16 Conclusions on Manchester United 3-1 Arsenal – Arteta, Antony, Eriksen and more

Date published: Monday 5th September 2022 12:56 - Matthew Stead

It was a wonderfully eclectic debut for Antony, a poor game from Mikel Arteta and proof that Manchester United will probably be about alright.

 

1) That’s two Arsenal Invincible runs Manchester United have ended now. The excitement at discovering which player lobbed Italian goods at Erik ten Hag in the tunnel is palpable. Rob Holding has to be the early favourite.

 

2) It feels like a trick of the mind to think Manchester United hit absolute rock bottom just over three weeks ago. In the 22 days that have passed since the 4-0 thrashing by Brentford, the mood has been completely transformed.

You can already imagine the newspaper broadsheet or Athletic 5,000-word feature about the resurrection of Manchester United: how Ten Hag won the squad around with that 13.8km run; when the owners realised they had to back him with a bigger budget than planned; how Lisandro Martinez shattered the stigma of tiny centre-halves; and anecdotes about Harry Maguire and Cristiano Ronaldo becoming the greatest of friends after sharing a bench together so often.

This really has been a stunning turnaround achieved in little over three weeks. Credit must go to Ten Hag, the players and the board for their part in it, because it would have been easier to spiral further from that defeat than it has been to drag themselves back.

 

3) After the understandable jerk of knees which followed those chastening losses to Brighton and Brentford, there is a danger in going too far the other way as a reaction to four straight wins.

Manchester United have not been fixed. They look more resilient in defence and effective in attack. They are finally being coached to a high standard – and the players are embracing the guidance. They have a manager able to make bold, independent decisions to which they insist on being held accountable. The atmosphere is perceptibly more positive.

But as with any rebuild, these foundations are volatile. Crystal Palace and Leeds provide different challenges in the next fortnight before a trip to Manchester City. Manchester United’s reaction to the inevitable next setback will be more indicative than any of these victories.

Does the squad’s absolute faith in Ten Hag’s methods only extend as long as this winning run or are those ideals embedded enough to sustain disappointment, particularly in a team known to have fluctuating confidence levels?

 

4) The positive for Arsenal is that Mikel Arteta feels his players are at that stage: they can roll with the odd punch and still be ready to go for the next fight.

“It won’t happen,” was his response when asked how he will prevent this from affecting the players’ belief in the fabled process. “The performance was there.”

To the extent that Arsenal had more shots, more possession and more periods during which they looked the brighter team, yes. But they also earned this loss as much as a well-drilled Manchester United obtained the victory. Individual errors underpinned the promising nature of their display.

It will be interesting to see what comes next for Arsenal. Their recent pattern has been for one negative result to follow another: they lost to Spurs and Newcastle within four days in May, went on a three-game losing streak in April, drew with Burnley after losing to Manchester City in January, failed to beat Crystal Palace and Brighton in consecutive October matches and started last season with that awful streak. They need to show they can bounce back convincingly this time.

 

5) Arteta must accept responsibility for the defeat, too. His triple substitution was a peculiar decision both in terms of the concept and the timing.

It came eight minutes after Manchester United regained the lead, thus long enough for it to be a considered call. And the formation shift surrendered the initiative to the hosts, who were almost invited to counter-attack at will thereafter with only Granit Xhaka protecting an organisationally bereft defence.

Throwing Emile Smith Rowe, Fabio Vieira and Eddie Nketiah on together and changing the system despite Arsenal actually playing quite well felt curiously impulsive and does rather undermine Arteta’s suggestion that the Gunners “were totally dominant and in complete control”. That naive panic told us otherwise and was in contrast to Ten Hag’s trust in the approach he devised and the players he asked to carry it out.

 

6) That Arteta also noted of the opposition that “in any moment, when they have open spaces, they’re going to hurt you” is damning. The Spaniard specifically opened those central areas up further by bringing on more attacking players and abandoning all pretence of structure. Perhaps Richard Keys has finally rattled him.

Arteta speaks on Arsenal

 

7) Considering this was the weekend when officiating collapsed in on itself, during a season in which managers, pundits, fans and even players are scrutinising the performances of referees twice as thoroughly as VAR might pore over a potential handball, it seems important to note that Paul Tierney was very good. Not flawless – and to expect as such from any human-led aspect of the game is utterly ludicrous – but everything flowed well and the key decisions over which he had autonomy were correct.

There were jeers around Old Trafford in the first half when a potential Manchester United counter was curtailed after Tierney stopped play with Gabriel Jesus prone on the pitch. The forward had been tackled fairly by Scott McTominay but the referee spotted a possible head injury and was completely justified in blowing the whistle, even knowing Bruno Fernandes would spend the next couple of minutes chewing his ear off.

The advantage that was played in the build-up to the Antony goal was also spot on. There was mass hysteria among the typically sensible and level-headed Arsenal fanbase when Salford-born referee Tierney and VAR Lee Mason, from Greater Manchester, were selected for this game. As it happens, they disguised the Premier League’s obvious anti-Arsenal conspiracy pretty well in solid displays. The praise will presumably be as loud as the recent criticism.

 

8) There will be a section of the Arsenal fanbase left utterly infuriated by the suggestion that the referees did not irrefutably prove themselves to be on the Manchester United payroll over the course of those 90 minutes. And one must proceed with caution from here: these supporters are capable of tracking a specific chauffeur car flying down the M40 from grainy footage when fuelled by transfer deadline day excitement. Charged with a sense of injustice, their powers and inhibitions might know no bounds.

