Man City’s main rivals? Supposedly…
In truth, it has been a largely unimpressive opening to the season for both Arsenal and Man United. As the two gear up to face each other on Sunday, anything but victory looks devastating for any hopes of a title challenge.
Arsenal’s 7 points and United’s 6 from a possible 9 is not disastrous. Not time for the crisis calls that many Gunners’ Twitter feeds might suggest. But it is the performances, not the results, that have brought doubts.
On the field, Arsenal look a side not quite put together. Newcomer Declan Rice has fit in well, his passing ability clearly exceptional. Kai Havertz less so. The German forward, or midfielder or whatever position he supposedly excels in, has struggled to dispel the memories of his troubled Chelsea career. Instead, he continues to look bereft of ideas, lacking in confidence and unable to influence games.
Now, Mikel Arteta has come under fire for seemingly moulding a new system around the German. Towards the end of last season, it was clear Arsenal needed an alternative. Teams had found solutions to a playing style they had struggled with months before. Arteta is now trying to right that wrong. Provide flexibility and unpredictability. Have a plan B.
The question is: Is Havertz a good enough Plan B, let alone A? On current basis, it is hard to argue he is either. Harsh? Yes. Too early to tell? Yes. But, to beat City you need perfection. A maximum of 20 to 25 points dropped. How many are Gunners willing to risk due to experimentation?
Too much change for the Arsenal?
Against Fulham, the tie changed on Havertz’s removal. His replacement, Fabio Viera, won the equalising penalty and finely assisted their second. His substitution coincided with another key change, Aleksander Zinchenko’s arrival in place of Thomas Partey. It reverted the side to their familiar formation of last season, bringing with it a sense of confidence that had been missing.
It is a difficult one for Arteta. Going forward, they are clearly more comfortable, more impressive, in this familiar system. But can it reap the same rewards as last time out? An alternative is needed. It needs to be tested. Proven in matches, not just training. But it also needs to be known when it is not working.
With United, Spurs and City coming up in their next five games, it is crunch time for the Gooners. Time for familiarity, not a continuation of unsuccessful tinkering.
If the question for Arsenal is: Is the change of system working? The question for United is: Is there a system at all? Victories emerged from chaos, a midfield opened up by the twist of a handle. It’s hardly been a convincing start for the Red Devils.
Ten Hag’s revolution it was, wasn’t it? Dispel the chaos, restore the order. That seems to be going well… Maybe it is that middle period, post-revolt, where the power vacuum hasn’t yet been filled. Not quite ironed out. Bruno Fernandes emerging as the false prophet before the real leader dawns?
That is a key part of the issue: Leadership. Despite his focus on revitalising the club, dismissing toxic elements and providing solidity, there is still a sense that the players leadership is lacking. Who is there to take charge when times are hard? Fernandes’ petty yapping appears far from inspirational.
Expectations are no longer low at Old Trafford. Erik Ten Hag, to his credit, has built them up. Made fans take United seriously again. But is that their downfall? Last season, their top four finish was impressive because it was compared to the calamity of the season before.
Man United, flailing big spenders
Now the patience is gone. They are supposed to be building from a base of solidity. Instead, they look regressed. A team now loose, easy to break down and in desperate need of the Casemiro of last season. Or any sense of control in midfield.
Yes, it was a sign of character to fight back to win from a two-goal deficit against Nottingham Forest. But also, of unpredictability. Unpredictability supposedly driven out.
A big spending summer further increased expectations but has ended up with little more than an injured centre-forward and a goalkeeper as flappy as the last. Harry Maguire still somehow resides at the club and now a 35-year-old Johnny Evans has returned.
If it all seems a bit bewildering, you are not alone.
Back in May, Ten Hag could do no wrong. A Carabao Cup in the bag, two more finals and Champions League football confirmed. He seemed to have organised the unorganisable.
That is exactly the reason it is so frustrating to witness the return of disorganisation, of chaos, of unpredictability. Many thought they were past that. Apparently not.
Victory at the Emirates would no doubt dispel many of these concerns. Such is the nature of football. It is why it is a game that holds so much weight. A chance for both sides to kickstart their seasons, leave the other stuck in the wayside.
Neither side has yet clicked. They are waiting for that moment, that performance, to reassure fans they are still on the right track. That the project should still be trusted.
It is time to find out whose project that will be …