Arsenal 2-0 Manchester United: 16 Conclusions

Date published: Sunday 10th March 2019 8:48

Arsenal Manchester United

1) Arsenal have played better and lost. Manchester United have played worse and won. There should be no inquests, no investigations, no fallout, no toys ejected from prams or knees jerking wildly. Football games begin with three possible outcomes, end with only one, and can turn on something as simple as one missed chance, one fine save or one misplaced pass.

The measurables and immeasurables fell in favour of the hosts this time, through a combination of having the better goalkeeper, the better chances and the better approach on the day. It does not necessarily make Arsenal the better side overall, just in this moment.

And therein lies the beauty: Arsenal’s season has been characterised by a fanbase either struggling to come to terms with their new manager or simply refusing to, while United’s campaign has been typified by a support almost unanimously denouncing one leader before appointing and anointing another as the chosen one. Football’s delightful sense of humour means Unai Emery, yet to completely win over either the fans or the media, beats the almost universally backed Ole Gunnar Solskjaer to go above him in the table.

 

2) United will know not to rip it all up and start again, of course. They hit the woodwork twice, forced a couple of fine saves from Bernd Leno and conceded a freak goal and a penalty. The midweek performance against PSG was perhaps smarter – and luckier – but certainly not superior.

Gary Neville was not alone in writing the narrative of a side suffering a hangover from Wednesday, but this was hardly a drunk United pissing in the wardrobe, falling asleep in the bath and waking up to 427 missed calls after a few too many celebratory drinks. They had as many shots, more on target and more possession than a direct rival for Champions League qualification. A disaster this was not.

 

3) A great success it was for Arsenal, and particularly Emery. He had clearly invested in some Word of the Day toilet paper and high-strength laxatives recently, going by his reaction to the Rennes defeat. The Spaniard called for his players to be “positive” despite collective midweek failure, adding: “I want to hear them say: ‘We can do it on Sunday.'”

Actions speak louder than words, of course, and by starting Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Alexandre Lacazette, Mesut Ozil and Aaron Ramsey together for the first time since September 29, Emery turned the volume up to 111. The manager set the positive tone that he had demanded from his players before the game. It was the ultimate example of do as I say, and as I do.

 

4) That ferocious quartet have been together at Arsenal since Aubameyang joined in January 2018, yet this was just their fifth start together; the Gunners had won each of the previous four games. With Arsenal’s only loss in a match in which all four were on the pitch at the same time at any point coming in January, there was cause for optimism. That United inflicted that sole defeat in the FA Cup two months ago brought a familiar sense of predestined dread.

Emery’s reluctance to start all four of his most productive attacking players at the same time has long been questioned, but the reasoning is obvious. It necessitates a naturally attacking line-up which, with Arsenal’s defensive frailties, seems counter-productive. And the manager’s recent pairing of Lacazette with Ramsey and Aubameyang with Ozil has bore delicious, juicy fruit.

But in the 340 minutes the quartet had spent on the pitch together at the same time in an Arsenal shirt, the Gunners had scored ten goals and conceded just three. Make that 417 minutes, 12 goals scored, and still just three conceded. For Arsenal at least, attack really might be the best form of defence.

 

5) Arsenal did start quickest with a dangerous Sead Kolasinac cross, before Chris Smalling outpaced Aubameyang because nothing makes sense anymore and everything is broken. But the first real chance came the way of Romelu Lukaku. With two goals in each of his last three games, the outcome felt inevitable.

His effort from six yards out rebounded up off the ground and onto the crossbar, with Fred miscuing from Paul Pogba’s subsequent pullback. The opportunity had gone, and Arsenal rushed back to close the door they had left open.

It was Luke Shaw who created the chance with a fine run down the left-hand side before trading passes with Pogba and providing a tantalising cross. United’s performance fluctuated without, but their left-back remained excellent. No United player made more key passes (3), tackles (5) or clearances (2). If even just one or two teammates had matched his display, the visitors might have won.

 

6) The opening goal came from Shaw’s side three minutes after Lukaku hit the crossbar, but the England international can hardly be blamed. Ainsley Maitland-Niles raced down the wing and found Lacazette in the centre, just outside the box. He held off one challenge before laying the ball off to Granit Xhaka, who left De Gea stranded with a long-range strike.