But the decision to disallow the goal could have gone either way and one party would always have had legitimate grievances. Martin Odegaard did make contact with Christian Eriksen. Any conclusion beyond that is based purely on conjecture: was it enough to unbalance the Manchester United player? Did it really qualify as a foul? What happened to the directive about more lenient officiating?

The problem in this and many instances with VAR is the initial line about it being for clear and obvious errors. This was patently neither, yet the horse has bolted so far by this point that it has already lived an unfulfilling life and been turned into glue. But frankly we all made this bed by pissing and moaning about such marginal decisions in the past so there you go.

 

9) Antony’s got that dog in him, like a crossbreed between Bruno Fernandes and Richarlison.

He has the former’s desperation to entertain and take responsibility, constantly showing for and often even demanding the ball from teammates, seemingly powered by positive reinforcement from supporters thrilled at the prospect of a player who genuinely wants to be in possession rather than treating the ball like an updated energy bill.

He has the latter’s sh*thouse tendencies. Graeme Souness would probably call it “the Samba gene” or something. But he celebrated his goal by aggressively kissing the badge of a club he had officially represented for about half an hour by that stage – as is his wont – and soon after he tried to lob Aaron Ramsdale from 35-odd yards.

He is, in a phrase, incredibly good fun.

 

10) Antony also went straight through McTominay in the first half with a delightful slide tackle when trying to block a pass. It was pretty much the archetypal ‘he’ll get on just fine here/he’s a fan favourite already’ performance.

Also, the Scot jumped straight back up to his feet despite it being precisely the sort of challenge which would have left him in a crumpled heap for a good minute or so in the attempt to get the perpetrator booked. That is objectively funny and should be actively encouraged.

 

11) McTominay’s 71st-minute yellow card was the single most bookable offence ever committed. The flick from Cristiano Ronaldo was a little short and Jesus nipped in to steal the ball, threatening a counter-attack at 2-1 down. McTominay grabbed him with one hand, deemed that too stand-offish so transitioned into a bearhug, then spun him to the ground like an amateur wrestling bout.

To top it all off, the midfielder rose to his feet and jogged back towards his own goal, refusing to acknowledge the situation like a dog when asked by its owner whether they had destroyed the sofa, torn up the mail and p*ssed everywhere. It was performance art befitting a former Jose Mourinho Player of the Year.

He also played really well but that is far less important.

 

12) Eriksen might be the most important signing Manchester United made this summer. He played an integral role in all three goals, dropping deep to orchestrate the first and making an incisive run to lay on the third.

It was a midfield masterclass from precisely the sort of profile the club have lacked recently: someone capable of making quick, progressive passes from anywhere on the pitch, whether splitting the Manchester United centre-halves before breaking Arsenal’s midfield lines for Antony’s goal, or finding Fernandes with a first-time pass around the corner in the build-up to Marcus Rashford’s first.

To marry that intelligence and versatility with the energy required for the third goal is to create Ten Hag’s perfect player from scratch. He will need a rest at some point – and perhaps only then will the full extent to which he makes this team tick become apparent.

 

13) It made for an awkward comparison with Arsenal’s midfield. Albert Sambi Lokonga was forced to partner Granit Xhaka because Aston Villa are selfish. The Belgian fared well but was at fault for the first goal, vacating the centre to press Eriksen deep in Manchester United’s half, yet not getting nearly close enough to block the subsequent pass. He then gave the ball away for the second.

Lokonga might grow into the role during Thomas Partey’s absence; that positional awareness can be learned. But it does feel as though Arsenal left themselves hostage to fortune by not bringing a specialist replacement in.

 

14) The bigger mistake for the first goal was Gabriel’s. The centre-half sort of sensed the impending danger as Arsenal’s high line was breathing on the neck of Fernandes by the time the Portuguese received Eriksen’s pass.

Gabriel could have shepherded Fernandes away from danger in an ideal scenario, but he committed and not only fouled the midfielder but allowed his pass to reach Jadon Sancho first. While he was appealing with the referee, Manchester United continued the attack which Antony finished wonderfully.

The Brazilian was too far behind play to affect it by that point but even in a team which has dropped three points in six games, he has made a remarkable number of individual errors. Arteta must be contemplating moving Benjamin White into the middle alongside William Saliba and using Takehiro Tomiyasu on the right again.

 

15) Bukayo Saka would have been excused for spending the entire game in a daze at being wholeheartedly hailed by Roy Keane pre-match. The disarmingly effusive praise gave way to the Arsenal winger’s best performance of this nascent season.

The Gunners rely on Saka less than they used to but he scored, set up the disallowed Gabriel Martinelli goal with a wonderful pass and could have had a hand in another with a driven second-half cross.

That direct duel with Tyrell Malacia was the best kind. Saka was the victor but the Manchester United left-back had his moments in trying to make it as even as possible. Arsenal will be satisfied that Little Chilli is finally warming up.

 

16) Though he feels increasingly like a weapon to be used only in counter-attacking situations, the sight of Rashford actually enjoying himself was pleasant.

The psychological impact of such a drastic dip in form should not be underestimated, particularly when considered in the context of the physical issues he was playing through at one stage. Rashford needed a rest as much as a reset. Ten Hag has given everyone a fresh start; it’s up to individuals to take them.

“It’s a great feeling. You do miss it as a player and I’m just hoping I can stay fit, stay healthy and keep putting performances out like that,” said the 24-year-old after the game and while many such post-match interviews are riddled with vague platitudes, it was difficult not to believe in every single word.

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