On Saturday, Arsenal once again spurned the opportunity to win at Old Trafford, a run which now stretches to ten league games. Arsene Wenger’s terrible record against Jose Mourinho remained in tact, though the Gunners did manage to score their first goal against a Mourinho side since 2007. Much like last season, an ostensibly superior Arsenal side failed to capitalise on Manchester United’s form and injury troubles.

A draw in Manchester is never a terrible result, indeed this was only our third since 2006. Yet Wenger’s overly-cautious starting lineup gave the initiative to United, and a better side, or one on better form, would have capitalised and taken all the points. As it panned out, Arsenal did manage a late equaliser, but only once they changed formation and personnel and opted for a more offensive approach.

Arsenal have been at their best this season playing with the creative triumvirate of Santi Cazorla, Alex Iwobi and Mesut Ozil. Their quick, incisive passing and movement creates space for Theo Walcott and Alexis Sanchez to thrive in the final third. As Tim Stillman explains here, Wenger’s best sides have tended to feature a playmaking combination on the left, with poachers roaming on the right; think Robert Pires and Freddie Ljungberg as a prime example. Though it is too early to compare Iwobi with such illustrious greats, he offers similar creative influence on the left-hand side.

Of course, with Cazorla injured and Iwobi, still only twenty, removed from the firing line after a couple of mediocre performances, there was need for a change. Yet the boss selected the most conservative approach possible, going with the midfield duo of Francis Coquelin and Mohamed Elneny. Though tidy enough statistically, with 88% and 93% pass completion, and seven and three tackles respectively, they were unable to provide the attackers with adequate service and were often overrun by United’s well-balanced midfield. Playing Aaron Ramsey on the left-hand side, where he is even less effective than on the right, perhaps designed to offer Nacho Monreal extra protection against the marauding Antonio Valencia, was overly cautious. Consequently, Mesut Ozil, who prefers to hunt in a pack than alone, was isolated and ineffective. Alexis, who displayed several moments of sublime skill and technique, was often too deep, dropping into the centre to try to affect the match. In turn, Theo Walcott sought to inhabit the central forward role, leaving nobody out wide in the absence of Hector Bellerin.

I’m a big fan of both Coquelin and Elneny, both offer significant attributes to our side. It is plain to see, however, that they do not work together. Though one solution would be to move Ramsey to the middle, it is surely time that Granit Xhaka, our expensive summer signing, was given a sustained chance. In Cazorla’s absence, he offers the most creativity of our central midfielders. His pinpoint long passes would encourage the attackers to play on the shoulders of opposition defences rather than coming deep. He would also provide Ozil, as Cazorla does, with much quicker service. Xhaka’s qualities mean he could form an effective partnership with any of Coquelin, Elneny or Ramsey. Hopefully he is given a start either against PSG or Bournemouth. On Saturday, Arsenal finished the match with Xhaka and Ramsey as the midfield two. It was no coincidence that this was our most threatening period of the match.

To be sure, United should be given some credit for their performance. They were far from superb; they didn’t have to be to almost win. But Mourinho seems to have found a more balanced midfield, whether by luck or by design. Michael Carrick was tidy, Ander Herrera a nuisance, and Paul Pogba, though not at his very best, managed to impose himself on the match more than in recent weeks. Up front, the enforced absence of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, and the semi-enforced absence of Wayne Rooney, encouraged Mourinho to select his most mobile and threatening front three. Anthony Martial, Marcus Rashford and Juan Mata, who confounded our defence by popping up in the middle to finish a well-worked goal, were threatening throughout. Overall, I felt that our defence coped well, though Monreal was worryingly poor, and should have conceded a penalty; he was partly at fault for Mata’s strike.

Performance-wise, it was a self-inflicted disappointed, Wenger going with a cautious approach and reacting too late with his substitutions. When changes were made, however, they led to the equaliser, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s pinpoint cross met expertly by Olivier Giroud’s head. Certainly, it is better to draw when playing badly than when playing well, and the predictable cliche of gaining points despite poor performances have circulated in the media. Nevertheless, it is imperative that the team improves; there have been too many abject outings since Cazorla’s injury, and eventually our luck will run out.

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