the ball at his feet (or Sakas). Odegaard quickness of thought created our opportunities today. It was just surprising that United afforded him so much space in that first half. And then as the game stretched again, he came back into it. Though, once Saka went off it was noticeable how he lacked his colleague as an effective outlet.
But these pairings are what is energizing this team. White and Gabriel locking up the defense, Xhaka and Elneny in midfield and then Saka and Odegaard. That’s a new type of spine for a team. All supported with Ramsdale. His distribution has still not gotten back to his pre injury state – case in point his pass in the first half straight to McTominay. And sometimes his decision to pass out from the back is scary. But he is nothing but brave in his decisions. Today he made a number of vital saves. Whereas on Wednesday he had little today United had their chances. But he was able to repel them. The save in the second half when he was able to flick their full backs shot (I think it was Telles) onto the post.
This was a much closer game than the scoreline would indicate. As poor as United are, on another day they could have levelled the score with the penalty, or seen some of those shots ricochet from the bar or post into the net. We were not as dominant as we were against Chelsea. But today the force was with us. Luck favours the brave. And United were anything but. Actually, I thought Ronaldo was one of their better players. He created, inevitably scored and linked up well and worked hard. Whereas most of the rest of them looked clueless. So why did they get of Ole? How exactly did Rangnick help them? What a shambles of a club they are. And to announce their new manager when the season is at this pivotal stage is so Sp*rs-like. On the topic of managers, ours just about pulled all the right strings today. By keeping the team unchanged to finally putting Holding on to shore things up. He clearly trusts the man with a full head of hair. Once he got on the field, we seemed much more stable.
So another unexpected victory even if a more edge of the seat one. There are now five more games left – more than 10% of the season. Who knows which Arsenal turns up. With such a young, inexperienced team we have seen higher peaks and lower valleys. And that will continue. After that 3 game slump who knows? Today we saw both sides of us. The period in the second half when we look lost and you just knew that one of Cedric or Tavares would make a brain-dead mistake. And against WHU, a team of grizzled, veteran grown-ups, we will be bullied and harried. Let’s just hope they have one eye on their NoHoppa semi-final and their injury list. And let’s hope Saka has not picked up an injury that keeps him out of the team. He is key to our success now. His leadership and assertiveness in this team is becoming clearer with every game. And manifests itself with him taking the penalties. Which, after the Euros, is a brave decision from a 20 year old. But he is our spiritual leader now. And we need him.
So, we can regain our breath now after two crucial games over the last four days and enjoy the glow of six points. We seemed to have finally turned that corner and left behind the despair of that three game loosing streak. We have put ourselves back in contention for the Champions League. And also established a solid fallback position to the NoHoppa Cup. We can still blow this. But others are finding ways to drop points. Let’s hope the real Chelski turns up tomorrow and that they’ve sorted out all their problems with the playing surface at the Bridge. A few more WHU injuries and red cards would be welcome.