Manchester United 2-1 Arsenal: 16 Conclusions

Date published: Sunday 29th April 2018 7:08

* What started with a 2-2 draw at Highbury in December 2004 ends with a 2-1 defeat at Old Trafford in April 2018. The history between Arsene Wenger and Jose Mourinho is long, the rivalry storied and, at times, heated. This was never going to be a game to live up to either the background of this fixture or of previous meetings between these two managers, but it was interesting nonetheless.

Mourinho wasted little time in firing a warning to his managerial contemporaries when he was appointed Chelsea manager for the first time in the summer of 2004. During his first press conference, the Portuguese told the gathered media: “If they don’t touch me, I won’t touch anyone. If they touch me, I’ll be ready to hit back even harder.”

The years that followed certainly backed up that threat, with Wenger cast as the longest and most worthy adversary of Mourinho’s time in England. Yet this has never felt like much of an even battle on the pitch: Wenger will leave the Premier League having beaten Mourinho only once in 14 attempts.

Arsenal’s other engagements ensured this would never go down as one of the classics, but the game draws a close on one of the most engaging and enduring rivalries in Premier League history. It was fitting that not only did Mourinho beat Wenger, but he did so in ‘Fergie Time’.

 

* There was a stark – and expected – contrast in the starting line-ups. United, eager to keep a firm grip on second place while building momentum for the FA Cup final, made just one change. Victor Lindelof did not misplace one of his 30 passes in a faultless first half, before reverting to unassured type in the second.

Arsenal, on the other hand, had an eye on Atletico Madrid. Having placed all of their eggs in the Europa League basket – despite dropping said basket on their toe and breaking a few shells on Thursday-just three players retained their places from midweek: David Ospina, Hector Bellerin and Granit Xhaka.

The response was predictable, and imminent catastrophe was forecast. In Wenger’s last game at Old Trafford, against a United side in high spirits, the score could be embarrassing. This was Arsenal’s youngest starting line-up (24y, 67d) since August 2011, when they lost 8-2 to this same side at this same stadium.

But Arsenal made nine changes: eight were personnel, and the final one was to swap fear for faith. These players were not inhibited or insecure, damaged by the club’s inability to earn a single away point in the league this calendar year. Rather, they played with more freedom and endeavour, and most of the younger players overachieved instead of being overawed.

The pointless away run – both literal and figurative – continues, but this was Arsenal’s best performance on the road in some time.

 

* Those declaring this to be an under-strength Arsenal side were hardly wide of the mark, yet it featured three of the ten most expensive players in the club’s history. Calum Chambers acquitted himself well in an unfamiliar role as senior centre-half, while Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Henrikh Mkhitaryan provided a constant threat at the other end.

Mkhitaryan was particularly impressive in the early stages, drifting from left to right seamlessly to occupy the spaces between United’s midfield and defence. Reiss Nelson and Bellerin seemed to benefit from the Armenian’s movement the most, overlapping well to target Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia. Both full-backs have been excellent this season, but can show signs of weakness when put under pressure.

United had the first shot of the game, Pogba snatching at an effort when well placed, but Arsenal arguably started the better of the two sides. Whether that points to United’s complacency and inconsistency, Arsenal being somewhat freed from their shackles or a combination of the two is difficult to say. It certainly came as a surprise.

 

* Yet United, as United often do, offered the perfect response. The “resilience” that Mourinho so craves was evident against Tottenham last week, against Manchester City earlier this month, against Crystal Palace last month and against Chelsea in February. The only difference was that they did not have to go behind to react to adversity on this occasion.

The opening goal came from a possible Arsenal mistake, one that was punished in the most ruthless fashion imaginable. Nelson was crowded out while trying to dribble, with Jesse Lingard quickly releasing the ball to Pogba. The Frenchman pushed forward, danced past Granit Xhaka and picked out Romelu Lukaku. The Belgian’s cross was perfect for Alexis Sanchez, whose deflected header hit the post. Pogba was on hand with a simple finish.

It seems like an age ago that stories were rife of United being willing to sell the midfielder, that he and Mourinho were not even on speaking terms. The Frenchman now has two goals and two assists in five games, and three goals and three assists in six games against Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester City and Tottenham this season. He has a much higher ceiling, but Graeme Souness used his room for improvement as a criticism before the game. It should be the opposite: this is a 25-year-old learning how to regularly dominate midfield battles, and doing a damn fine job at that.

 

* Souness reserved his pre-match ire for Pogba, but his scathing half-time criticism was reserved only for Xhaka. The Scot has quite the monopoly over withering assessments of central midfielders.

