Gunners fans must have begun to get that all-too-familiar sinking feeling when Shane Long… yes, Shane Long, took advantage of poor communication between Petr Cech and Shkodran Mustafi to waltz in and give Saints a shock lead.
Defensive frailty was again evident as the visitors deservedly levelled in the second half, Cedric Soares teeing up Charlie Austin to poke home.
Welbeck then had a very Welbeck few minutes, contriving to miss an open goal from yards out before powering in a header to win his side the three points.
Both teams then had a player sent off in the closing stages; Jack Wilshere somehow wasn’t one of them when he tugged Jack Stephens’ shirt off his back – the Saints midfielder shown a straight red for raised hands, as was Mohamed Elneny for shoving Soares in the face.
Here, we rate the Arsenal players:
Petr Cech – 7: Far from blameless in Long’s opener. Generally sturdy though, saving well from Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg’s stinging shot, keeping out Long’s header and then tipping over Dusan Tadic’s piledriver.
Hector Bellerin – 6: Got forward at every opportunity but for a player blessed with such pace, he met his match in Long, who he tugged back to earn game’s first yellow.
Shkodran Mustafi – 4: You generally get two contrasting performances – good or bad. This was the latter, horribly at fault for Long’s opener and failing to clear prior to Austin’s equaliser.
Calum Chambers – 5: Struggled with Long’s pace and Austin’s strength. Is only 23 so best years are ahead of him. But whereas Arsenal used to be the best place for young players to grow, that hasn’t been the case for a long time.
Sead Kolasinac – 6: Continues to grow in stature and, being an attack-minded full-back with a hulking presence, has added much-needed brawn to his new team.
Mohamed Elneny – 3: It’s sometimes a struggle to fathom just how he’s at a top Premier League club. Erratic, aimless and struggled to contain feeble opposition. Reacted well to clear Wesley Hoedt’s header off the line but was then stupidly sent off late on.
Granit Xhaka – 6: Has his detractors but had a generally solid game. Yet to really dominate games in the engine room but offers plenty going forward. Unlucky not to make it 3-1 when McCarthy tipped his fizzing drive wide.
Alex Iwobi – 8: Arsenal’s heartbeat in playmaking No10 role, keeping their attack ticking over. Tricked and teased Southampton. Assisted both Welbeck goals, the second a terrifically tantalising cross.
Reiss Nelson – 7: Was one of Arsenal’s brightest sparks during his 64 minutes on the pitch. Confidence grew, the highlight being a cheeky back heel that was unlucky not to result in an assist for a Xhaka screamer.
Danny Welbeck – 7: Benefitted from a wicked deflection to beat McCarthy. Then missed an open goal to make it 3-2. Then climbed high to power in the winner. A typical day at the office for the talented yet furiously frustrating forward.
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang – 7: Tried to drop deep to lend a hand, but on the shoulder of the last defender is where he thrives. Sporadically involved until popping up to do what all deadly marksmen do – score vital goals.
Jack Wilshere – 5: Should have had an assist but Welbeck somehow skied over. Most telling contribution was ripping Stephens’ shirt off to get Saints man sent off.
Alexandre Lacazette – 5: Did little in his brief cameo. The best thing you can say is that had Welbeck left Wilshere’s centre, he’d surely have tucked home.
Rob Holding – 6: Late addition. Did brilliantly to slide in and block Josh Sims’ shot.
Jose Mourinho loves spoiling a party.
The 2-0 win at Anfield in 2014 to kill Liverpool‘s Premier League title hopes in the first season of a second spell as Chelsea manager instantly became one of his favourite results, so it’s not hard to imagine Saturday’s win over Manchester City will have been relished with extra glee by the now Manchester United manager.
No matter his public proclamations – the comments before the match that City sealing the title by beating United would not be the end of the world, the gracious congratulations offered to City manager Pep Guardiola right after the match, the claim all he cared about was getting the points needed to finish second this season – this win mattered to Mourinho and his team.
The question now is, did it matter enough?
Playing party-poopers, raining on their rivals’ parade, earning bragging rights in Manchester – these are not the chief motivations at United. The five largely disappointing seasons since Sir Alex Ferguson retired may have taken the sheen off the club ever so slightly, but it simply serves to bring into focus what United’s objective is: winning.
Players and managers come to the club, companies line up for all manner of sponsorship deals, fans show up at the stadium because this is a team used to winning major honours.
Mourinho took the United job because he wanted the challenge of making England’s biggest club England’s champions again. Paul Pogba, the hero of Saturday’s victory, left a comfortable berth at Juventus to win glory with his former side. So now they need to do just that, and a dramatic win over Manchester City is nowhere near enough.
The remarkable comeback from 2-0 down at halftime was classic United, and the aftermath needs to be the same. This is no doubt a victory worth revelling in, but it will only be truly significant if this is a springboard, the first step on the path back to success.
This year’s title is still out of the realms of possibility – even for football’s amazing scripts, City coughing up a 13-point lead with only six games to play would be far-fetched – but United can lay down a marker for next season, letting their neighbours know their title defence won’t be easy. That more displays like Saturday’s are coming. That United are back.
