Last time Manchester United started a league season this badly at home, they finished 18th. Football has changed a lot since 1972 and nobody is suggesting they might face a relegation scrap this season but even as the warm glow of Wednesday’s 5-0 win over RB Leipzig lingers, domestic expectations are perhaps being recalibrated. United are already nine points off the top.
The obvious question, perhaps, is how United could have been so good on Wednesday, and yet so poor both against Chelsea last weekend and against Arsenal here. The answer perhaps lies in Isaiah Berlin’s division of the world into the foxes who know many things and the hedgehogs who know one thing. Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s United, clearly, are hedgehogs. There is one thing at which they excel: sitting deep, letting teams come at them, and hitting them on the break.
All their best results under Solskjær have come that way and that means, especially when they play top-level sides, the first goal is critical: as Leipzig found, if you go behind against United and lose your discipline, you can end up being shredded. But that’s also why United are without a home win in six league games and why last weekend’s meeting with Chelsea was such a non-event, as both sides sat back and waited vainly for the other to leave space in behind them.
Arsenal pressed in a way Chelsea did not, and so the dynamic of the game was different, played far more in United’s half, particularly before half-time. But there was a similar dearth of goalmouth action. Last week that appeared by design; this week it was more because creativity has become such an issue for Mikel Arteta’s side. A fixture list that has seen them play away at Anfield, the Etihad and Old Trafford already this season makes it difficult to make a proper assessment, but they seem a little mannered, a touch reluctant to play a quick vertical pass that might catch opponents off-guard. But after 29 games without an away win against a fellow member of the big six, an element of caution is perhaps understandable.
Yet while Arsenal, with Thomas Partey and Mohamed Elneny both excelling, smothered United so effectively in midfield that they yielded just three touches in their own box before half-time, the threat of United’s front two of Marcus Rashford and Mason Greenwood was always there. One flicker in the first half, Rashford slicing Arsenal open with a crisp diagonal ball to Greenwood, served as a warning of just how dangerous they can be – and it’s those hints, perhaps, that have encouraged Solskjær to retain the counter-attacking approach. But a club of United’s stature needs to offer more than the potential of a break. No side with realistic title aspirations can afford to be so relentlessly reactive.
Even hedgehogs, though, can roll themselves into balls in different ways. Having been broadly outplayed in the first half when they lined up with a diamond midfield, as they had against Leipzig, United changed to a 4-2-3-1 after half-time with Paul Pogba operating high on the left flank. That reduced the influence of Arsenal’s full-backs and, at least in terms of territory, the second half was far more even than the first. But there was still very little inspiration from either side and the sense was always that if a goal came it would be from a mistake. As it turned out, it came from two, both from Pogba, as he first failed to track a run and then lunged recklessly to concede the decisive penalty.
Pogba, as ever, will draw the bulk of the criticism. To an extent that is reasonable; that’s two gratuitous penalties he has given away in United’s last three home matches and it remains unclear just where his best position is. But the bigger problem with United is systemic. Only in the final 10 minutes did they generate any sustained pressure and, even then, it felt Arsenal were complicit, dropping deeper and deeper as their fingers grasped at the prize of ending that six-year drought – not that it came to much more than a series of balls pumped into the box.
The doubt about Solskjær from the start has been whether he has the wherewithal to organise the sort of cohesive attacking moves that mark out the very best coaches. Even emphatic wins against sides who attack recklessly don’t change that.
Sit deep as Chelsea did, or press smartly as Arsenal did, and United are neutered. And that is a major problem. Hedgehogs never dictate the game, and they rarely win league titles.