In the cold light of day, coming away with a draw was perfectly palatable and yet I can’t help but have an underlying feeling of “what could have been”. Bruno Fernandes callously and petulantly raking Xhaka’s calf – adverbs so often used to describe Xhaka after the numerous red cards he’s seen – could easily have seen him taking an early walk down the tunnel in a universe where VAR actually makes sense. There were also notable absentees from the starting lineup, who may have made the difference in an otherwise closely-contested affair, with United having no such problems on this front.
A draw still doesn’t take anything away from what was another step forward in the right direction and a testament to this increasingly streamlined squad, whose depth showed more resilience and ability than they’re perhaps given credit for. With Tierney once again ruled out, it was another chance for Cédric to justify his questionable contractual situation and despite picking up an early booking, he produced another dependable performance played out of position. With the late timing of Saka’s injury reveal, Pépé was also given a fighting chance to surprise United’s preparations on the opposite wing. He may not be a like-for-like replacement to Saka, he was our best attacking threat on the day and if not for Maguire’s block, would have slotted past a beaten De Gea. He not only got through a lot of defensive work, but is also beginning to show signs of development at long last; fewer occasions where I felt he boxed himself into a corner or held onto the ball for too long and he continues to find himself in the right areas.
It was also the first time since the opening matchday where I thought Willian was actually a Premier League-level footballer. After Martinelli was taken off at halftime, I assumed there was some kind of injury but Arteta cleared this up in his post-match interview, explaining it was a “tactical decision”. His first real involvement was to waste one of our best chances of the game, but given the fact he’d only just come on, the first touch and unconvincing finish was a bit easier to swallow thanks to the rest of his performance. It wasn’t long before he put the ball on a plate for Pépé’s aforementioned chance and he got through a lot of defensive work.
Both sides enjoyed peaks and troughs and but save for Leno’s brilliant denial against Fred, it was a match dominated by centre-backs making a name for themselves. After some typical Luiz-mania that threatened to rear its head against Southampton, he rose to the occasion and earned himself a Man of The Match award (after his left-footed 30 yard volley and umpteenth unsuccessful freekick were overlooked). His partner in Holding once again lead the way in headed clearances and was a £78m-cheaper version of United’s slab-headed counterpart. We perhaps rode our luck at times with the intensity of United’s pressure as Rashford and Cavani both squandered some great chances, but so too did they after Lacazette saw his freekick cruelly denied by the underside of the crossbar.
In the end, that’s another clean sheet, and more notably it was against a United side who have been rampant since their defeat to Arsenal at Old Trafford. I never bought into the idea that they were genuine title contenders – they’ve rode their luck in recent times and if the two team’s relative positions in the league table are anything to go by, the gap is far closer than the points tally would suggest. It’s probably still “too little, too late” for making something of this season but an emerging theme is that this club is once again difficult to beat. It seems strange to have had such a quick change in fortunes – especially when one of the key catalysts was a 20-year-old academy product – but the sport is as fickle as it gets.
Going forward, it gave more minutes to Partey who I still don’t think is operating at full potential yet. While he may have been uncharacteristically poor in possession, he was an important cog in stretching United and breaking up play alongside Xhaka and while it was a brief introduction, bedding Ødegaard in the team is one less thing in the to-do list.
With the absentees seemingly all close to a return, it feels like things may be coming together just as we head into the business end of the season. I’m buoyed by certain players reaching new, lofty heights like Saka and Leno and others like Lacazette have seemingly returned from the dead and are once again integral to what we do. If a few more can really step up to the mark, we might just be in business. I can’t help but always look ahead to our tie with Benfica, because that’s the one that stands out as really mattering but with so much congestion in the top half of the table, I’m still confident that we can make something of this season one way or the other.