Ole Gunnar Solskjaer must build his Manchester United team around Scott McTominay
It wasn’t just the goal – although that certainly made a difference. Watch United these days and you’ll see that almost every week Scott McTominay is the most vocal player on the pitch.
It’s the 22-year-old barking out orders in midfield, communicating with the full-backs and issuing the rallying cry when things begin to go wrong. This is a United side built on fragile foundations at the moment but McTominay is the man holding it all together.
Ashley Young might have worn the armband on Monday night, he might remain club captain, but on the pitch United are increasingly taking their lead from McTominay.
It’s easy to forget that the midfielder was derided under Jose Mourinho. Plenty thought Mourinho was using him as an example to his other, failing midfielders. When the Portuguese was sacked the theory was that McTominay would disappear from view. Instead he has emerged as the key figure in this side. Arguably the first name on the team sheet.
In a side that looks to lack character at times, McTominay is the one constant. He’s developed into a leader and if he continues in this mould then he should replace Young as club captain next summer.
Mourinho may have had his faults at United, but his parting gift of helping to develop McTominay is proving to be one that is getting more valuable by the week. The Scot has probably been United’s best player this season and he took his goal against the Gunners superby. His driving run to win the late free-kick from which United nearly won the game summed up his driving force and spirit. United need to build this side around him.
This was a night of learning on the job for Axel Tuanzebe, pressed into action in an unfamiliar left-back spot. The decision may have been to do with Nicolas Pepe playing on the right for Arsenal, with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer preferring the pace of Tuanzebe to that of Young to deal with his threat.
For large parts of the game the position came naturally to the academy graduate, who was comfortable on the ball and dealt well with Pepe’s threat. But it was his loose pass that let Arsenal in for an equaliser and as the game wore on Arsenal began to try and test him more often.
Tuanzebe continued to offer himself for the ball however and will take plenty from this night. He was certainly better in possession than Victor Lindelof, who has been struck by the curse of a new contract that surrounds United these days, with his form falling off a cliff when pen has been put to paper. He might be feeling the heat from Tuanzebe for his place next to Harry Maguire.
He might not have been fully fit, but this was another night when Marcus Rashford looked to be suffering from a crisis of confidence in front of goal.
The lethal goalscoring run he went on in the early weeks of Solskjaer’s reign have faded to a distant memory now. If anything the 21-year-old has regressed in front of goal.
Against West Ham he was presented with a chance, cutting in front the left on to his right foot, but looked to lack the belief to open his body and curl a shot into the corner, instead trying to take on Declan Rice and losing the ball.
Early on against Arsenal he did well to press a shaky Gunners’ defence on the right hand side, but should have sent in a first time cross to an unmarked Daniel James. Instead he took a touch and the chance was gone. It was a familiar story towards the end of the first half, timing a run on the shoulder of Sokratis brilliantly, but as he burst into the box he looked unsure whether to shoot on his left foot or try and cut in. In the end it was simple for the defender to block, with Rashford off balance when he tried to pull the trigger.
At the moment Rashford looks like a player in need of a break and the chance to rebuild some confidence. It’s a phase that most young players will go through and it’s easy to forget he is still only 21. This was his 178th appearance for United, already.
The problem is United simply can’t afford to take him out of the firing line. The decisions to depart with Alexis Sanchez and Romelu Lukaku have left Solskjaer desperately short of numbers in attack. When fit Rashford and Anthony Martial have to play. They have to play even when not fully fit.
Rashford will have to try and play himself back into confidence, but for now he looks a shadow of his best when he’s in the confines of the penalty area.
Arsenal’s respectful midfield
There was some bemusement amongst Arsenal followers at the way they sat back in the first half, soaking up pressure when the perception is this United were vulnerable.
It was certainly a respectful team selection from Unai Emery. The midfield trio of Granit Xhaka, Matteo Guendouzi and Lucas Torreira is the most defensive Emery can field, with the more expressive Dani Ceballos on the bench. It was the same combination that started against Tottenham in the North London derby earlier this month.
United might be a shadow of their former selves at the moment, but Emery’s set-up showed there’s still a certain degree of trepidation for managers heading to Old Trafford.
Forget the nostalgia
Every meeting of United v Arsenal is an excuse for a trip down memory lane and an opportunity for broadcasters to get all nostalgic. For eight years fixtures between these two teams were as intense as you would get, on the pitch and between the staff. There was a mutual loathing to encounters between Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger’s teams.
But those high quality, high intensity games were a distant memory during a tepid first half at Old Trafford. The recalling of great games between these two only extenuates how far they’ve fallen.
Four yellow cards in the first half might have been interpreted by some as a sign of bite, of old rivalries never dying, but it was more an indictment of the poor quality on show. It’s going to be a long road back to the days when United v Arsenal was the first fixture everyone looked for on the calendar.
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