Saturday’s visit to Old Trafford exposed something in Arsenal which they thought they had vanquished.
Since their opening day defeat to Liverpool (and subsequent draw against Leicester), they have sought to improve their mental resilience and prove that they can finally banish the ghosts of the past decade and challenge for the Premier League title.
However, their performance on Saturday was so bereft of imagination and confidence that it causes a reevaluation of their earlier showings as flat-track bullying.
José Mourinho did his level best to try and make everything about him after the match (muttering “finally I lost to Arsene” three times to himself on the way out of his press conference in an attempt to hijack the narrative) but even the great deflector couldn’t take the spotlight away from the visitors.
Arsenal were lucky to get a point on Saturday, and they would surely readily admit to that. The gap between the 39th and 89th minutes was filled by nothing, the negative zone of Arsenal’s play interspersed with brief waves of having to defend Man United attacks.
Man United, it must be remembered, aren’t particularly good right now. Mourinho is patently aware of this, which is why in the matches against Manchester City, Chelsea and Liverpool his primary focus was to stifle the opposition before anything else.
And yet he felt he could play against Arsenal. The Gunners are supposed to be on the same level as the aforementioned trio but Mourinho knew they could be got at far more easily. The former Chelsea boss has had an Indian sign over Arsène Wenger since the moment he set foot in the Premier League (twelve league matches without defeat and counting) and Saturday was a strong indicator that this may never change.
Even in the midst of his colossal meltdown at Chelsea last year, when they could only beat relegation candidates like Norwich and Aston Villa, they were still able to defeat Arsenal 2-0. Mourinho was able to take time out of his mission to burn every bridge around him to defeat his archenemy, just for the hell of it.
In other circumstances, the late Giroud equaliser would have changed the narrative, but Arsenal were so wretched for almost the entire match that this would be nigh-on impossible. Wenger claimed after the match that he was happy with Arsenal’s “steel” after the match.
Has he been so blunted by the softness of his side since 2004 that this is what he considers steel?
Arsenal were slinking towards defeat at Old Trafford, there was very little attempt to drive forward into the Man United box, to rouse the players into peppering the box with shots looking for a goal, applying alarmingly little pressure. That the goal finally did come was courtesy of some great innovation from substitute Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (who should have started) and the home side falling asleep in the box.
It wasn’t steel, it was opportunism. The timing of the goal can’t – and nor should it – cloak the meekness that came before it.
This was supposed to different. This was supposed to be the afternoon that Wenger charged into Old Trafford with his title challengers and left the battered carcasses of Mournho and Man United, the two biggest nemeses of his time in England, lying prostrate on the ground while his side soared triumphantly back to the top of the league.
And yet he wilted. He wilted like he always does against Mourinho. He can blame his team’s tiredness on the international break but this was a psychological beating, even if the final result didn’t reflect that.
Arsenal have a problem. At times they have looked great this season, and the fact that they sit just two points behind the Premier League leaders remains true, but are they still seem to have a mental block when it comes to playing teams at or above their level.
Chelsea aside (and even that would be a completely different contest now after the Blues’ resurgence), they have now played against Liverpool, Tottenham and Manchester United and haven’t looked particularly good in any of those matches.
These are the matches they have to start winning more regularly. Their consistent form in finishing in the top four ever year has been built on winning on a certain number of games, with a consistent title challenge hampered every single year by periods of falling to pieces and mental fragility in the face of strong opposition.
Wenger will get another chance to show that this season can be different when he takes his Arsenal side to face Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City at the Emirates in mid-December. The five league games they play between now and then will determine if they can keep pace with the leaders, but that match itself will show whether or not this team has finally acquired the mental resilience to be champions.
Because right now, it’s just looking like a case of same old, same old for Arsenal.