It starts with the rest of this season, where United are perfectly capable of running the gauntlet and winning all of their remaining six league fixtures. Five of those are against teams currently in the bottom half of the table and the sixth is a home game against Arsenal which United would back themselves to win. Pull that off, and they will end this season on an 11-game winning streak – and that will be making a statement.
There’s also an FA Cup semi-final against Tottenham and potentially a final against Chelsea – two more wins which could be statement victories, as well as bringing them a trophy.
The goal for 2018-19 is already title or bust – another season of being “competitive” won’t be enough – so going into the season on the back of a strong second-place finish, the momentum of an 11-game winning streak, and a trophy will give them the confidence it’s an achievable goal.
Getting a moral victory on the back of a derby win while the other team in the city goes on to win trophies – that was Manchester City’s role, for over two decades.
Manchester United can’t let it become theirs. Saturday’s win only matters if it serves as the dawn of a new era.
But from somewhere, somehow, United turned the tide and delayed City’s Premier League title party just a little further with a rousing comeback inspired by a man who had been in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons.
Whether it is his questionable hairstyles, the questionable actions of his agent or just his questionable play, Pogba has not cut a happy figure in Manchester. Yet Saturday’s two-goal display was a timely reminder of why he was bought by United for a record fee in the first place.
Our writers Matt Monaghan, Chris Bailey and Tom Biggs have their say on whether Pogba has turned a corner at Old Trafford for good.
Will Pogba stay at Manchester United this summer?
MM: United, both on and off the pitch, have too much invested in Pogba to cut him loose after just two seasons. As his weekend brace showcased, a premium footballer lies within. Manager Jose Mourinho would not have been blind to what went on at Etihad Stadium. Kit sponsors adidas have also chosen to invest more than £780 million (Dh4 billion) in both club and player. Pogba’s star power is central to selling this relationship.
CB: Didn’t sound like such a foolish idea 48 hours ago, did it? But one display should not discount that he’s been routinely benched by Jose Mourinho and been offered to Man City by his own agent. It would still take a mega offer to convince both United and Pogba his future lies elsewhere without giving it another season at least. But what if Neymar leaves PSG and the French giants come sniffing? Stranger things …
TB: Say what? There’s no chance of Pogba leaving this summer. One reason being the fact no club would want to pay the fee Manchester United would be expecting for the midfielder, who cost over €100m (Dh451.7m) just two seasons ago. The other being his manager knows just how big an influence he has on the team when he’s at his best. Pogba isn’t going anywhere. His manager needs him.
Has Jose Mourinho been to blame for his poor form?
MM: Responsibility for Pogba’s slump must be shared. Mourinho only had to review an underwhelming Euro 2016 campaign as part of a deep-lying two-man midfield to ascertain the effectiveness of this deployment. Regular shifts since between a 4-2-3-1 and Pogba’s favoured 4-3-3 formations can’t help, either. Yet this alone doesn’t excuse a goal drought at club level that stretched to four months. Or the measly 74.1 per cent pass accuracy when Sevilla raided Old Trafford in the Champions League.
CB: When one of his players struggles to take instructions repeatedly, Mourinho has no qualms about giving them short shrift – regardless of star power or price tags. Luke Shaw is just one example. It stands to reason that Pogba will have been incredibly frustrating to work with this year, but when Mourinho’s patience snaps – as it clearly had done – it only worsens the problem for a player.
TB: Pogba and Mourinho must share the blame. The former Juventus man hasn’t looked interested at times, but that has perhaps stemmed from frustration born out of his manager’s cautious approach and setup. While Mourinho must give Pogba and United more freedom if they are to progress, the midfielder himself needs to step up on a regular basis, and not just when he’s in the mood, as he was on Saturday.
Who would be the ideal signing alongside Pogba?
MM: United should look to north London when it comes to bolstering their midfield. Aaron Ramsey’s delivered a superb seven assists and nine goals amid Arsenal’s miserable 2017/18. Pogba will be pleased to hear this has come as part of a midfield two, meaning he’d be freed to roam. The Wales international will also soon have just one year left on his deal – a situation United previously took advantage of with Robin van Persie and Alexis Sanchez.
CB: Pogba doesn’t do discipline – in fact, too much of it is a bad thing as it inhibits the Frenchman’s natural je ne sais quoi. A player with defensive nous and a passing range the size of the Himalayas would be handy. A player like that is not easy to come by, but Napoli’s Jorginho perhaps fits the bill. He has been instrumental in the club’s Serie A title challenge and at 26, wouldn’t be a young pup at the mercy of the Premier League.
TB: Mourinho needs a box-to-box midfielder to play alongside Pogba and the more defensive minded Nemanja Matic. The energy provided would allow the Frenchman more license to roam, just as he did to great effect in the second half against Manchester City. The best player to do that? If United can once again trump their Manchester rivals to a signing, as they did with Alexis Sanchez, then Shakhtar Donetsk’s Fred would be ideal.