It says something about the way Manchester United played that their fans left Old Trafford disappointed with a 2-2 draw against Arsenal on Wednesday night. Given that Unai Emery’s team had battered Tottenham Hotspur at the weekend, there weren’t many people expecting United to have more shots on and off target against Arsenal.
The away side took the lead twice yet on both occasions were pegged back within minutes, testament to the fighting spirit this United squad are capable of when they choose. Jose Mourinho praised his players for having a “fantastic attitude” after the game, before listing off individual players who gave their all.
“We should have won the game,” he added, after stating he was happy with the “soul, bravery and commitment” that the team showed.
Taking in to consideration how injuries have decimated Mourinho’s defence, forcing the manager to start Marcos Rojo, despite him not playing a single game this season, United can be happy with limiting this season’s second highest scorers to just the two goals.
Eric Bailly made his first appearance for two months, teenager Diego Dalot made his fourth ever appearance for the club after over two months out, while Matteo Darmian played in his third game of the season.
What frustrated the United fans is that both of Arsenal’s goals were total gifts. David de Gea made a rare mistake and dropped what should have been a simple catch from a Shkodran Mustafi header in to his net.
After equalising and in a comfortable position, Marcos Rojo gave the ball away to Alexandre Lacazette under no pressure. In a desperate attempt to win the ball back, he chased after the Frenchman and when he tackled the striker the ball trickled over the line, resulting in an own goal.
At the other end, Anthony Martial moved up to seventh in the Premier League goalscorer’s table, giving him the best goals per minute ratio of any forward in the top 10. He boasts a goal every 112.4 minutes on the pitch, compared to every 175 minutes from Mo Salah, 150 minutes from Eden Hazard, 149 from Harry Kane, 128 minutes from Raheem Sterling and 121 minutes from Sergio Aguero.
The only player to rival Martial is Arsenal’s striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, with a goal every 112.7 minutes, who was kept off the scoresheet on Wednesday night despite 90 minutes on the pitch.
Jesse Lingard scored his first goal of the season, equalising within a minute of Arsenal taking the lead for a second time. The home-grown talent scored twice against Arsenal last season and has a knack of popping up with an important goal, despite a largely disappointing campaign for his club in the lead up to this game.
United have hardly been a free-scoring side this season, largely hampered by their main striker, Romelu Lukaku, having a disastrous time. After scoring 27 goals in all competitions in his debut campaign, the Belgian has looked awful following the World Cup. Against Southampton last weekend he ended a 12 game goal drought, but played his part in the lead up to Lingard’s equaliser.
There isn’t a huge difference between how many goals United have scored and many of the teams ahead of them.
Spurs have scored just four goals more than United but are 10 points better off.
Liverpool have scored six more goals yet are 16 points better off.
It’s United’s defence, and the errors their back-line make week after week, which is costing them a place in the top four this season.
They have conceded 25 goals in 15 games, which is an awful return.
Looking at the league table, you have to go to 16th placed Cardiff before you find a team with a worse defensive record than United, which paints a grim picture, especially when you consider that United have the best goalkeeper in the world playing for them.
Mourinho wouldn’t be challenging for the title if he had better defenders at his disposal, which is a failure on his part given how long he has had at the club to build a title-winning team.
But they would be a lot better off if he didn’t have to make do with a whole host of inadequate defenders.
There isn’t a world-class player among them, with Luke Shaw the only player proving to be potentially great this season, after four average years at the club.
In the summer, Mourinho made signing a right-back and a centre-half a priority, but Ed Woodward overruled him, instead only allowing him to spend £19m on teenage Dalot. Chris Smalling, Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia are all reportedly discussing contract extensions at United instead.
When you compare this approach with teams who are challenging for the title, like rivals Manchester City, it’s no surprise that United are falling so far behind. When Pep Guardiola was appointed, he was allowed to shift the dead wood in defence and spend a fortune on bringing in better players.
Aleksandar Kolarov, Pablo Zabaleta, Gael Clichy and Bacary Sagna were all moved on, and Aymeric Laporte, £57m, Benjamin Mendy, £52m, John Stones, £48m and Kyle Walker, £45m, were brought in to replace them.
Mourinho can’t match those transfer fees for even one of his defensive signings in the same time, let alone four. If he had inherited the defence Guardiola did, you would have seen United starting the likes of Zabaleta, now at West Ham, and Clichy, at Istanbul Başakşehir, against Arsenal last night.
That’s not to say that Mourinho hasn’t been given money to spend on the defence though, because he has. He was afforded £60 million to spend on two unproven and relatively unknown 22-year-old defenders, Eric Bailly and Victor Lindelof.
This is used as a stick to beat the manager with, but the reality is, if Woodward and the Glazers had made funds available to sign a world-class defender, there’s not a chance he would have brought in either of these players.
Jurgen Klopp has spent £90 million on defenders, including Virgil van Dijk for £75m, taking his spend to a total of £156 million when you include the goalkeeper, while Guardiola has spent £280m on goalkeepers and defenders in the same time.
In contrast, Mourinho tried to do the best he could with what he was given and Lindelof, who was named Swedish Player of the Year a few weeks ago, has come on leaps and bounds and he’s still only 24. But £80 million over three seasons was never going to be enough to reinforce the defence in the ways that were required to build a title challenging team.
For what it’s worth, I still think there’s a player in Bailly too, but his atrocious showings at the start of the season condemned him to the wilderness. And that’s on the manager for not giving him another real chance before the Arsenal game, where he largely performed well. But it’s hard to think of a performance as bad in recent years as Bailly’s against Brighton, and when you consider the horror shows we’ve seen from Smalling and Phil Jones in recent years, that’s really saying something.
Still, Arsenal supporters started Wednesday night’s game singing “Jose Mourinho, we want you to stay.” They were likely still reeling from their last visit to Old Trafford, when United supporters directed the same chant at Arsene Wenger. In his last season as Arsenal manager he was beaten home and away by Mourinho’s side.
Yet the away end finished the game with chants of “f**k off Mourinho!” after their team scraped a draw at Old Trafford after being gifted two goals.
Mourinho has got plenty wrong and he will be lucky to see out the season as United manager.
But if he had been given the funds his rival managers have to improve his team’s defence, United would be in a much better position than they are now.
If United can take the same intensity to their game against Fulham at the weekend as they showed against Arsenal, they’ll be three points better off. But with Mourinho in charge, and these defenders responsible to keeping the goals out, it will be easier said than done.