16 Conclusions on Manchester United 0-1 Arsenal: Saliba, Casemiro, Partey, Garnacho, Trossard, Amad

Matt Stead
Manchester United midfielder Casemiro, Arsenal defender William Saliba, Alejandro Garnacho and Amad
William Saliba inspired Arsenal to victory

Arsenal were not great but Saliba dragged them through; Casemiro, Garnacho and Ten Hag having no Manchester United answer without Bruno Fernandes helped.


1) There is a Sir Alex Ferguson quote for everything when it comes to the Premier League. And his thoughts on 1-0 victories feel particularly pertinent in the aftermath of what was most often his hallmark fixture.

It points out to me that they are a unit; they’re not going to lose. We had a season at United where we had eight 1-0 victories and that won us the league. It means championship form. I don’t mind the 1-0s, I really don’t, because it tells you we are determined, we’re going to defend, do the right things and play as a team.

If winning 1-0 is a mark of champions, perhaps the vulnerability which embodied Arsenal during their fifth such victory of the season – no Premier League club has more – makes it all the more fitting that they remain likely to be pipped to the title.

This was as poor a performance as they have conjured all season but they achieved the absolute bare minimum necessary to keep Manchester City honest all the way into the final day. At the stage of the campaign when it all comes down to results, Arsenal have produced them with a consistency belying their reputation.


2) They did not exactly fit the Ferguson criteria of “doing the right things” but at least defensively, Arsenal were absolutely determined and undoubtedly a unit.

This was one of Manchester United’s best and most coherent games in recent months yet still almost half of their 14 shots were blocked and they created no meaningful, memorable chances. Arsenal made 28 successful tackles – only against Aston Villa in December (31) have they made more in a single game this season – and the centre-halves were almost flawless.

Gabriel Magalhaes was excellent but William Saliba being named man of the match was apt. His tackle on Alejandro Garnacho around the hour mark, the Frenchman standing firm and extinguishing the threat as it entered the penalty area with a perfectly-timed and placed foot, summed up a game decided by the sheer quality of Arsenal’s defence.


3) The players in front of that backline were the problem. Takehiro Tomiyasu lacked concentration in a couple of moments and Benjamin White only had about half of Garnacho’s number so was left guessing the rest at times. But that is to be expected in one-versus-one situations against quick, skilful wide players

Less predictable and entirely more problematic was the sloppy, loose play in midfield which typified Arsenal’s start especially. Thomas Partey was tackled on the edge of his own area to set up an opportunity which Rasmus Hojlund blazed over while slipping; Declan Rice’s pass back to Tomiyasu was careless and slack, requiring David Raya to push up and clear the imminent danger well; by the quarter-hour mark, Martin Odegaard was misplacing simple six-yard balls while trying to construct attacks.

Jorginho was not introduced until the second minute of stoppage time; Arsenal craved his control and composure for most of the prior hour and a half. Aside from Tomiyasu and Kai Havertz, the three midfielders had the fewest touches of any starter for the Gunners.


4) But the hosts were never even vaguely close to capitalising on either those mistakes or Arsenal’s more general lack of authority in the middle. And as ever, it only seemed like a matter of time until Manchester United published their own catalogue of errors for the Gunners to punish.

The game’s only goal was hilariously amateur fare, from Manchester United’s entire left side being vacated due to Diogo Dalot and Jonny Evans pushing up to track Bukayo Saka and Odegaard respectively from a long Andre Onana kick, to Casemiro sitting about 15 yards deeper than any teammate after pretending to offer a passing angle to a keeper being pressed relentlessly.

His lack of urgency in moving back up the pitch kept Havertz onside after the German identified the gaping space well. Evans was then bizarrely insistent on ushering the Arsenal forward to the touchline while not preventing the cut-back, and Aaron Wan-Bissaka noticed Leandro Trossard’s run into the area laughably late.

It was the 82nd goal Manchester United have conceded this season, and as glaringly inept as the worst of them both in terms of individuals and as a collective. The obvious disruption caused by injuries – are they really injured, though? – cannot account for just how abysmal they have become in that department.


5) Paul Merson seemingly excusing Casemiro by saying that he “played in holding midfield for 20 years” and “holding midfielders don’t sprint” was phenomenal either way.

