* “If you look at the expected goals, it was 0.7 for them and 0.6 for us.”
Arsene Wenger, continuing in defence of his Arsenal side after a defeat to Manchester City last month, added that it had been “a very tight game” and that City “created very little”.
The scoreline was the same, but this was the yin to that game’s yang; Arsenal had as many shots in the first half as they and City shared in November (15). The Gunners and Manchester United had a combined 41 efforts on goal as both sides clashed in a frenetic, fast-paced affair. It was pulsating, it was enthralling, and it was genuinely difficult to keep up with at times. It ended 3-1, but on expected goals, this could well have reached double figures.
A half Arsenal began finding extraordinary ways to give away goals, & ended contriving ever more improbable scenarios in which they failed to score them
— Sam Wallace (@SamWallaceTel) December 2, 2017
Fixtures between two title-challenging sides so very rarely entertain and those who criticise the lack of adventure are often mocked. There is something to appreciate in a tactical battle, but this was so refreshingly, brilliantly bonkers. There’s your bloody advert for the Premier League. What a game.
* Jose Mourinho brought his bus, but not for the purposes of parking it. In an away game against fellow elite opposition, the Portuguese ordered his players to drive straight through a defence that parted like a ’90s haircut.
Within 11 minutes, United scored more goals than in their previous eight away games against a fellow top-six club. Arsenal were hurried and harried in possession, and Antonio Valencia and Jesse Lingard were the beneficiaries.
For the first time this season, Mourinho’s tactic in big games was fully rewarded. He sent his team out against Liverpool, Tottenham and Chelsea this season and instructed them to start ferociously in an attempt to secure an early goal, before sitting back and defending stoically. This was the first time that approach truly paid dividends. United were second-best for much of the game, but they had earned the right to be.
* For Arsenal, there is much to be said for their response to going two goals down within 11 minutes. The players looked shellshocked, and Shkodran Mustafi had to be substituted with a broken spirit after his mistake led to United’s second. But they never allowed the game to fully slip from their grasp. There was every danger that the game could go the way of Liverpool’s August demolition of the Gunners in August, but Arsenal showed grit, determination and fight. They had a rather ridiculous 33 shots, and only some inspired goalkeeping from David de Gea and defending from Nemanja Matic and friends prevented them from finding a foothold.
This was a disappointing defeat, and the end of their unbeaten home run. But Arsenal can at least take some consolation in the attitude and mentality of players who have wilted in similar circumstances before.
* They had met 17 times previously. They have opted not to shake hands, and once confronted one another in their respective technical areas during a game in 2014. One branded the other a “voyeur”, as well as a “specialist in failure”. But the rivalry between Wenger and Mourinho has grown more peaceful and playful over the years, the two managers worn by years of tireless sniping.
Both managers were insistent on Friday that Alexandre Lacazette and Nemanja Matic had no chance of playing, and yet the striker and the midfielder took pride of place in the starting line-ups. “It surprised me because the manager said that he was out,” said Mourinho before the game. “So that’s a bad start, that’s a bad start when we say things in the end that don’t happen!”
Even at the ages of 68 and 54, these two former enemies could not help engaging in some light-hearted mind games. That both Lacazette and Matic were among their team’s best players was fitting.
* United deserved both of their early goals as much as Arsenal deserved to concede them. The visitors pressed tirelessly when either of the three centre-halves or Petr Cech was in possession, and the panic it engendered throughout the hosts was palpable.
This is nothing new – although the usual culprit was not responsible this time. It was Per Mertesacker’s poor pass and Granit Xhaka’s lack of a reaction which preceded Everton’s opener in the eventual 5-2 victory in October, while Xhaka’s misplaced pass was directly responsible for Jese Rodriguez’s goal in defeat to Stoke in August. Xhaka was also accountable for this piece of back-heeled brilliance four months ago.
— carlo 🦉 (@sonofabianco) August 29, 2017
Is it a symptom, and thus part of the risk, of Arsenal’s style? When a centre-back’s typical pass to a wing-back is blocked, their options are severely limited, and Koscielny and Mustafi were punished when they could not find an alternative.
Building from the back is a viable tactic, but only when the foundations cannot be blown away with the slightest hint of pressure. That two individuals made a similar mistake is surely no coincidence.
* Considering the storied nature of this fixture, it is little surprise to see that the talents of Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira, Roy Keane, Wayne Rooney, Cristiano Ronaldo and Robin van Persie have often been relied upon to settle these games. In perhaps his finest week as a professional, Jesse Lingard has earned his place alongside such luminaries.