“Don’t commit like that, don’t expose your central defenders. Stay in the game. That’s a tackle for people in row Z, people watching at home, to make it look like he’s doing something. It’s kid-on football and it’s just more of the same from Arsenal. Does he do that in training? Of course he does. Why hasn’t anyone told him? They need a couple of men in there to sort it out. I’d have done that once at Liverpool and I’d have been on the bench.”

You do have to remind yourself that Xhaka is six months older than Pogba, and really ought to have known better. The decision to try and stop the Frenchman’s run with a slide tackle was rash, ill-advised and easily readable, and Pogba capitalised. The lack of tracking back was also regrettable – although there is likely little he could have done.

But the criticism, as it often does, was over the top. Xhaka was tidy up until that point and thereafter, and has improved considerably in the last few months. It would be unfair to suggest this was two steps back after about ten forward recently.

Perhaps Souness changed his mind by full-time. No Arsenal player created more chances than Xhaka (2), who assisted the equaliser. For some reason, 20 minutes were not dedicated to scrutinising that.

 

* The expectation was that United would push on after Pogba’s goal, looking to expose any and every weakness in a precocious Arsenal defence. The players were different, but would they capitulate under the first sign of pressure as their elders so often do?

Far from it. United did not have another shot until Pogba’s blocked effort ten minutes later, allowing Arsenal to grow into the game and find a foothold. A wonderful flowing move on 20 minutes ended with Ainsley Maitland-Niles cleverly backheeling the ball into Mkhitaryan’s path, with the Armenian’s effort flashing just wide of David de Gea’s post.

Arsenal even ended the half in the ascendancy despite the deficit. Aubameyang and Nelson both had fine chances through crosses from the right-hand side, as United seemed to rest on the laurels of their opening goal. It really did seem as though they underestimated the opposition. That is becoming a worrying common occurrence.

 

* It took Arsenal just six minutes into the second half to reap the rewards of such a sloppy, lackadaisical attitude, one that was illustrated by United’s own part in the equaliser. Valencia intercepted the ball on the right-hand side before playing it to Ander Herrera, who left it for Nemanja Matic. The miscommunication and indecision allowed Xhaka to win possession and feed Mkhitaryan, whose run and finish was exquisite.

Mkhitaryan was the game’s best player. The 29-year-old has spoken fondly of his time at Old Trafford and his relationship with Mourinho, but his was the performance of a player with a point to prove. United seemed to target him – no player was fouled more often (4) – but while Mkhitaryan never responded well to such physical treatment at United, it spurred him on here. This was a display to silence accusations of shirking under pressure. This time, Mkhitaryan thrived under it.

 

* With that said, Maitland-Niles was a worthy recipient of the Man of the Match award. The 20-year-old played with remarkable composure against a midfield of Pogba, Matic and Herrera in only his third ever start in Arsenal’s central midfield. Considering the previous two came against Östersund, this was a gargantuan step up.

And it was one that he took in his long stride. Maitland-Niles not only emerged from a daunting midfield battle unscathed, but arguably as the victor. He was efficient in winning the ball, and while he could undoubtedly learn to use it better when in possession, these are sturdy foundations the new manager will look to build on.

“He is a defensive midfielder, basically,” said Wenger in January – although he was deployed perhaps a little too far forward at Old Trafford. “What he is doing at the moment will help him develop as a player because he plays in a different position but at some stage I will play him in at defensive midfield.”

It is safe to say that Maitland-Niles has learned his trade at left-back. His versatility will be an asset to Wenger’s replacement, but the hope is that he is used in his favoured position more often than not. He encapsulated Arsenal’s fearlessness.

 

* Coupled with Lukaku’s substitution two minutes earlier, Mkhitaryan’s goal meant the tide had suddenly turned. United were on the back foot and Arsenal were unfathomably in a position of power.

The removal of Lukaku provided one of United’s fringe forwards with an opportunity to impress however. Mourinho was tasked with deciding between Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial, and chose the former. Rashford had one shot, made three passes, completed one dribble and failed to create a single chance in 41 minutes, while Martial had one shot, completed two dribbles and created one chance in 27.

This is not to denigrate Rashford, whose attributes are different to Lukaku’s and therefore it is a thankless task if United do not change their approach to suit him. But one does have to wonder whether Martial is satisfied with his current role. With Lingard’s form dropping too, there must be more first-team opportunities on the horizon.

 

* Of course, if you listen to Jamie Redknapp, you are a) a fool, and b) certain that none of United’s attacking players are actually happy at the club.

“Look at Juan Mata, just sat on the bench, not warming up. I just don’t get it, I wonder what United fans must be thinking about that.”

