16 Conclusions: Arsenal 3-1 Manchester United

Date published: Sunday 24th April 2022 4:24 - Ian King

Granit Xhaka scores Arsenal's third goal against Manchester United

Manchester United improved upon their showing against Liverpool, but that doesn’t alter the fact that their Champions League hopes are over.

 

1) Just as it can be in politics, a week is a long time in professional football. Seven days ago, Arsenal were licking their wounds from a third successive defeat and facing a game in hand that few expected them to win. Meanwhile, Manchester United had recorded a win while seeing both of their opponents slip up in a race for Europe that has resembled an episode of Jeux Sans Frontieres considerably more than it has the Champions League.

By this weekend, things couldn’t have looked much more different. Arsenal sprang unexpectedly to life at Stamford Bridge and have reclaimed the whip hand in the race. At Anfield, Manchester United put in one of those performances that looked rotten at the time and is already ageing badly. The hysteria over The Absolute State of Manchester United has reached fever pitch, even drowning out announcement of the confirmation of Erik ten Hag’s appointment, while Harry Maguire and his family were subjected to a bomb threat. It’s possible that the ill feeling at Old Trafford just might have gone a little too far.

Ralf Rangnick had no alternative but to ring the changes. Maguire was understandably rested, with Cristiano Ronaldo returning from compassionate leave. Raphael Varane, Scott McTominay, Alex Telles and Jadon Sancho also started, with Paul Pogba injured, and Maguire, Marcus Rashford, Phil Jones and Aaron Wan-Bissaka on the bench. A complete defensive reshuffle following a loss that was no less than humiliating.

 

2) Within three minutes, any hope that this reshuffle would plug the leaks in the Manchester United defence were in ruins. Granit Xhaka was given three attempts to get a cross in from the left, and on the third go both Raphael Varane and Diego Dalot swung at fresh air, allowing the ball to run through to Bukayo Saka. His shot was palmed away for Nuno Tavares to touch the ball over the line to give Arsenal the lead.

 

3) For all the screaming and shouting about Manchester United’s defensive woes, Arsenal’s backline often doesn’t feel a great deal more secure. In the 25 minutes following the opener, Bruno Fernandes had a shot deflected narrowly over, Anthony Elanga had an appeal for a penalty for handball against Nuno Tavares waved away, and Dalot had a long-range shot bounce off the Arsenal crossbar to safety.

Elanga looked considerably more effective than he had against Liverpool. Ronaldo is always capable of pulling a rabbit from his hat. Even Jadon Sancho managed to weave a little trickery on the left-hand side. This, combined with Aaron Ramsdale’s occasional brainmelts and Cedric Soares, a man who seems to spend some games trying to remember which of his feet is which, made for a match that was… fun. Remember that?

 

4) Arsenal vs Manchester United is a chaos fixture and has been for many years. In the modern lexicon of the chaos fixture, no match can meet the required criteria without a VAR decision that leaves everybody shouting that they should be getting something. It took 27 minutes to get there. Martin Odegaard flicked the ball through the inside-right channel and Saka, back to goal, tried to shield the ball from Alex Telles. As both players went to ground, the ball bounced loose for Eddie Nketiah to put Arsenal two up.

Or so he thought. In the first place, the VAR officials were looking at an offside decision, but after that was given they switched their focus and gave a penalty for Telles pushing Saka in the back. After what felt like an eternity – Saka himself had the facial expression of a man who didn’t quite understand what he’d just witnessed as he put the ball on the spot – these mental machinations weren’t enough to prevent him from sending David De Gea the wrong way to put Arsenal 2-0 up for a second time.

 

5) Saka’s penalty was the second he’d taken and converted in five days for Arsenal. His previous one before this week was at the end of the final of Euro 2020 last summer. It speaks volumes for his character that he has been able, at such a young age, to pick himself up from that by scoring successive penalties in high-pressure games. He limped from play with 17 minutes left with what looked like a hamstring injury. Mikel Arteta will be hoping that this isn’t serious; Saka is now a critical cog in his engine.

 

6) As pencils sharpened for another round of Manchester United obituaries, Arsenal’s own defensive frailties were temporarily forgotten. This didn’t last very long. Seven minutes after Saka doubled Arsenal’s lead, Manchester United were back in the game when Cristiano Ronaldo scored from a Nemanja Matic cross. Tavares and Gabriel were standing around, largely minding their own business. That frailty was also present against Chelsea in their previous match, and it still feels as though Arsenal could do with slightly more assured options at the back.

 

7) Eddie Nketiah may have missed out on a goal as a result of that offside call, but he continues to move towards a possible answer to Arsenal’s goalscoring problems. This was his 54th appearance for Arsenal, with 40 of those having come as a substitute. After the Chelsea match Mikel Arteta commented that he had “not been fair” to the forward, in not having previously given him sufficient playing time. It now feels as though the decision to replace Alexandre Lacazette could prove to be a significant tipping point towards getting Arsenal to fourth place.

 

8) The second half started in a somewhat sedate manner, as though the two teams had reached the independent conclusion during the interval that they simply couldn’t continue that sort of hectic pace for another 45 minutes. But this feeling of normality was never going to last for very long. It took ten minutes before Matic headed the ball against the extremely unnaturally-positioned arm of Tavares, resulting in a fairly clear penalty for Manchester United.

