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

Ian Watson
Arsenal celebrate against Man Utd.

At least Man Utd tried. But even against a side as nervous as Arsenal, the bare minimum was not enough. Still, one less game to go.


Advantage Arsenal in the Premier League’s shiniest sh*te competition.

The Gunners opened up a three-point cushion between themselves and Tottenham, before Spurs face Brentford this evening. Manchester United are now six behind having played more games than all of their rivals for a top-four place.

Most United fans will suggest the Champions League ship had sailed long before they turned up at the Emirates. Actually, it set sail from Liverpool on Tuesday night, was torpedoed and caught fire inside five minutes and sank without a trace before getting out to sea.

So this defeat to Arsenal will hardly resonate around Old Trafford. Just the latest disappointment in a season of perpetual dismay. The main positive: one less game between now and the sweet release of the final whistle on May 22.

16 Conclusions: Arsenal 3-1 Manchester United

If United were capable of feeling anything other than apathy right now, regret would be the overriding emotion on their trek back from north London. Arsenal offered the Red Devils enough opportunities to seize the initiative at the Emirates. Occasionally, they threatened to grab it but at least on this occasion they can say they didn’t do so because of the lack of will.

United tried. That in itself is progress. Which is perhaps more damning than the fact they were unable to take advantage of a shaky Arsenal side playing with a couple of imposters in their full-back positions.

To watch the first two minutes and hear that United’s full-backs weren’t the worst on show throughout would have been laughable given the slapstick nature of the opening goal. Raphael Varane, gracing us with his presence for once, missed a simple ball into the box which completely flummoxed Alex Telles. Then, after David De Gea had made his 427th save of the season, Diogo Dalot invited Nuno Tavares to the rebound before sticking his hand in the air – for what, we still don’t know.

Arsenal v Manchester United

That goal was United’s season in microcosm. De Gea did his very best to bail out his wretched defence, but it still wasn’t enough. United’s fans couldn’t even blame Harry Maguire all the while the captain was parked on the bench, out of harm’s way.

Then, though, United actually offered something. Intensity? Nah. Ingenuity? The rough sketch of a plan? Don’t be silly. What they belatedly brought to proceedings was the bare minimum of effort and nous. But that was enough to make Arsenal nervous, to put them on the back foot. Anthony Elanga and Bruno Fernandes both should have scored within the opening quarter of an hour.

United will reasonably claim they could have had two penalties before the officials found a way to give Arsenal one after Ralf Rangnick’s men broke their 25-minute streak of not soiling their own box. Bukayo Saka’s spot-kick put United two-down with barely half an hour played for the second time this week, but the visitors rallied again and, most unexpectedly, offered a tangible reaction beyond an Instagram apology.

Of course, it was The Problem who popped up. At the end of the most difficult week imaginable, Cristiano Ronaldo got United back in the game, reacting first to reach a delightful cross from *checks notes* Nemanja Matic *double checks notes*.

Two minutes’ peace was as much as Arsenal could offer the home support. The Gunners made it to half-time despite Dalot hitting the crossbar, but they started the second half little better. For 25 minutes it was all United.

It was in this period that almost any other side would have driven home their advantage. But United simply drifted. The ball floated around before, more often than not being played into areas rather than individuals in the box. But still, that was more than Arsenal’s defence was able to cope with. With his rearguard so ropey, is it any wonder that Aaron Ramsdale is so jumpy? Or perhaps the keeper’s persona is part of the problem. Against an opponent as listless as United, Ramsdale could have gone full super hero with a cape and mask and it would barely have mattered.

Even when United were given a penalty by one of a series of Tavares’ brain farts, they were incapable of accepting the opportunity. Fernandes, not Ronaldo, stepped up very slowly towards the ball, with one of his natty jumps, before rolling it against the base of the past and wide.

By that point, most United fans will have simply laughed; it was either that or weep. And Christ knows this side are worth no one’s tears. But Fernandes’ choice of style warrants examination. If the ball was placed half a foot to the right, the matter would not be up for discussion. But it wasn’t and so it is. If we can leave aside for a second the shambles United are, this was, on the face of it, a crucial spot-kick. Keep it simple, stupid. Though Fernandes will suggest he did just that against Villa early in the season, against a keeper who loves to be seen as much as Ramsdale, and that was blasted over the bar into the Stretford End. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t in this damned United. Maybe just it leave to Cristiano next time.

So, of course, it came as no surprise to anyone with a United leaning that the next big moment saw Granit Xhaka tw*t one in from 30 yards. A one-goal deficit was too big a mountain to climb so two goals was Everest in flip-flops for Ralf’s rabble. Twenty minutes remained, but they passed, just like the final games of the season, with United fans counting down the minutes until they and half of this squad can f*** off.

But four games do remain. Four more occasions for everyone at United to go through the motions, with an excruciating 15-day gap between the penultimate match and the final day of the season. What’s the aim? Europa League? Europa Conference? Would Ten Hag benefit from more games or more time on the training ground? United should seek his preference, even they can’t be trusted to provide it.