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Manchester United and Arsenal Are Faded Giants in Need of Rescuing

From the look of last night's game, both sides might want to look to their youngest players to do just that.

by Hydall Codeen
01 October 2019, 11:05am

Photo: David Price / Arsenal FC via Getty Images)

xG. Playing out. Mid-block. High press. Half-space. Executive framework. Number 6. Stockley Park. Every season has its own surge of buzzwords and phrases that eventually work their way out, via Twitter, TalkSport and Match of the Day, to the pubs and parks of this fickle kingdom, to be screamed into the faces of rival drunks and crying children alike.

"Transition" is one that has been with us for a while now, a term that has multiple meanings in a footballing context, all of which were on display at Old Trafford last night as Manchester United and Arsenal fought out a rainswept 1-1 draw that, in its own way, was the most beautiful match of the season so far.

Not everyone saw the charm in last night's contest. Studio pundits and journalists arrived at a post-game consensus built upon words like "turgid", "entropy" and "sewage". Gary Neville, operating in his role as Sky Sports' co-comms hype man, essentially surrendered his post about half an hour in, forlornly grunting and half-laughing his way through a game lit up from start to finish by an absurd dearth of technical quality.

The beauty, though, resided in something beyond Nicolas Pépé’s ability to deliver an accurate five-yard pass or the shooting skills of Jesse Lingard. For this was a game between two sides in near-total transition off the pitch, that was played in a state of near-constant transition on it, a 94-minute feast of transition that saw possession yielded over and over with a frantic, kinetic anxiety that distilled the Premier League to its most basic and intoxicating essence.

Not only that; for every player on the pitch, the game seemed to hold some deeper meaning. For Arsenal, there was a back four containing three men who've been derided almost constantly as clowns so far this season, and Calum Chambers, a 24-year-old third-choice right-back who's been relegated twice in as many years, but who has displayed admirable staying power in his refusal to be flushed down to the Championship. The defining nightmares of Chambers' Arsenal career so far have come against rapid, nippy left-wingers, and when he was booked within the first ten minutes for a desperate tug of Daniel James' shirt, it felt certain that history would repeat itself.

To his credit, though, he dug in, marshalling United's biggest threat so far this season without earning a second yellow and providing a willing outlet in attack. In front of that defence, the unloved Granit Xhaka had a point to prove to the Arsenal fans and Lucas Torreira – so often and so bafflingly omitted from Unai Emery’s starting XI – to the Arsenal manager, although neither played as though they had a point to prove quite as much as the wonderful Matteo Guendouzi.

Up front, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang sought to dispel critical voices by scoring away at a "Big 6" rival for the first time. Supporting him were Pépé – a £72 million record signing teetering on the cusp of the flop-zone – and Bukayo Saka, an 18-year-old academy kid eager to prove his worth.

The home team was full of players who took the field with similar weight on their backs, not least Marcus Rashford, returning early from injury to lead the line amid a hail of noise suggesting he's not good enough to do so. The odds and sods who make up the rest of this profoundly weird Manchester United side all come with their own baggage – terrace opinion has turned against Ashley Young, Paul Pogba and Jesse Lingard, while plenty among the United faithful doubt if Axel Tuanzebe, Andreas Pereira or Scott McTominay really possess the chops to make it at the club.

The result was a game that stood as a wild counterpoint to the controlled mercy killings administered weekly by the division's outstanding top two, the anaesthetic and concussive dominance displayed by Manchester City and Liverpool respectively traded for 22 individual psychodramas playing out at once on a pitch that, due to the weather, resembled the floor tray of a blocked hotel power-shower or the dive pool of an aqua park flume. Almost every touch was heavy or misplaced, and simple passes and shots were shanked horrifically into the stands as the two sides performed as if chased across the turf by their own futures and the spectres of the past.

There is no fixture in the Premier League so dogged by historical gravity, all the talk in the build up trailing a contest between faded giants at grim ebbs. At the turn of the millennium, when this rivalry was peaking, Manchester United and Arsenal didn't just have players, they had prototypes, men whose names we still use as shorthand to define positions and roles in the English game 20 years later.

Arsenal had Adams, Cole, Vieira, Bergkamp and Henry. United had Ferdinand, Keane, Beckham, Scholes and Giggs. Each match was war and the prize was almost always glory. Now, checking in on this fixture feels a little like scouring Facebook for old teenage crushes and finding only shells where once stood the unspoiled magic and promise of youth; two sides broken by divorce, pale, run down and surrounded by ugly, crisp-stained children.

It's in this context that last night's match has to be absorbed and appreciated. Clearly, Manchester United and Arsenal are not what they were when they were guided by Alex Ferguson and Arsène Wenger in the late-1990s and early-2000s. But squint a little, tune out the noise of recent history, recalibrate those inner gauges, and there was still plenty to be excited about both in the slapstick, slip-and-slide nature of the 90 minutes itself and the acknowledgement that the outstanding performances on the night came from the youngest players on the pitch.

Guendouzi, Saka, James and McTominay excelled in the melee where others seemed cowed, indicative perhaps of the need to let the old stories, legends and ghosts rest a while, and for both clubs to give youth its head as they make their transitions, awkwardly, into yearned-for new eras.

@hydallcodeen