Rocks, Paper, Manchester United
Applying circular logic to football is a wonderful way to waste time. If team A beats team B, but Team B then kicks Team C off the pitch after Team C had made Team A look like headless chickens, then Team B is clearly better than Team A.
If you’re confused, headache pills are on the second shelf in the medicine cabinet. I don’t blame you, though. Such arguments are like rock/paper/scissors without the balance.
Take Watford and Arsenal. The two clubs played host to Manchester United this week. Thanks to excellent performances in both matches by David de Gea, Ashley Young, and Jesse Lingard, neither club will be anxious to invite the Red Devils back anytime soon.
Courtesy Young’s brace in the first game, Lingard’s three in total, and De Gea's certifiably insane goalkeeping, United won against the Hornets 4-2 and over the Gunners 3-1. Comparing match stats from the two games doesn’t flatter Arsenal. Not only did Watford score a second goal late at Vicarage Road, which the Emirates side could not, they managed it with less possession (60:75%), fewer shots attempted (12:33), and fewer shots on target (3:15).
Despite Arsene Wenger’s Gunners conceding only 19 league goals thus far, to the Hornets’ 26, they also came off as woefully more deficient in their own end. Man United was thoroughly pinned back by Arsenal throughout the second contest. Jose Mourinho’s side found roughly half the shots they did against Watford, both attempted and on target, but were 25% more efficient in finishing.
What can be concluded from all this?
First, the Red Devils did Manchester City a huge solid by knocking off Arsenal. The chasing pack is thinning out. If City continue their 19-match winning streak against West Ham, only United will be within double digits in the Premier League table. If Pep Guardiola’s squad try and fail to ride their recent luck one more time, Raheem Sterling has no more magic moments in reserve, and David Moyes suddenly rediscovers his tactical nous, the Citizens will still have just United and Chelsea in their rearview for the moment.
Second, City gets United without Paul Pogba this coming weekend. The Frenchman’s clumsy stomp on Hector Bellerin deservedly drew straight red from Andre Marriner. He will be unavailable for the Manchester Derby. Mourinho’s squad is significantly less imposing without their number six. Pep’s side could be 11 points up on the field a week before Christmas.
Third, David de Gea is not human. He made 15 saves against Arsenal, several of which can be filed under ‘Ridiculous’. When he first came to United to replace Edwin van der Sar, maturity was the sticking point. As he grew into the job, Real Madrid turning his head became the primary concern. When Mourinho took over, vastly improving the squad in short order, the Spaniard’s concentration was questioned. Could he summon his best form for brief moments of need? The Arsenal match qualified as more than brief moments of need. Still, De Gea has answered every question asked of him at Old Trafford. He is supremely talented, confident, and professional.
Fourth, Watford is not better than Arsenal, just sturdier. The table doesn't lie, although its last word is the only one that matters. Wenger’s side is fragile. It switches off too easily against opponents, regardless their quality. The determination is simply not there. Alexandre Lacazette’s emotion after leveling early in the second half did not infect his teammates. Yes, they continued to string together sublime movements, testing United’s defence. Mild-mannered Mesut Ozil even shouted once or twice, and spit out his gum in disgust at an unfavourable call. Yet, the Gunners just can’t seem to be greater than the sum of their parts. It has been well documented that some squad members are not playing for their manager. It would be nice, though, if they could play for one another.