Manchester United beat Arsenal this weekend by a 3-1 scoreline that totally belied the action on the field. United didn’t really deserve to win, in the sense people mean when they say teams that impose their will on their opponent by doing lots of good things while preventing the opposition from doing good things “deserve” to win, but neither really did Arsenal. Yet win the Red Devils did, withstanding a never ending barrage of Arsenal attacks. This was due to a fair amount of luck, but also the brilliance of keeper David de Gea, whose singular heroics that kept the Gunners from rattling in five or six goals made him maybe the one player on his team who came off the pitch truly feeling like he’d earned the victory.
The clearest proof that the match’s final score did not correspond even a little bit to the action came in the form of another stat: 33-8. That is the number of shots Arsenal and United took, respectively. It is as ridiculously lopsided a discrepancy as it seems, and, as advanced metrics like expected goals demonstrate, it shows just how much more threatening the home team was:
As impressive as those shot attempts and expected goals stats are, the biggest reason why the game’s score did not match the underlying statistics was de Gea, who faced down all 33 of those shots—16 of which were on target—and was equal to nearly all of them. He saved 14 of Arsenal’s shots, and put together one of the best goalkeeper performances you’ll ever see:
De Gea’s 14 blocks, parries, catches, kick-aways, and slap-downs tied the Premier League record for most saves in a single match since sports data company Opta began keeping track in 2003. (Supporting the notion that United didn’t really deserve to win the match are the other names that rank up there on the list of most saves in an EPL match, the bulk of which came in matches where the league’s big boys dominated relegation fodder. A team that subjects its keeper to that many shots is one whose defensive strategy has absolutely, comprehensively failed, even if the keeper in question is capable of headstand performances like de Gea’s.) Not all of them were individually all that difficult to keep out, and if Arsenal’s, uh, arsenal of top-class finishers had had even decent days at the office, the Gunners would’ve put at least two or three past de Gea. But that the big Spaniard was in position to make all the easy saves in between the lunging, split-second reflex ones that will go down as some of the best saves of his career proves that he is one of the two or three very best in his position, and that his performance on Saturday was just about as good as it gets.
Because of the odd particulars of this match, it’s hard to take all that much away from the game itself. As horrendous as United’s defending was, Arsenal’s was even worse at a couple of critical moments, as two blunders by defenders in the first 10 minutes gave the Red Devils a two-goal cushion behind which they could sit deep in their own area and weather the ensuing attacking storm. United are usually better than this, and you shouldn’t ignore a season of good-to-great defending off the strength of a single match.
Similarly, Arsenal are not quite this dangerous in attack, and don’t normally turn up like this in big games. Because of how they went down so early, and due to United’s decision to defend with their entire team for the vast majority of the game once they’d taken the lead, Arsenal could afford to throw everything they had into attack. Their ideal attacking line of Lacazette, Özil, and Sánchez continued to demonstrate their combined power and threat, but this weekend’s 33 shots will probably prove closer to the exception than the rule in how Arsenal perform in matches against their top-of-the-table peers. And even if they did dominate so thoroughly for the majority of the game, they won’t win many if they continue gifting their opponents easy goals with boneheaded mistakes.
Still, there was at least one enduring thing to take away from the match, and it’s that David de Gea is a goddamn freak. Hopefully he won’t have to demonstrate his freakiness in quite as harrowing of circumstances as this weekend, but at least he’s done it once just to prove that he can.