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Premier League: Efficient Arsenal hand subdued Manchester United a reality check at Emirates Stadium

Manchester United's collective mind still seemed to wander to Paris and a night that will go down in the club's folklore as historic — or at least, as a moment of tribal glory, a victory that can never be taken from United again. Yes, Arsenal-Manchester United no longer carries the importance and weight of yesteryear in the English calendar, but with a top-four spot at stake, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s team were subdued and almost lethargic before exploding into life in a curious and significant defeat in London.

On the back of the Paris exploits, there was always a danger that Manchester United might not scale the same heights and rekindle the groove that produced European ecstasy in midweek. They sat back and dropped deep as they had done at the Parc des Princes but without the same zest and zeal of the triumph in the French capital. In the far corner of the Emirates Stadium, the pocket of visiting fans chanted — well, serenaded — the Norwegian coach with a rendition of ‘Ole’s at the wheel.’ That is what they crave for in the long run, but on Sunday evening they witnessed a curious, slow-motion Manchester United at first.

 Premier League: Efficient Arsenal hand subdued Manchester United a reality check at Emirates Stadium

Manchester United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer reacts after their defeat to Arsenal. AP Photo

In the 12th minute, Arsenal had their single shot on target before the interval, but Granit Xhaka’s swerving shot proved vital for Arsenal. It was a slightly bizarre goal for Manchester United to concede: the Swiss found himself in acres of space in the midfield with Nemanja Matic failing to press and Arsenal's number 34 took aim from 25 yards, wrapping his left foot around the ball. His shot wrong footed David de Gea completely. The Spaniard looked silly, but the ball had swung considerably, deceiving the lanky goalkeeper.

The goal jolted Manchester United into life as Solskjaer tweaked his tactical formation early on, another parallel with the midweek European game. He acknowledged Arsenal’s midfield superiority. Even before the tactical switch, United had created the best chance and they would do so for the rest of the game. It was contrary to their lethargic outlook. They were not winning the second ball and were devoid of sharpness. Instead Manchester crowded their own box and broke with speed on the counter, a recipe for success in January’s FA Cup tie.

The hosts were cool and composed in attack, and vulnerable as ever at the back. There was plenty of trademark last-gasp, last-ditch defending from Arsenal. Romelu Lukaku and Fred rattled the woodwork. The Belgian striker terrorised Arsenal’s rearguard, but his final touches and finishing were imprecise. He rounded goalkeeper Bernd Leno, but failed to equalise. The number nine brilliantly met a superb diagonal from Paul Pogba at the edge of the box, but again the attack came to nothing. It was a match that showed Lukaku’s frailties and frustrations — brilliant touches followed by wayward finishing.

After the break, Solskjaer tinkered again, returning to a back four, which resulted in a role reversal: Manchester United had the ball, Arsenal were lurking on the counter. Lukaku, on a fine scoring run, squandered a great opportunity in the 50th minute when he peeled away from Nacho Monreal. The game remained intense with aggression on both sides. Arsenal didn’t wilt and were rewarded with a soft penalty when Fred got on the wrong side of striker Alexandre Lacazette. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang rolled the ball coolly past De Gea. Emery’s team excelled where United hadn’t — in efficiency, and with it, handed Manchester United a reality check and a first significant defeat under Solskjaer. Manchester's top-four chances took a setback against an ungainly Arsenal, who, for once, were solid and steely.

Moments later the French striker should have wrapped up the game, but he flashed his angled attempt just wide, a miss that became a footnote as the game meandered to its end in the streaming rain: Manchester United’s spine had been broken. Their resolve had been drained, their determination and grit were gone. Marcus Rashford headed into Leno’s arms late on as a storm developed above the Emirates Stadium. It wasn’t apocalyptic — and for United not even regression, but perhaps just a blip.  The 2-0 defeat ended Solskjaer's unbeaten run in the league, but didn’t feel like a backslide yet. Defeat is the best test of any team: Manchester United proved that brilliantly against PSG. They will need a similar response against Wolverhampton Wanderers next weekend or the Solskjaer revolution might turn out to be premature.

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Updated Date: Mar 11, 2019 10:41:38 IST