Man United’s missed chances at Arsenal extend familiar theme that dents title hopes

United must learn to beat the best if they want to be the best again. Neither they nor Arsenal can compete with their former strength, but both are still among the “big six” in the Premier League As the Gunners played in absentia, the 0-0 draw meant another missed opportunity for United, who were held to a draw against Liverpool earlier this month.

And while it would be tempting to take Wednesday’s defeat against Sheffield United as evidence of change, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has been more consistent in his matches against his closest rivals. In six games against Man City Liverpool, Tottenham, Chelsea and Arsenal this season, United has yet to win – four draws and two defeats.

A goal would have helped. It has been 538 minutes since the last goal against their main rivals, and it was Bruno Fernandes’ penalty in the game against the Spurs that ended in a 6-1 defeat.

United certainly created chances at the Emirates Stadium, and Solskjaer highlighted three key moments: the first came in the first half, when his side dominated, when Marcus Rashford failed to clear the ball at the far post; the second and third were more balanced by Edinson Cavani in the second half.

Cavani missed an open goal when Luke Shaw picked up a cross and flew in an acrobatic volley with a minute left to play. The frustration in front of goal was reminiscent of a similar failure against Liverpool earlier this month, when Bruno Fernandez and Paul Pogba failed to beat Alisson with a chance to win the match.

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“Every game in the Premier League is exciting, but with the two you are talking about, we felt we were close to winning,” Solskjaer said. “We had two big chances against Liverpool, two good saves from the goalkeeper. Again two big chances today, but just wide. To get those four extra points, we need a little more quality and we need to be more clinical. Today we gave everything we had, we felt the match had to be won.

So it was at Anfield. The Premier League champions were short of key players and looked more vulnerable than usual. The Arsenal team had to do without three of their perhaps most influential players: Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, who is quarantined to care for his ailing mother, Bukayo Saka, who came out with a sore hip, and Kieran Tierney, who is struggling to recover from calf problems.

Whether it was an unconscious retreat or forced by United’s intense pressure, Arteta’s side played counter-attacking soccer in the early stages, with the visitors controlling the early exchanges. Fred had a great chance to open the scoring, but goalkeeper Bernd Leno reacted brilliantly and rebounded a hard shot over the post.

Error. Film not specified.Man United failed to break through at Arsenal, which is a familiar story for them in the big games. Getty

After the resumption, Arsenal came into the game better, although Gabriel Martinelli, another key player, was missing. Alexandre Lacazette hit the bar with a beautiful free kick and Nicolas Pepe’s low shot narrowly missed the target.

“We made a few changes, some things needed to be corrected to be much more effective, to be much closer to them, to be more efficient in our pressing and in the areas where we could get the ball back, and then we had a better structure for the attack,” Arteta said later.

“We threatened more and we didn’t give the ball to our opponents when we won it. We had a lot of space to run, which you can really punish against United, and we didn’t do well enough in the first half.

After the break, however, United consistently had the best chances, with only Cavani missing. The 33-year-old has made a good impression since arriving at Old Trafford last summer, but has scored just one goal in nine League games since his stop at Southampton on November 29.

Fernandes, meanwhile, is United’s undisputed talisman, and as always, when he doesn’t score, his team doesn’t score either. The Portuguese midfielder scored in the first half, but it has been five games since he scored or failed to score in the league. United’s mini-defeat – they have won only once in their last four games – is no accident.

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But four points from a possible 18 in the Big Six clashes are not enough to withstand a title challenge. Solskjaer’s record against the same teams was much better last season, but will be held to a higher bar this year. The lowest in the last ten competitions is 16, which United can only match by winning their last four games against the English giants.

“We definitely have to take risks and we have players who can do that, but we haven’t done that,” the United manager said. “We keep working, keep working with them on the training ground. Our strikers certainly have some things on their minds. But they have scored so many goals in their careers.

“Now we are not thinking about the title race or the title,” Solskjaer added. “It’s January. We are just concentrating on the way back”. I think the disappointment [against Sheffield United] has been big. The current moment gives us confidence in ourselves because we feel dominant. The reaction and the approach to the game have been very good.

Both sides can point to the positives. Arsenal have gone five games without defeat in six league games since their win over Chelsea on December 26. Martin Odegaard made his debut as a substitute, while United set a club record with their 18th consecutive away game without defeat.

But there will also be a sense of guidance of what could have been. And for United, it’s a familiar feeling in the big games.

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