Xhaka deserves credit for an effort which completely fooled De Gea, and Matic should be admonished for failing to close him down. But Lacazette should be praised too. His supreme, patient hold-up play allowed Xhaka to ghost into space from a situation where many other strikers would have tried to turn their marker and dribble into the box themselves. If Aubameyang poses direct danger with his pace and movement, Lacazette is the more latent, but no less effective, threat.

 

7) Having examined the footage, the goalkeepers’ union released a statement shortly thereafter. De Gea was absolved of the blame due to the flight of the ball, struck to his left before swerving slightly to his right. Even the smallest movement from one side to the other would render the best shot-stoppers beaten if they had already set themselves. No-one could possibly expect to predict such a sudden fluctuation.

But that is surely the point. De Gea’s strength lies in his ability to leave it so late to successfully react to danger. He has never been particularly proactive, and has always excelled at putting out fires instead of preventing them in the first place. So his decision to anticipate the flight of the ball was peculiar, a sign of a player not quite operating at his imperious best.

There will still be those who defend De Gea for the goal, and that is understandable. But the Spaniard himself will surely admit it was a mistake on his part. Once you set the bar so high, the onus is on you to clear it, not lower it.

 

8) It was the first time United had gone behind in an away game since Solskjaer’s appointment, and therefore the latest in a long line of tests of the Norwegian’s credentials.

He had passed each of the previous examinations with flying colours, but did not seem to have revised quite as intently for this one. Ozil was revelling in the space afforded to him by United’s unconventional shape, and Arsenal almost doubled their lead five minutes after the opener when the German played Lacazette in, only for Ashley Young to block the shot.

After half an hour, Solskjaer eventually reacted and sought to cut off the supply lines to both Ozil and Kolasinac. He matched up with Emery by switching to a back three, and the improvement was almost instant. Quite why it took so long was a mystery.

 

9) Before the change of system, United had either been overrun or bypassed completely in midfield. Pogba was peripheral on the left-hand side, and Nemanja Matic and Fred looked like uncomfortable partners in the centre.

They really did struggle to deal with the combination of Xhaka and Ramsey, who were both excellent. The former was crucial in his distribution and control, ending the game with 20 more passes than any Arsenal player. But he did not shirk his defensive responsibilities, heroically blocking a Marcus Rashford effort on the stroke of half-time.

Ramsey was even better, displaying the sort of discipline that many feared he lacked to compete in a midfield two before the game. The Welshman made a quite ridiculous eight tackles and ran the furthest of any player (12.69km).

For both, this was retribution. Xhaka has been quietly excellent for the majority of this season and has become crucial to Arsenal’s approach. Ramsey ensured that his last Gunners game against a Big Six side ended in a victory that few honestly expected.

 

10) The final ten minutes of the first half saw United produce two supreme attacks. Smalling orchestrated the first, looking far more confident in a back three and finding Shaw with a sumptuous pass on the left-hand side. A combination with Pogba and Rashford eventually found Lukaku, who forced his way past Nacho Monreal and tried to round Leno. The German was quite literally on hand to keep him out.

Eight minutes later, the best move of the game saw United move the ball from their own area to the other in around ten seconds. From Matic’s tackle on Ozil to Pogba’s sensational pass over the top to Lukaku, Arsenal had been carved open. The only thing that could stop Rashford converting Diogo Dalot’s cross was Xhaka’s aforementioned block, but United served a welcome reminder of their searing pace on the counter-attack.

 

11) Arsenal’s reaction after half-time was simple: let United have more of the ball.

After having 53.9% possession in the first half, the hosts sat back much more in the second with 36.6%. The first 15 minutes after the restart saw United have four unanswered shots as they acclimatised to a new challenge. But Arsenal’s new defensive approach was only viable because Leno, Laurent Koscielny and Sokratis were fantastic at the back, supported by Monreal and Maitland-Niles. If United found their way past even two or three players, there was always one or two left willing to throw themselves on the line in the end.

 

12) Maitland-Niles was particularly impressive, even if many Arsenal fans have long decided he is not of the requisite standard. He made four tackles, five interceptions and one chance in a performance that was not designed to steal the headlines, but was perhaps worth a picture caption or two.