Probably not an awful lot, Jamie; United had already made all three of their substitutions by that point. Not to tar everyone with the same brush, but what do those decrying the supposed slipping standards in terms of refereeing think of the current quality of punditry?

 

* Redknapp’s main gripe with Mourinho was when the Portuguese introduced Marouane Fellaini in the 63rd minute in a double substitution along with Martial. It was pretty much a given that the Belgian would score the winning goal by full-time.

Mourinho has never disguised his fondness for Fellaini, nor one of the main reasons for that affection. “When you have on the bench a player with two metres, you play the player in front of the defensive line to help the team to win the match,” he once said. Fellaini was again brought on to “help the team win the match”, but this time in search of scoring a goal, not preventing one.

For such a tall side, United are woeful at making their height advantage count. Fellaini won two aerial duels in less than half an hour; his teammates won as many combined throughout the whole game. The first time was a warning to Arsenal, the Belgian’s header hitting the post and rebounding off an offside Rashford and into the goal. Minutes later, Fellaini nodded on Young’s cross for an effort that looped over Ospina and into the net.

“He told me to go into the box,” Fellaini said of Mourinho’s message post-match. The plan, as it often has with the manager this season, worked. United substitutes have scored 12 goals in the Premier League this season – more than any other team.

 

* Had Fellaini been up against Konstantinos Mavropanos for the header, the story might have gone a little differently. Xhaka had no chance against the towering midfielder, and United had their win.

That should take nothing away from the performance of Mavropanos, who was excellent on his Arsenal debut. The centre-half made one tackle, three clearances and four interceptions, and blocked two shots in a fine display. Aside from one or two forgivable moments, he held Lukaku at arm’s length.

The 20-year-old is the 221st player to feature for the Gunners under Wenger, and one final sign that the Frenchman can still spot a talent. Thrown into the ocean – never mind the deep end – Mavropanos kept his calm and returned to shore with his reputation augmented.

 

* Alongside him, Chambers deserves credit. Arsenal have kept just one clean sheet in the nine Premier League games Chambers has started this season, but failure to keep out the opposition was not his fault this time. No player made more clearances (9) or blocked more shots (2).

Under the right manager, Chambers could develop into a fine player. Laurent Koscielny and Shkodran Mustafi should be sheepish in training on Monday, such has been their decline this season. Chambers and Mavropanos are not the answer, but their collective display should lead to justified questions.

 

* With three goals and five assists in 12 games, Mkhitaryan can just about boast bragging rights over Sanchez, who has delivered the same return in 15 matches. But this was a game to prove that both are undoubtedly more suited to their current employers than their former one.

Sanchez was such a dominant figure in Arsenal’s attack that the club could not have hoped to directly replace him. To that effect, Mkhitaryan has been key. He helps shoulder the creative burden left by the Chilean, and benefits from there being less pressure to help in defence. “It’s important for me to play in an offensive team,” he said earlier this month.

Mkhitaryan was such a submissive figure in United’s attack that the club could not fail to replace him. The Armenian offered little different – or at least not on a consistent basis – compared to the rest of his former teammates. He is a fine player, but Old Trafford was never the right environment for him.

“I joined Arsenal because Wenger wanted me, not because he wanted to replace Sanchez,” Mkhitaryan added in that aforementioned interview. “We are different players and characters, with different abilities and skills, so I’ll try my best to do everything for the club.” The January swap was a move that suited all parties; their first meeting since was just confirmation.

 

* There were familiar complaints of a lack of “character” from Sky Sports’ experts, of Arsenal needing leadership on the pitch, for someone to set the tone. Such accusations were fair when made during the Carabao Cup surrender against Manchester City, or the defeat to the same side just days later. But this just felt lazy and unimaginative. Arsenal made 28 tackles to United’s 16, had as many shots on target (3) and more than held their own despite fielding a weakened side against a full-strength team.

In 27 minutes, Danny Welbeck made five tackles. The wholesale changes ensured there was no lack of fight in this Arsenal side, just a deficiency in direction and fortune.

 

* The reception Wenger received was, thankfully, warm. The Frenchman was applauded by the home fans as he walked along the touchline before the match, and greeted by Mourinho. He was then presented a gift by Sir Alex Ferguson, neatly enveloping his two biggest rivals of the last 22 years. Wenger seemed genuinely touched by the welcome – although he was under no illusions after the game: “It shows once you’re not a danger any more people love you.”

Still, it was a fitting tribute to a foe turned friend. That it was subsequently pierced by chants of “Arsene Wenger, we want you to stay”, which in turn had followed choruses of “f**k off, Sanchez”, summarises why football is the bloody best.

Matt Stead

 


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