Holding midfielders also don’t take that many potshots from 30 yards when far better passing options are available, yet there Casemiro was ten minutes playing precisely the sort of game the blocking Gabriel will have wanted.

Garnacho was the only player on either team who ended the game with more shots than Casemiro, whose second was from even further out and from a worse angle in the second half, letting Raya wind the clock down further.

His legs have gone, but Casemiro’s basic common sense and footballing intuition does not appear to have been far behind.


6) Honestly, about three minutes after the goal White found himself in an almost identical position to Havertz – in the area attacking down the right-hand side – but a poor cross was floated over the teammates waiting in the middle, Trossard once again among them.

It was that typical underlapping run which Saka found to unlock the defence, the deepest of whom was playing White onside. Casemiro is obviously not one for learning lessons, which is not ideal for a 32-year-old earning north of £300,000 a week for two more years.

Four minutes after that – so just seven following the goal – Saka played White in again while laid on the floor and the Arsenal defender skewed a harmless shot over and wide. The offside trap was this time deployed incompetently by Wan-Bissaka, who was complaining to a teammate while not watching the play unfold.

Manchester United paid £120million for this level of focus against the most potent attack in the league. And this is where the injury excuse is rendered entirely obsolete, because it should not take a couple of pulled muscles and tweaked hamstrings to make it impossible to coach the adequate holding of a defensive line – if indeed these elite players do not already have that instinct within them.

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7) The worst of those Arsenal midfielders was Partey and by quite a margin. Rice and Odegaard were ineffective but their partner was actively detrimental at times and once more, the excellence of his teammates bailed him out.

Being pressed on the edge of his own area by McTominay was poor, as was slipping in it when trying to clear in the second half. He barely seemed to occupy the actual midfield at all, dropping unnecessarily deep while somehow simultaneously offering no protection to those behind him.

Even one of his better interventions was essentially accidental. It was an unorthodox slide tackle which stopped a bright Amad run after 36 minutes, the Arsenal midfielder seemingly slipping at the perfect moment to get a foot to the ball and divert the danger.

It did not earn the subsequent Neville ‘ooh’ whatsoever, nor did it warrant that typical half-time question of ‘Could Manchester United have had a penalty?’. A player going over in the area does not constitute an automatic talking point – no matter how many decontextualised stills are presented of the incident – and the sooner broadcasters realise that, the better.

But Partey was poor and the theory of what he brings to this team has not outweighed the negatives that everyone already knew his selection entails. That early moment ceding possession to McTominay was eerily similar to West Ham away last season from Arsenal’s chief bottlejob from 2022/23.


8) Amad was bright on his first start for Manchester United since December 2021. That was only one of a few encouraging runs from a player willing to inject some urgency into the game, but also capable of slowing things down when necessary.

At one point in the first half, he drifted inside and switched the play to Garnacho with a stunning ball which caught Arsenal flat-footed and required Raya to cut out the ensuing cross.

Some nifty footwork created a couple of openings and his link play with Garnacho was particularly heartening from a Manchester United standpoint. Even his awareness and defensive acumen was impressive; Amad’s first touch was to put a dangerous Havertz cross behind with Trossard lurking.

He didn’t half feel like the sort of player Manchester United could have done with for most of the previous nine months.

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9) Arsenal were curiously passive and tentative throughout, affording Manchester United a foothold seemingly by design. It was a strange approach which can be neatly retrofitted into some sort of genius Mikel Arteta ploy but it left the game in far too precarious a balance.

Tomiyasu and White both had efforts within seven minutes of the goal but there was no storm to weather after the opener: Arsenal’s next shot after those was from Rice in the 55th. They let this game drift and it gave Manchester United enough impetus to make it uncomfortably close.

Game state is a thing but 11 shots is the fewest Manchester United have faced since they played Sheffield United (ten) in April. Before that it was Wigan (nine) in January and Nottingham Forest (eight) in December. The Casemiro-Evans axis was not exploited nearly enough.


10) It was nice to see Arsenal indulge in The Dark Arts outside of set-pieces, where they were also oddly poor. The idea that this team can be bullied has long since been consigned to a lazy stereotype but it can still be jarring to watch them be the aggressors in certain situations.