It is plain to see why Emery likes him. A versatile 21-year-old whose seven Premier League starts this season have come in four different positions (left-back, right-back, right wing-back, right midfield) is a manager’s dream. Not every player can have the mercurial talent of Ozil or the god-given physical attributes of Aubameyang; every squad needs a someone with a little from column A, a little from column B and a little more from column C – tactical intelligence. Maitland-Niles fits that role well.

 

13) United really should have equalised, mind. Lukaku’s miss early in the second half was a prime example of a chance where both the striker can be blamed and the goalkeeper praised. The failure of one does not always have to supersede the success of the other.

It was another fantastic save from Leno on his best performance as an Arsenal player, but it was the sort of miss which Lukaku is painfully capable of. His touch from a brilliant Rashford pass was just too heavy, and the opportunity almost gone by the time he finally took his shot.

The Belgian has benefited from Solskjaer’s management, and has been in great form recently. Only seven players have more Premier League goals this season. But it would not be a monumental surprise to see United target a more suitable forward in the summer.

 

14) That miss seemed to sap both the player and his team’s confidence. United had banked on scoring early in the second half, and they have been so clinical that they have not needed a multitude of chances. So when one so notable went begging, it affected them.

Lacazette was again on hand to apply salt to the wounded area. He was by far the best of the four strikers who started, and was the difference again as the game wore on. The Frenchman spotted a gap in the United defence and drove into it, winning a penalty after Fred came across to try and thwart him. It was soft, the Brazilian having simply placed a hand on the forward’s back, but United would have been incensed had the roles been reversed and it not been given.

United will complain, but some introspection would not go amiss. There was no wave after wave of attacks from the visitors towards the end; their only shot after the 60th minute was in stoppage time. Penalty or no penalty, Arsenal would most likely have won regardless.

 

15) This was the first gameweek of the season in which both Chelsea and Tottenham had dropped points, so the stakes were as high as ever. Arsenal are now just one point and one goal behind their bitter north London rivals with Watford their highest-placed opponent remaining.

Whether the Gunners finish fourth or not, Emery has earned patience and support. The Spaniard has instilled a greater solidity into a team who crumbled in this sort of fixture all too often in Arsene Wenger’s final days. And for a supposedly defensive coach, Liverpool have scored just five more Premier League goals.

His management of Ozil has been controversial, but results and performances such as Sunday’s shows just how effective it can be. His mid-game changes became predictable and unproductive, but he set Arsenal up so well at the Emirates from the start that he forced Europe’s form team into a tactical switch after half an hour. His inability to be Arsene Wenger will still count against him for many supporters, but those able to move on can embrace and accept something different.

It took Arsenal until May last season to reach 60 points. March is not yet two weeks old, and the Gunners have reached that milestone with a presentable list of games remaining. As of right now, few managers can claim to have done a better job this season.

 

16) It will be genuinely interesting to see what unfolds after the first undisputed setback of Solskjaer’s nascent reign. The first-leg defeat to PSG at Old Trafford was both easy to almost instantly – and sensationally – rectify, and forgivable when taking the strength of the opposition into account. This was anything but.

United, on a club-record run of away wins and against a team below them in the table, were well beaten. They ended the first half perhaps unfortunate to be a goal down but ended the second with no legitimate complaints about losing by two. It is an unfamiliar feeling.

Solskjaer was culpable. His system seemed an ill fit from the start, some of the players he rewarded with a start – namely Pogba and Matic – hardly repaid his faith, and the substitutes were altogether too late to make an impact, with Anthony Martial the first to be introduced at 2-0.

It was going to happen sooner or later. Ole has been cruising at the wheel for three months but has finally veered off-course. No amount of reminiscing over the illustrious past or extolling the virtues of the ‘United way’ will turn this into anything but a disappointing and avoidable defeat.

The intrigue now is in the response. United have two visits to Wolves, games against a difficult mid-table menagerie in Watford, West Ham and Everton, and a Champions League quarter-final to contend with over the next month and a half. Their season still hangs in the balance.

This was a reminder that United are fifth in a six-horse Premier League race, no higher than fifth in an eight-horse Champions League race, and have had to maintain an unrealistic pace just to reach those points. Solskjaer must now help them recover from their first bout of post-Mourinho stitch.

Matt Stead

 


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