Lingard’s role in a squad constantly challenging for trophies on all fronts will likely still be questioned by many throughout his career. This website and this writer has openly derided his qualities on many an occasion. But there can be no lingering doubts as to what such a limited but dedicated player offers as an option. He led from the front in terms of pressing, linked play wonderfully as a No 10, and ended the game with two deserved goals. This is now the joint-best season of his career in terms of goals, and we have only just entered December.
His versatility and tenacity is such that Juan Mata and Henrikh Mkhitaryan have been forced out of the first-team picture. More talented individuals they may be, but there are few better team players than Messi Lingard.
* The Titanic. Every relationship you have ever had. The last Rolo. The list of things De Gea could save is endless, and this game only added weight to the argument that there is no finer goalkeeper in the world.
The worry was that United’s excellent second goal could have heralded the end of the game as a contest – that they would justifiably shut up shop and seek only to defend a two-goal lead. The hosts would attack with numbers but be greeted with brick walls, buses and brilliant goalkeepers.
The reality was that, under immense pressure, United’s defence coped only marginally better than Arsenal’s had. Lacazette, Mesut Ozil, Alexis Sanchez and Aaron Ramsey combined to create myriad chances, but combinations of De Gea, great defending, terrible finishing and wonderful luck contrived to keep Arsenal out.
The key was De Gea, who made a frankly insulting 14 saves – a joint Premier League record. With Petr Cech, a man John Terry once described as “worth 12 to 15 points a season” in the opposition goal, one could only wonder whether the Spaniard was worth a full title. Thanks to him, we at least have a race.
* Wenger thought he had cracked it. “It’s all linked a little bit with confidence and the fact that we have been more stable defensively and a bit more patient maybe in our game,” he said on Friday.
“We are a team who puts many players in front of the ball when we attack so we are sometimes vulnerable on the counterattacks,” he continued. “On that front maybe the fact that we play with three centre-backs helps a little bit to be caught less on counterattacking.”
The manager will have been alarmed at just how vulnerable Arsenal looked against United’s electric counter-attack on Saturday. Mustafi’s substitution for Alex Iwobi meant the Gunners had to revert to four at the back, and those familiar fears were realised as United threatened every time they broke forward, eventually culminating in Lingard’s decisive and deflating second goal.
If the only way to counter a counter-attack is by using one particular formation, that is a problem. The three-man defence has proven adept at dealing with those issues in recent weeks, but Wenger must find other ways of keeping the door shut when Arsenal take the bins out.
* Of their 33 shots, Arsenal converted only one. Lacazette continues to confound his critics in a quietly impressive season by completing his collection of goals against the Manchester clubs.
The Frenchman would have done well to miss, of course, such was the brilliance of Ramsey’s assist. The Welshman timed his run to perfection, meeting Sanchez’s dinked ball before cushioning it back to Lacazette, who struck from six yards out.
Ramsey and Lacazette seem to have a great understanding, and Mesut has a great understanding with every player. If only we had a left sided attacker that didn't play at his own pace. Most selfish player I've ever seen.
— DaG (@Wrighty_8) December 2, 2017
With two goals and five assists in his last seven games, Ramsey is beginning to settle in the Arsenal midfield after a sustained run of poor form. He can still be an eminently frustrating player with needless flicks and wasteful passing, but he was one of the best players for either side here. It is just a shame that the only starting midfielder who looked out of his depth on such a grand stage was by his side. With Pogba, Matic and Ramsey all impressing, Granit Xhaka was nowhere to be seen.
* “I hope – and it’s bad to say things like this – but I hope they will get some very important players injured like what happened with us. People don’t see this, don’t speak about this, but every time we have important players that get injured when there is important games. So if that starts happening with them as well maybe we’ll get a little difference. A little touch that makes them weaker.”
Congratulations on mastering the art of comedy alongside those of passing and dominating midfields, Paul Pogba. Speaking on the eve of this game, the Frenchman expressed his rather indecent desire for Manchester City to suffer the sort of injuries that United have had to contend with this season. After his second-half red card for a stamp on Hector Bellerin, he will be the main absentee from next week’s Manchester derby.
It may not have been deliberate, but it most certainly was dangerous. As a result, Andre Marriner had little choice but to dismiss United’s calming influence. It removes the club’s best player ahead of their most important game, but the only man to blame there is Pogba.
* It was a disappointing end to an accomplished game from the 24-year-old. When United reverted from setting the pace to counter-attacking at speed, Pogba was crucial. That tactic is only achievable when you have a player who is calm in possession, and who can make the correct decision under pressure. His two assists speak for themselves.