Bruno Fernandes stepped up and… well… he didn’t so much ‘step up’ as ‘take a little bunny hop as though he had too much Sunny D at half-time’. When you try these fancy tricks you’re only inviting derision should they fail to come off. With Ramsdale diving the other way like the ball was a bomb with its fuse running out, the shot hit the base of the post and trickled harmlessly away. Three inches to the right, and United would have been level at 2-2 with 35 minutes left and the Arsenal defence looking skittish. Ramsdale, of course, leapt around the penalty area afterwards as though he’d saved it himself.

 

9) It was, considering he was on the pitch and had taken both of their successful penalties so far this season, something of a surprise to see Ronaldo didn’t take it. After the events of the last week or so, it would have been completely understandable had he not wanted to take one. Supporters of both clubs marked Ronaldo’s sad loss with a minute’s applause after seven minutes. For the second time in a week, supporters have demonstrated their humanity in the face of what can only have been an unimaginable loss.

He’s 37 years old now and clearly not quite as sharp as he used to be, but this was an assured performance from Ronaldo, even if it wasn’t enough to turn the tide. It remains to be seen whether he will still be a Manchester United player next season or not, but his return did offer a veneer of quality to an attack which was all but invisible in their previous match.

 

10) The two faces of Granit Xhaka showed themselves midway through the second half, but only one would come to have a lasting effect in the outcome. First, he was needlessly booked for booting the ball up into the stand after the referee had already blown the whistle for a free-kick. It was the 50th yellow card of his Arsenal career. But within a couple of minutes, he served a reminder of why he’s still there in the first place with a low drive into the bottom corner. De Gea seemed partially unsighted; there was a brief check to confirm that Nketiah wasn’t offside and blocking his view, but United’s hopes that this might result in the goal being called back turned out to be optimistic. Xhaka’s performance throughout was dominant and assured, and his goal turned out to be a point of no return for Manchester United.

 

11) Within a few minutes of Arsenal’s third goal, tempers were starting to fray a little. Five minutes after the goal, Fernandes went in for a petulant challenge on Tavares which earned him a yellow card but which, despite the attention of the video assistant, wasn’t escalated any further. As tackles go, it was about as close to being a red card without actually being one as is possible. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he was withdrawn a few minutes later, in favour of an afternoon stroll for Juan Mata.


Graft but no guile as Man Utd go down to shaky Gunners 


 

12) But the Xhaka goal was a full stop on proceedings, at least in terms of this match being a contest. It had been a strange old lunchtime. United enjoyed the better chances, but their soft-centred defence left them at risk of conceding every time Arsenal got forward. For the first two-thirds of the second half, United looked capable of scoring. On the hour, Ronaldo had a goal disallowed for offside. At first it looked very clear – the player himself didn’t complain – but replays showed it to have been tighter than most would have imagined. Three minutes later Dalot had Ramsdale leaping across his goal to tip a shot onto the post. Without ever looking seriously impressive in any way, it did feel as though Manchester United were hauling their way back into the game until that feeling was snuffed out by Xhaka’s goal.

 

13) The ramifications of this result stretch beyond Arsenal and Manchester United. This win puts Arsenal three points ahead of Spurs, and while this might well be temporary, it might not. Considering how Spurs have historically reacted when under pressure, there are few guarantees that the matter will not be definitively resolved before the last day of the season, although with Arsenal and Spurs facing each other in their penultimate match, this remains at least possible.

 

14) Arsenal remain flawed. Their defence is skittish and accident-prone. There’s no way of telling how the nerves might have got to them had they been pegged back to 2-2 by Fernandes’ abortive second-half penalty. But a team that had been struggling for goals has now scored seven in two matches, so at least they don’t face the twin threat of being defensively leaky while also unable to score.

But if there’s one thing that all of the teams chasing fourth place have been this season, it’s flaky. There is still a long way to go. Arsenal are moving in the right direction, and now is a very good time of year to be doing that if you’re still actively involved in competition. Odegaard also looks like a better fit for the Arsenal captaincy than either Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang or Alexandre Lacazette did.

 

15) It speaks volumes about the state of Manchester United that, should West Ham United and Wolverhampton Wanderers both win the games in hand they’ve got on them, United would drop to eighth and miss out on Europe altogether next season. It might even be that, considering the hotch-potch that they’ve been, Erik ten Hag will welcome a campaign without the distraction of having to fly halfway across the continent every other Thursday night to Europa Conference League matches.

But this is a fair representation of where Manchester United are. It’s clear that they are a distance short of being good enough for the Champions League, and even the Europa League may be beyond them. So rebuilding work is required, but those who believe that this will be quick and easy are likely only fooling themselves. What Manchester United need is the patience to get through a couple of seasons of low to no expectations without the pressure building to intolerable levels again. Whether it’s even possible to have anything like that at a club that doubles up as a soap opera like no other is a different question altogether.

 

16) There will doubtlessly be some who were incandescent at the level of ‘quality’ on show at the Emirates Stadium, but there can be little doubt that this match was good fun*. It often feels as though there isn’t enough of that in modern football. When everything matters so much and everything is so serious, to see two teams play out 90 minutes of such entertainment – especially in a Saturday lunchtime fixture, when it is commonly assumed that at least some of the players may still be digesting their breakfast – feels refreshing.

Manchester United improved upon their performance against Liverpool, but not by a sufficient amount to lull anyone connected with the club into a false sense of security. Ten Hag has further confirmation of the scale of the task ahead of him in the summer now that he’s accepted a time-share on this poisoned chalice. Arsenal, meanwhile, go marching on, but as we’ve seen repeatedly, it’s not a matter of whether this chasing pack can go marching on; it’s all about how long they can go marching on for.

*Caveats may apply for Manchester United supporters.

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