Man Utd, Ten Hag lose personal cup final as Arsenal reach uncharted territory in title race

Jason Soutar
Man Utd v Arsenal: Leandro Trossard celebrates his goal and Erik ten Hag before the game
Leandro Trossard celebrates his goal and Erik ten Hag before the game

The Premier League title race will enter matchday 38 after Arsenal took advantage of a depleted Manchester United side at Old Trafford, winning without playing well, which, as you know, is The Mark of Champions.

Manchester United needed to provide a reaction after their humiliating defeat at Crystal Palace on Monday, while Arsenal were simply hoping to win against an XI that would have had them licking their lips during the warm-up.

Erik ten Hag unsurprisingly looked for more solidity in the middle of the pitch, dropping Christian Eriksen to the bench for out-and-out defensive midfielder Sofyan Amrabat, who sat in front of the unconvincing centre-back partnership of Johnny Evans and Casemiro. Imagine reading that sentence two years ago. In front of Amrabat was Scott McTominay – United’s captain on the day – and Kobbie Mainoo. This combination gave more grit, discipline and a lot more legs than Eriksen and an off-the-pace Mason Mount can offer.

Looking at the starting XI before kick-off, there was a feeling that United would get battered but that is far from what happened in the first half. It was hardly as convincing as Ten Hag would like but there was an clear difference off the ball, even if the opening four minutes did give us the impression that the Red Devils were in for a very long afternoon.

The opening goal was woefully bad from a Manchester United point of view though, with Casemiro again coming in for well-deserved criticism. Andre Onana did not pass to the experienced midfielder after he made a questionable angle for the Cameroonian and when the ball went long, the former Real Madrid superstar ‘ran’ back into position like someone would crossing the road after being given the nod by a friendly driver.

Kai Havertz was kept onside as a result and he found Leandro Trossard for a simple tap-in, assisted by some poor defending from Aaron Wan-Bissaka, who failed to identify the Arsenal forward’s run into the six-yard box.

The five minutes that followed gave the impression that the floodgates might open but United eventually provided a reaction. Arsenal could not get the ball off of them in a superb five-minute spell for the hosts and they finished the opening half strongly, showing purpose in possession and not allowing the visiting players to settle, with Thomas Partey and Havertz the most uncomfortable of Mikel Arteta’s lot.

Amad Diallo looked dangerous having been given the nod over Antony, rolling Takehiro Tomiyasu several times and showing more purpose than we have ever seen from the £85million Brazilian, while Diogo Dalot dealt with Bukayo Saka well.

United started the second 45 how they finished the first, with Partey’s uncertain touch followed by an embarrassing slip trying to launch the ball up the park giving Ten Hag’s men some hope. It felt like this was a game for Jorginho, not Partey, in the first half and that feeling would only grow stronger after moments like these.

Whether it was Amrabat, Casemiro or even Amad, United were looking to get Arsenal’s full-backs in isolated positions, utilising the crossfield pass on multiple occasions, with the Gunners’ ability to get into a sound shape swiftly not allowing the Red Devils to take advantage of Amad and Alejandro Garnacho making Tomiyasu and Benjamin White earn their money.

Instead of Amrabat or Casemiro tiring and allowing Arsenal to retake the initiative, United were the better team from the 30th to 75th minute, which is what nobody expected to be the case when both line-ups came out an hour before kick-off.

A hilariously bad team put up more than a fight but in the final moments of the match, Ten Hag’s men could not rain on Arsenal’s parade as it p*ssed down while the thunder roared.

It was unconvincing from Arsenal and an afternoon that showed some promise for Manchester United with Sir Jim Ratcliffe and his minions in the stands. Even if a win would hand Manchester City the chance to win the title on Tuesday, this was a fixture the home fans, players and Ten Hag were always going to be up for and the Old Trafford faithful were in full voice for the majority of the match.

Last season, Ten Hag singled out Arsenal as a team not suffering any injuries and has frequently mentioned the September defeat at the Emirates. It is clear he does not like them. Maybe he never has. Is this rooted in jealousy? Perhaps he is upset that his claim of ‘all eras come to an end’ has inspired his rivals and not his own team. Honestly, we do not know. What we do know is that the Dutchman genuinely believes his side were robbed of a goal and penalty in the reverse fixture. In case this is somehow still a debate, they were not; on both accounts.

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Sunday was his cup final before the cup final against Pep Guardiola’s City in the FA Cup after the conclusion of the league campaign.

He might not have engineered a victory but it was a performance he can be proud of, given the circumstances. Injuries have been a real burden this season and even one absence of a starter seems to have a really bad effect on how Ten Hag’s team plays, so to play so well without Marcus Rashford, Lisandro Martinez, Luke Shaw, Bruno Fernandes and Harry Maguire, to name a few, deserves to be applauded.

Of course, this is a results business and another defeat leaves Man Utd in an extremely difficult place ahead of the midweek clash at home to Newcastle United and Brighton away on the final day of the season.

It was a result that ensures we will not know who the Premier League winners are going into the final day. The last time Arsenal were not out of the title race by matchday 38? The Invincibles year 20 years ago when the title was won on matchday 34.

📣 TO THE COMMENTS! Are we being too complimentary about Man Utd? Join the debate here.

They crumbled in the run-in last season and that has not been the case this time around, clearly learning from their mistakes, but they have never been in this situation before. It will be interesting to see how that pressure gets to them at home to Everton next Sunday. This is uncharted territory for Arteta’s young side.

The real final day is on Tuesday when Manchester City take on Tottenham, Arsenal’s biggest and most fierce rivals. If City overcome that test at a ground they have never scored, let alone won, in the Premier League, then there will be an air of inevitability next Sunday. Guardiola’s side might make hard work of it as they have over the years, but there is no way they drop points at home to West Ham; David Moyes’ final match or not.

Even if they do not win the Premier League title, this is an Arsenal team here to stay and ready to pounce when Guardiola finally leaves us alone. Manchester United, meanwhile, finally showed some promise without creating any proper chances but it was not enough against a team who put in a performance The Mark of a Champion. Showing promise is good, but promise will not save Ten Hag, who ultimately lost his personal cup final against the team he was so eager to get one over.

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