The second was sublime. Arsenal had pulled one goal back through Lacazette but the United defence managed to wriggle the ball out to Lukaku. The Belgian held it up well for Lingard, who played in Pogba. The Frenchman proceeded to make a mockery of Koscielny, holding off his international teammate as he rounded him in the box and centred for the unmarked Lingard to score. As the entire stadium, players, fans, managers and staff lost their heads in the moment, Pogba kept his to decide the game. That is the sort of decisive, unique talent United expected – and have benefited from – when they spent £89million on him two summers ago.
* Marriner was almost faultless for the majority of the game, but proceedings came close to unravelling after Pogba’s dismissal. Two penalty claims came for Arsenal, but both were waved away. I have yet to see the Lacazette incident again so cannot pass judgement, but Welbeck will feel aggrieved that his efforts were not rightly rewarded with a spot kick.
But it is a relief that Wenger decided not to scapegoat the officials after the game. The Frenchman admitted he was “angry” and “disappointed”, but only at having largely dominated a game they had lost. After his claim that “the referees don’t work enough” after supposed injustices against City in November, hopefully he has learned his lesson. Some results simply cannot be easily explained, and so blame cannot be easily apportioned.
* Against ten men, and having dominated both possession and opportunities almost throughout, Arsenal still had a fighting chance even when staring down the barrel of their second two-goal deficit.
Wenger wasted it. As the Frenchman often does, he greeted the smell of blood by throwing on more strikers to congest an already busy penalty area. Olivier Giroud was the predictable Plan B with 15 minutes remaining, but it is no surprise the striker had six touches and no shots. Arsenal ended the game with Giroud, Lacazette, Ozil, Sanchez, Ramsey, Iwobi and Danny Welbeck on the pitch; too many cooks spoiled the potential broth.
Not only did Arsenal not play any crosses into the area to play to Giroud’s strengths, but his introduction starved Ramsey and Ozil of space for the final quarter of an hour. Arsenal’s goal came not through force but delicacy, and at a time when they needed more lockpicks than battering rams, Jack Wilshere would have been the better option.
* This game will almost certainly be used by some as justification for denouncing Ozil and Sanchez. The pair’s dedication to the Arsenal cause has been questioned for months, and doubts persist that either are truly bothered about their current employers when they can open discussions with future ones in a month’s time.
It might not fit the narrative of Martin Keown or countless other former Arsenal players eager to proffer their opinions on two supposed mercenaries, but Ozil was excellent and Sanchez impactful. The Chilean was nowhere near the same pace as Ozil, Ramsey and Lacazette, but no player created more chances for either side (5).
As for Ozil, this audition in front of Mourinho will not have gone unnoticed. He made at least 30 more passes than any other player (107), 12 fewer passes in the opposition half than United’s outfielders combined (95), created four chances and had three shots. As with Pogba, his calm demeanour allowed him to thrive in an otherwise chaotic game.
* To the Victor, the spoils. Lindelof has endured a baptism of fire in his early United career, but has slowly and surely grown into the side after that nightmare against Huddersfield.
This was not the sort of performance that evoked memories of Nemanja Vidic, blood-and-thundering headfirst into the tackle. Nor did it have to. Lindelof was instead assured and disciplined, tasked with monitoring Sanchez. The Chilean was not shackled completely, and broke free on occasion to create chances, but he lost possession more times than any other player (34) thanks to Lindelof’s shadowing.
Okay who wants to chat about Lindelof? 3 straight good games but he’s the worst signing we’ve ever made apparently.
— Big Dubs (@A2Dubie) December 2, 2017
He is not the finished article, but he is also nowhere near finished, as many would have had you believe after his first couple of appearances. It is a shame that his renaissance was only possible with Phil Jones’ injury, but he has taken the chance that was provided.
* It is rare that such games end with one clear victor, but neither manager having truly decided the game. Wenger got his team selection and tactics correct, even if his substitutions were questionable. But he cannot be blamed for the individual errors which settled this match.
Mourinho emerges as the winner, and while he deserves the utmost credit for ensuring his players pressed high early and defending deep late, the Portuguese cannot pretend to have based his game plan upon the everlasting brilliance of De Gea. When the winning team’s goalkeeper is arguably the man of the match, it suggests plenty about how the game unfolded.
Not that Mourinho will care. This was no managerial masterclass, but it was a damn impressive victory in a bloody brilliant game. Everyone was a winner. Except for Arsenal.