Not too long ago, the Arsenal versus Manchester United clash was regarded as the best of the lot in the Premier League, a fixture that would often decide the outcome of the title race. However, things were very different this year.
This match was United’s last resort of securing Champions League football next season through a top-four spot. Two years away from Europe’s elite has already done a lot of damage to the club despite them spending nearly half a billion on players. For Arsenal, even the 'fourth-placed trophy' looked like a distant dream. A lot has been changed about the excitement around the fixture that once brought the house down thanks to the Roy Keane and Patrick Viera showdown, Ruud Nistelrooy's kid-like celebrations and Martin Keown's robustness at the back. Feel old yet?
On Sunday, the game did not carry the same fervour as one would have expected but the focus was on one man in particular — Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger. Under scrutiny since a decade, the Frenchman was facing a familiar foe in Jose Mourinho, who had swapped shirts for United in June. In what was their 16th meeting in a competitive game, Wenger had the last laugh for the very first time.
United started the game with a much-changed team due to their long injury list, and with a Europa League semi-final second leg to play on Thursday, Mourinho had no option but to rotate his squad — 19-year-old Axel Tuanzebe was handed a start with Scott McTominay making the bench. Phil Jones and Chris Smalling replaced Eric Bailly and Daley Blind in defence.
Arsenal made two changes to the team that lost at Tottenham. Gabriel Paulista was snubbed out of defence after giving away the penalty that led to Harry Kane’s second. This meant that youngster Rob Holding took his position on the field and Olivier Giroud was replaced by Danny Welbeck to bolster Arsenal's attack with speed and physicality.
Fifteen minutes into the game, both teams exchanged a number of passes in midfield in search of a quick break and enjoyed good ball possession. However, it was one of the rare games where Wenger's side hardly pressed from the start. Wayne Rooney and Michael Carrick often shifted places and acted as an extra man in the midfield. Juan Mata looked lively on the right after returning to the first XI after months and he almost gifted an opportunity to Henrik Mkhitaryan upfront.
Arsenal's midfield was all about the much-criticised Aaron Ramsey, who did not sit deep this time and helped Granit Xhaka and Mesut Ozil to move ahead on occasions. However, United were presented with a golden chance to open their account via Rooney. Holding, under pressure, played a backpass towards Petr Cech, who was caught in all sorts of trouble. Laurent Koscielny then tried to step in front of Rooney rather than go for the ball only to see a superb save from Cech and United had to settle for a corner. Mourinho's men, on the other hand, maintained their backline and did not let Arsenal sneak in.
At the break of the first half at the Emirates, it was evident that United's tactics were exceptionally conservative, giving the forwards minimal support on the counter. This has been one of the reasons for United's growing frustration while creating chances.
The second half proved to be an interesting one as Arsenal covered every inch of grass to press higher. A tactical switch was needed from either of the two managers to add some spark to the dull game. Alexis Sanchez was kept quiet as debutant Tuanzebe cornered him whenever the Chilean tried to cut in. Nonetheless, after receiving enough motivation from the half-time talk, Xhaka decided to take a hit from 30 yards and his deflected shot eventually ended up at the back of the net to give Arsenal the lead. Ander Herrera turned his back as Xhaka's loose shot looped over the Spaniard past David de Gea.
Granit Xhaka completed more passes than any other player on the pitch vs. Man Utd:
94.5% pass accuracy
69 passes completed
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) May 7, 2017
"He’s turned his back there," said ex-United defender Gary Neville to Sky Sports. "He’s had a good season up to now but he should not have done that. He’s got to take it on the chin," he added.
The man who has single-handedly saved Mourinho's side in the midfield had a rather unlucky afternoon, deflecting Arsenal's opening goal over De Gea, but United barely had a chance to build a successful attack owing to the ineffectiveness of Rooney in midfield. The player who used to make the difference in this particular fixture over the years was short of pace and quality.
Just three minutes later, Oxlade-Chamberlain took on Matteo Darmian on the right and delivered a delicious cross for Welbeck, who headed the ball past De Gea to give Arsenal all three points. It was his third goal in his fourth competitive game against his former club. Smalling will definitely make the headlines for all the wrong reasons as United's best player in the air completely misjudged his jump and allowed his man to head freely from inside the box.
"Danny Welbeck is left completely unmarked because Chris Smalling thinks he is going to win the header further up and he totally misjudges it," ex-Chelsea goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer was quoted as saying by Sky Sports.
United, desperate to pull one back, introduced the in-form Marcus Rashford in place of Herrera as Mourinho switched to a 4-4-2 with Rooney and Carrick in the middle and Rashford and Anthony Martial upfront. Despite trailing 2-0, United kept inviting pressure as Carrick was unable to attack and defend with Rooney alongside. Another teenager took centrestage as McTominay replaced Mata. It looked like this would be Mourinho's last roll of the dice to take something out of the game.
However, at the full-time whistle, Wenger had broken two streaks: one being United's weird run of 25 games unbeaten in the league and the other one was ending Mourinho's 15-match winning run over the Frenchman across all competitions. United's top-four hopes had been dealt a major blow while Arsenal chances had been reignited.
Wenger's first win in his 16th attempt ensured that they close the gap on Manchester City on fourth. Also, with that loss, United have now been unable to score against Chelsea, Manchester City, Arsenal and Liverpool in away games and if they fail to do so against Tottenham Hotspur next week, Mourinho's men will be the first United team to do so.
This win was a statement of intent from Wenger and suggests that some of Arsenal's recent performances gave a misleading impression of the capability of this squad. His counterpart, Mourinho, has his sights set on the Europa League since it looks like the only path to Champions League football for the Manchester club. Wenger will possibly not be completely happy with the result as they faced a weakened United side that had no conviction. As far as his association with the club is concerned, this win has given what the fans yearned for and Wenger has proved to the owners that still he is the correct man to guide the club.
However, the Gunners remain sixth, seven points adrift of Liverpool, six behind Manchester City and two behind United. A win against Southampton will get Wenger's men back in the top-four hunt. Mourinho's hopes of qualifying for the Champions League rest simply on getting his hands on the Europa League trophy. His complete focus will be on the second leg against Celta Vigo. United will be able to accept their loss to Arsenal in the Premier League as long as they are in Stockholm on 24 May.
Published Date: May 08, 2017 10:25 AM | Updated Date: May 08, 2017 10:25 AM