Those little things, like Gabriel’s pull at Hojlund’s shirt which allowed his teammates to swarm back in support when the Manchester United striker received a pass in the Arsenal area, or White just nudging Garnacho off balance when he raced through into the area, are absolutely textbook: not even close to a foul, but equally precisely the sort of tactical interventions which will boil the exact right amount of urine.

This is a more streetwise Arsenal who will at worst give as good as they get in physical terms; one of Garnacho’s last opportunities again being countered by a little push from White to knock him off balance when shooting said it all.


11) Had Garnacho’s quality matched his influence, Arsenal would have lost this. The teenager had seven shots, the most touches of any attacking player on either team (61) and six crosses, which again no-one could beat.

Four of those shots were blocked, none of those crosses found a teammate and those touches were all either executed poorly or had been born of the wrong idea to begin with.

White did struggle to handle his opponent but Garnacho could not make it count. One shot on the hour was particularly egregious, when Dalot had occupied two defenders to afford him ample space to attack, but the Argentine curled his effort well wide. Those deliveries into the box were fine in theory – quick, at head height and across the six-yard box – but almost never this season have Manchester United had anyone attacking them properly. And the last kick of the match, Garnacho lumping a cross straight into Raya’s welcoming arms, felt like a suitable end. He remains an excellent prospect but so many elements of his game need work.

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12) Arteta waited until the 66th minute to make his first change. Trossard had not made a particularly compelling case to last much longer despite his goal and Gabriel Martinelli at his peak would have settled those nerves and ended this game as a contest much earlier than that final whistle.

The Brazilian did test Onana after one fine dribble, but he is still frustratingly short of his best. His quick break was thwarted by Wan-Bissaka on the halfway line in the 70th minute and in stoppage time Martinelli suffered the ultimate indignity of being tackled by Casemiro. Trossard has done well to pick up the goal burden of a player in something of a sustained funk.


13) Trossard underlines the stark contrast between how Arsenal have stepped up in comparison to the way they shirked the title challenge at the sharp end of last season.

In his first 11 Premier League games after joining last January, the Belgian scored one goal and assisted seven as Arsenal embarked on that seven-game winning run. Then his final nine matches of the campaign, coinciding directly with their collapse, included no goals and just three assists: one in the 4-1 thrashing by Manchester City, and two on the final day when all was lost.

This season has seen Rice, Havertz, Saliba and a select few others take responsibility from March onwards. And then there is Trossard, who has scored five of his dozen Premier League goals this season in Arsenal’s last seven games, including the winner here and the openers in victories over Chelsea and Bournemouth. There are leaders throughout this team, even if just by the quiet example of an incredible signing.


14) Sofyan Amrabat, save for that one point in the second half when an Odegaard shoulder drop almost sent him down the tunnel, was pretty good. Not ‘compound an £8.5m loan fee by making it permanent for another £21.4m’ good, but certainly better than whatever Christian Eriksen was trying to do against Crystal Palace. Kobbie Mainoo would surely agree.

Very much here for when Manchester United absolutely do sign Amrabat this summer after spending months being rejected by their first 427 midfield targets, before putting in a deadline day bid worth more than their current option on him.


15) ‘Team is not as good without best player’ is hardly a groundbreaking assertion, but Manchester United’s record without Bruno Fernandes is risible. Or more pertinently, Erik ten Hag’s is.

The Portuguese has started 102 of 111 games under the Dutchman. Manchester United have won two of the nine he has not (3-0 in the League Cup against Charlton last January; and 3-0 against Roy Hodgson’s Crystal Palace in September), drawn one (against Liverpool in December) and lost six.

That record in Premier League and European games Fernandes has not started since Ten Hag’s appointment is P7 W0 D1 L6 F1 A15. That solitary goal was a Jacob Ramsey own goal from a wild deflection in a 3-1 defeat. Those numbers would deeply embarrass any manager who does not deflect all legitimate criticism by simply opening the door to the treatment room – any coach who relies so heavily on the availability and excellence of one player that he is unable to devise an alternative plan without them is fundamentally flawed.

But enough about that. Can we start recklessly speculating whether Wayne Rooney was talking about Fernandes yet?


16) Imagine how different things might have been had Garnacho’s goal not been ruled out for offside and Hojlund been given a penalty in September.