Arsenal 2-0 Man United: Talking points as Gunners take big leap in top-four race

Alex Rea 10/03/2019
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Granit Xhaka celebrates his opener

Arsenal inflicted a first Premier League defeat of caretaker manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s Manchester United reign as Granit Xhaka’s swerving strike and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s penalty strengthened hopes of a top-four finish.

Switzerland midfielder Xhaka tried his luck from 25-yards out – for the hosts’ only attempt on target in first half – at a windy Emirates Stadium in the 12th minute and was rewarded with a fourth Premier League goal of the campaign, although Spain No1 David De Gea’s footwork could be questioned.

Attempts against the woodwork came at the other end from Belgium striker Romelu Lukaku and Brazil midfielder Fred. The Gunners made it 2-0, however, in the second half when the latter barged over France striker Alexandre Lacazette and Gabon front man Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang did the business from 12 yards.

The result saw Unai Emery’s men usurp United into fourth place, the final Champions League spot.

ARSENAL HOLD BIG ADVANTAGE

Arsenal players celebrate

Arsenal players celebrate

Thursday’s chastening 3-1 Europa League, round-of-16 defeat at Rennes sucked the air out of Arsenal’s balloon.

But despite that flatulent mess, Unai Emery managed to re-inflate his side by championing a spirited attitude.

It’s not a trait associated with Arsenal in recent years, yet it’s one the Spaniard regularly preaches and did so in the build-up to this key fixture.

That energy was transmitted to his players on Sunday and they responded with a display not necessarily of guile and craft, but rather graft.

Yes, there was imprecision, and they owed victory as much to Manchester United’s own inability to succeed in the big moments.

However, this was a soulful triumph for Arsenal, one ridden of ego and painted by perseverance. That’s now a 12-point swing from their 10 matches against the ‘top six’ from last season under Arsene Wenger.

And the latest will delight Emery in what is a defining period for the club’s 2018/19 campaign.

A return to the Champions League is the ultimate goal this season and that is very much in their own hands, even if the route through the Europa backdoor seems shut.

Indeed, five of their remaining eight league games arrive against sides currently inhabiting the bottom half of the table. They don’t play another team inside the top six again this term and with an exhausted Tottenham dropping back, sights should be on third as opposed to fourth.

They’re now two points clear of United who face Manchester City and Chelsea in the space of four days at the end of April.

It’s in their hands and at this stage, that’s a massive advantage.

RASHFORD NEEDS A BREAK

Marcus Rashford

Marcus Rashford

Solskjaer deserves tremendous credit for the way he has navigated a squad ravaged by injuries through such an intense period of games.

This damaging phase is taking it’s toll on players like Marcus Rashford, though. The 21-year-old turned in another passive performance at the Emirates having struggled in Paris – prior to his penalty-kick heroics – as well.

It’s obvious he’s not entirely fit having struggled with injury in the 0-0 draw with Liverpool and the United frontman is without a goal in his last five Premier League games.

He’s scored just once since the end of January and it’s not just that physically the England international looks a little drained, but mentally as well.

On Sunday, his movement was actually pretty good. His execution in possession, however, was really poor at times.

There was one moment in the second half when United broke and Rashford had two free options to his left only to delay and delay before under-hitting the pass.

For a player so quick of thought, it was this type of sluggish play which indicated a player who needs a break.

UNITED’S MENTALITY

Ole Gunnar Solskaer

Ole Gunnar Solskaer

It’s a first defeat in the league under Solskjaer which will be difficult to swallow, but there are actually plenty of positives to digest from this performance.

Under previous managers, United have practically submitted without really showing much intent.

Here, it was more fortune which went against them as opposed to attitude. Indeed, United had the better chances after an astute switch midway through the first half to match Arsenal by going to three at the back.

Romelu Lukaku, who curiously swapped his vice and virtue by showing great hold-up play but poor finishing, missed three great chances and hit the bar.

Fred also was unlucky with a crisp low that effort that struck the upright, while Arsenal’s goals arrived via an odd swerving strike which maybe was a goalkeeping error and a rather soft penalty.

Arsenal took their chances, United missed theirs, that was the difference.

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Arsenal 2-0 Man United: David De Gea disaster and Fred foul stain Red Devils player ratings

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De Gea

Arsenal inflicted a first Premier League defeat of caretaker manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s Manchester United reign as Granit Xhaka’s swerving strike and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s penalty strengthened hopes of a top-four finish.

Switzerland midfielder Xhaka tried his luck from 25-yards out – for the hosts’ only attempt on target in first half – at a windy Emirates Stadium in the 12th minute and was rewarded with a fourth Premier League goal of the campaign, although Spain No1 David De Gea’s footwork could be questioned.

