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The Very British Fetish For the ‘Ugly’ Result: Reviewing Manchester United vs. Arsenal

We assess a dire game at Old Trafford, and what it does (and more importantly doesn’t) say about the uglier side.

by Will Magee
Nov 21 2016, 3:04pm

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In the nebulous labyrinth of the British national psyche, there is a special place reserved for the virtue of winning ugly. Perhaps it's to do with our fetishisation of pain, self-sacrifice, and hard work, or maybe it's our cultural inclination towards obstinacy and bloodymindedness, but either way we love to see our heroes getting their hands dirty, taking some serious punishment and still scrapping for the win. In football, we place extra stock in teams who can eke out an 'ugly' result, with a commonplace analysis being that a team which doesn't play well but still claims victory has the character necessary to achieve their ultimate ambitions. Serve up 90 minutes of dross, and end up with a full three points at the end of it? That's the stuff which title winners are made of, and shows the grit required to win the Premier League.

Of course, three points are better than one when a team plays ugly, though the latter is better than nothing in the context of a game which has rapidly gone south. That's precisely what happened to Arsenal on Saturday, when a fast start at Old Trafford soon became a slogging match largely devoid of quality, which then became a cause of much teeth-gnashing when Juan Mata inevitably put Manchester United ahead. The sighs and eye rolls among the travelling fans were assuaged late on when, out of nowhere, Olivier Giroud popped up with the equaliser and plundered a rare point for his side at the Theatre of Dreams. That had some observers claiming that, having drawn ugly, Arsenal had shown a glimmer of obstinate, champion-defining character. In reality, though the fans can be happy enough with the point, Arsenal's ability to salvage their performance was a distraction from half-heartedness they have recently shown.

Though they remain unbeaten since their first day of the season, Arsenal's outlook several weeks ago was significantly better than it is right now. Having gone on a strong run in the league in October, they were faced with crucial games against Tottenham and United which, had they managed to take four or more points from, might have confirmed their status as reinvigorated title contenders. Instead, they have come away with two draws and dented momentum, which should leave supporters feeling considerable unease. We are now entering the depths of November, a time which so often heralds in a pre-festive slump for the North Londoners. The 'ugly' result is all about context, see: if it helps to perpetuate a winning run it's of considerable value, but if comes on the back of a sloppy draw against Spurs it's probably of questionable worth.

They may have got a decent result by playing ugly this weekend, but ugliness at this time of the season is anything but reassuring for Arsenal. Indeed, while relying on ugly points might work for Chelsea, or United, or any team once managed by Jose Mourinho for that matter, Arsenal haven't had a successfully ugly side since George Graham's famous back-four retired. It might not appeal to the British mindset but, should Arsene Wenger's men want to be taken seriously in their pursuit of the title, they might want to go back to what they do best, namely reviving the spirit of their win against Chelsea and aiming for gorgeous, ambitious football. It might not have the same stoic value as being boring and listless and still coming away with a draw at Old Trafford, but the reality is that playing ugly and getting a result is only valuable if it's followed up by something beautiful, as opposed to a collapse before Christmas and another season limping towards fourth place.