Although Olivier Giroud’s late header earned his Arsenal side a scarcely-merited point, Arsene Wenger’s undue preoccupation with possession – at the expense of penetration – resulted in the Frenchman’s 12th consecutive failure to inflict defeat on José Mourinho.
The teamsheet’s pre-match release served a clear statement of Wenger’s reserved intent, with the more direct attacking threat offered by Alex Iwobi sacrificed on the left of midfield in favour of central-midfielder-by-trade Aaron Ramsey, a recent returnee from a hamstring injury sustained at the start of the season.
Arsenal’s first-half modus operandi unsurprisingly therefore revolved around possession retention, specifically on the left flank, where Ramsey combined frequently with Mesut Ozil, Mohamed Elneny and striker Alexis Sanchez, who frequently dropped into the inside-left pocket.
With right-winger Theo Walcott fielded narrowly and high on the shoulder of United’s last defender, the plan was to draw the hosts in on the left and outfox them by spreading the play quickly to the England winger.
Alas for Wenger, this plan-of-action failed for two reasons: first, because Ozil, and particularly Ramsey, were turnover machines; and second, because United’s left-sided centre-back Marcos Rojo played uncharacteristically solidly on the cover, completing eight first-half clearances, double the tally of any other player.
The comprehensive failure of Wenger’s attacking strategy was summed up by his side’s inability to test United goalkeeper David de Gea, who faced precisely zero shots on target in the first-half.
United’s marginally greater threat
At the other end, United threatened marginally more often, thanks in the main to Ramsey’s consistent unwillingness to track right-back Antonio Valencia. Juan Mata’s infield drifts from that flank also occasionally caused Arsenal problems, most notably in the 37th-minute, when he popped up free between the lines to test Petr Cech.
Mourinho appeared to instruct his players to target right-back Carl Jenkinson, making his first league start for Arsenal since May 2014, but the former West Ham United loanee competed well for the myriad goal-kicks launched in his direction, winning more of his first-half aerial duels than his direct opponent Anthony Martial.
Martial did cut inside Jenkinson to test Cech in the 41st minute and almost cash-in on yet another Ramsey giveaway, but the languid French forward was again largely ineffective, removed in favour of Wayne Rooney on the hour-mark.
Arsenal’s left-sided struggles continued throughout the second stanza, falling behind when Nacho Monreal, overloaded all afternoon, failed to defend a throw-in, allowing Ander Herrera to reach the byline and pull-back for Mata.
Up against the equally overloaded Elneny, who was often unsure whether to press the Basque or pick up Mata, Herrera flourished in the second-half, finishing as both the game’s top intercepter and chance-creator.
Meanwhile, to Herrera’s immediate left, summer signing Paul Pogba toiled again despite occupying his preferred role on the centre-left of a proper 4-3-3. Pogba faced off against the tough-tackling Francis Coquelin, who shackled the former Juventus midfielder throughout.
With the game meandering to a close, and a United victory looking certain, two Wenger substitutions allowed the visitors to capitalise on the one area of the game that they had dominated.
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s late appearance as an auxialiary right-back saw the England international skin Marcus Rashford, and stand a cross onto the head of fellow substitute Olivier Giroud, whose late run was aided by the penalty-box presence of Laurent Koscielny, bamboozling United’s Phil Jones. Arsenal finished the game having triumphed in a whopping 68% of its aerial duels, led by imperious centre-back Shkodran Mustafi.
Giroud’s equaliser represented not simply Arsenal’s only shot on target of the game, but their only shot of any description of the entire second-half, underlining how fortunate Wenger was to escape with a point here, in spite of his fruitless attacking prescriptions.
And incredibly, despite clearly prioritising possession of the football over penetration, Wenger’s side also finished the game with an underwhelming 78% pass completion ratio, two percentage points less than their ill-starred hosts. Although Wenger’s Mourinho hoodoo continues, this truly was real get-out-of-jail stuff.