Attempts against the woodwork came at the other end from Belgium striker Romelu Lukaku and Brazil midfielder Fred. The Gunners made it 2-0, however, in the second half when the latter barged over France striker Alexandre Lacazette and Gabon front man Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang did the business from 12 yards.

The result saw Unai Emery’s men usurp United into fourth place, the final Champions League spot.

Here are the Red Devils player ratings:

MAN UNITED (4-4-2)

David De Gea 5: Performed miracles at Emirates Stadium last term, but befuddled by strong breeze this time. Not good enough.

Ashley Young 6: Battled away on his flank, also covering inside in a three to keep up with Arsenal’s speedsters.

Chris Smalling 7: Has now outsprinted Mbappe and Aubameyang in the same week. Didn’t deserve to lose.

Victor Lindelof 5: A return to the shaky form of old for the much-improved Swede. Lacazette rattled him.

Luke Shaw 7: Another positive display for the England left-back. Only negative was his mixed set-piece delivery.

Diogo Dalot 5: A key protagonist from Paris showed flashes here. First-half cutback to Rashford was slightly under-hit.

Fred 6: Undid plenty of positive work with a needless barge on Lacazette for the penalty. Composure is key.

Nemanja Matic 6: Returning Serbia anchor man showed worth by helping edge midfield battle. Then tired.

Paul Pogba 6: A match of fleeting moments of brilliance, including divine cross-field ball to Lukaku.

Marcus Rashford 4: Decision making was all at sea. Shot when should have passed – and vice-versa.

Romelu Lukaku 5: A trio of big chances came and went for the – previously – on-song Belgian. This swung match.

BeFunky-collage

SUBSTITUTES

Anthony Martial 6: Back fit again, but thrown on when the damage was already done.

Mason Greenwood N/A: Became United’s second-youngest Premier League debutant. Didn’t look overawed by occasion.

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Whether it’s coming from fans, pundits or the players themselves, the calls for Manchester United to appoint Ole Gunnar Solskjaer as permanent manager have never been louder.

The former United striker has been a revelation since taking over the reins from Jose Mourinho. Solskjaer swiftly brought joy to Old Trafford over the Christmas season and his appointment has been the gift that keeps on giving.

The Norwegian has invoked the spirit of former United sides in their pomp. With 14 wins in his first 17 games across all competitions, it’s no wonder Solskjaer is the toast of the town. The fanfare around him reached fever pitch following a remarkable Champions League comeback against the odds, eliminating favourites Paris Saint-Germain with a severely depleted side.

It’s understandable then if United fans are looking at their fixture with Arsenal on Sunday with ‘Ole goggles’. There’s an air of invincibility about the Red Devils now. They had no right to win in Paris and look forward to a European quarter-finals.

On the back of that result and with Nemanja Matic, Ander Herrera, Jesse Lingard and Anthony Martial all back in training, confidence is at an all-time high. The fact that they’ve already enjoyed a 3-1 win at the Emirates Stadium in the FA Cup will do little to manage expectations nor will Arsenal’s midweek Europa League defeat at Rennes.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer

There’s a fine line between confidence and complacency though and keeping United on the right side of it will be as big a challenge as any Solskjaer’s faced.

For all the passionate celebrations the result against PSG triggered and the rewards that come with making it into the final eight of the Champions League, securing a top four spot remains the priority. Lose against Arsenal and suddenly that becomes a tall order again.

Granted, defeat would only leave United trailing Unai Emery’s side by two points and the Gunners are always prone to slip-ups but they would have the advantage of a comfortable run-in. Their meeting with United will be Arsenal’s last encounter with a top-six side for the rest of the season while the Mancunians still have the visits of Manchester City and Chelsea to contend with.

United are bound to face more tests in the Champions League as well while also having FA Cup fixtures to navigate. They will be thrilled with where they are but their campaign is finely poised and a misstep here could prove damaging.

United have rediscovered some of their old swagger but have relied on positivity, desire and sheer will. The notion that they owe their recent success to scintillating football is a misguided exaggeration. Recent stats depicting the disparity between United’s xG (expected goals) and goals scored confirms that.

Solskjaer’s reign has delivered 39 goals surpassing their xG of 29.8. Meanwhile, xGA (expected goals against) over the same period is 21.3 but their defence has only conceded 13.

United may be overachieving in certain departments but this is not to suggest they haven’t been deserving. Even Liverpool and City have overshot their expected goals this season.

It does however mean that this is no time to get carried away. Arsenal are still a force to be reckoned with and Solskjaer must ensure his troops are as focused as they’ve been to get this far.

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