Sunday morning. I was thinking about our worst performance of the season away to Southampton on Wednesday night. I was thinking about how we were yet to win a game in 2017. I was thinking about Manchester United’s revival; the return of their form… coinciding with the return of some very suspect refereeing decisions going their way. I was thinking of how Wayne Rooney was only one goal away from breaking Bobby Charlton’s goal scoring record. And in the pit of my stomach, I had a horrible feeling. I could hear Martin Tyler’s cringe-worthy commentary, envisage José Mourinho’s smug face, and foresee a sickening late winner, or an unjust decision handing Utd the three points.
And as the news broke that Joel Matip wouldn’t be included in the squad due to Fifa’s ineptitude in informing us of his status, Philippe Coutinho not being fit enough to start, and Nathaniel Clyne’s injury meaning 18 year old Trent Alexander-Arnold would start the game at right back, my fears grew. As we are so used to seeing, things seemed to be conveniently falling into place for Man Utd, and our lads could have let their heads drop.
But thank God I wasn’t out there with them to tell them how the script was looking. Simon Mignolet kept us in it with a couple of superb saves early in the first half, but we gave as good as we got and saw Utd’s vulnerability at set pieces – and seized on it to win the penalty, with Dejan Lovren causing Paul Pogba all manner of problems. Luckily, the Old Traffod advertising boards reminded us all game that the Frenchman has a brand new emoji to keep him happy.
After the goal we had to soak up a bit of pressure, but we did so with relative ease. We could actually have countered better on a couple of occasions too, and potentially given ourselves a two-goal cushion before the break; but 1-0 it remained.
The second half saw a lot of long balls coming our way, with the introduction of Marouane Fellaini epitomising the deftness of Mourinho’s tactical insights. We stood firm for the most part, but struggled to get out and regain control or create chances on the break. Coutinho’s arrival did help with this, and immediately led to a chance that Roberto Firmino should have finished. Georginio Wijnaldum too will be disappointed not to have got on the scoresheet, after twice arriving late into space in the area only for the finish to be lacking.
The equaliser came in predictable fashion; an offside in the build-up, followed by a ball into the box and a scramble in the air due to the presence of Fellaini and Ibrahimovic. It was a bit of a sickener, but having sat deep and tried to soak up the pressure, you did feel it may be coming.
I’d have taken the 1-1 at the start of the game, all things considered, without being overly happy with it as a result. Had Pogba put away his chance in the first half, or Mignolet not got down brilliantly to save Ibrahimovic’s free-kick, we could have been looking at a very different game. On the other hand, we had chances to grab another goal for ourselves, and – as mentioned – the officials also had their influence on the game which altered the way things panned out. On another day, either side could have got the rub of the green and walked away with all three points.
There’s a sense of injustice that we didn’t manage to be the ones to do that, but when it seemed that the momentum was with Utd, I must admit that the thought of them snatching the win was enough to make me think a draw was an acceptable result. From Ander Herrera’s shameless pull on Firmino’s shirt to halt our attack (and not forgetting his pathetic reaction to Roberto’s push on his chest, which led him to fall over clutching his face) to the utter desperation in Martin Tyler’s voice every time Rooney got the ball near our box, I just don’t think I could have coped with losing the game.
Throw in Mourinho trying to get Firmino sent off, Pogba’s assault on Henderson (and the £89m man’s ridiculous new hair), the complete lack of coverage given to whether Antonio Valencia was indeed offside for their goal (there was a begrudging comment from Gary Neville, and no replay to clarify the matter in retrospect), the Utd fans singing about Gerrard as early as the fifth minute, and Rooney’s foul on Milner, it was certainly a game that would have left me feeling aggrieved if we’d come away with nothing. And is anyone else as sick as I am of hearing pundits and interviewers refer to Ibrahimovic as Zlatan? It’s like they want to put their arm round him and give him their secret, best friend handshake.
A shout-out needs to go to Trent Alexander-Arnold for making his first Premier League start in such difficult circumstances. He can’t have had much notice that he was playing, and although he did struggle at times, he can be pleased with his contribution. There can’t be many tougher games to be thrown into for a young lad, mentally, physically, and technically, but he held himself well and didn’t buckle under the pressure.
All in all, it’s not the worst point we’ll pick up this season. And barring a trip to the Etihad, we’ve now got the toughest games of the entire year out of the way. Not that that says a lot for us, given our erratic results against the teams we supposedly should be beating, but confidence-wise it can’t hurt to see that the trickiest trips are done and dusted and out of the way. In the next three games (away to Plymouth in the FA Cup, home to Swansea in the League, and home to Southampton in the League Cup) we have the chance to ensure that recent results have been nothing more than a mini-blip, and we can then carry on our season with the campaign relatively unscathed.
By James Nelson (@_James_Nelson_)