Manchester United vs Arsenal match report: Danny Welbeck comes back to haunt old club as Angel Di Maria season hits new low

Manchester United 1 Arsenal 2: Nacho Monreal opened the scoring before Wayne Rooney equalised - only for former striker to score second-half winner and Angel Di Maria to see red

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The Independent Football

The brutal assessment Louis van Gaal offered of Danny Welbeck last September was that he lacked the requisite ability.

And by the former standards of Manchester United that was certainly right. His strike rate for his home town club was almost one every five games and the misses included the shot he lifted straight into the arms of Bayern Munich’s Manuel Neuer, as the light was last being extinguished on the club’s European status. But the problem for the Dutch manager who is about to preside over a second successive United season minus season for the first time since 1989 is that those former United standards no longer apply.

It wasn’t really a stellar offering from Welbeck on his return home. He hardly set a perishing Manchester alight. But he did a simple thing very well - seizing on Antonio Valencia’s backpass that sold David de Gea short and doing the substantial amount of work still required to slip past the goalkeeper and score.

Radamel Falcao, whom Welbeck made way for, has scored just four goals , assisted three and has – van Gaal assured us last night - stamped his mark and provided some kind of “motivational” support, but regardless of the £265,000 a week you’d certainly still take Welbeck ahead of him. 


Van Gaal huffed and puffed when the comparison between the two was put to him last night but who did he have up front as the game finished? Marouane Fellani and Chris Smalling. So much for the master tactician and his famous “philosophy.” His was a deeply unattractive sulk and you just had to like the simple, uncomplicated strategy of Arsene Wenger’s decision to try a counter-attacking game, with Welbeck at the apex of it because of his pace. “There was a psychological consideration. We always want to do well against our former team,” Wenger said of Welbeck.

Nacho Monreal celebrates scoring the opening goal with Arsenal's English midfielder Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain


The striker cast a quick, though unmissable, glance at the United bench after he scored and you fancied he wanted to rub van Gaal’s nose in it after all that had been said. It was only four minutes later that Angel di Maria did just that, when he was dismissed for diving and grabbing at the referee. Another metaphor for a player struggling to make any headway because he is no longer doing the simple things, like running at defenders, having time to cross. The United side is scrambled and tactically confused. He’s suffering the consequences.

Rooney heads in the equaliser


Wenger’s side were at it harder from the start. Their record here looked pitiful – just the one win in their last 15 games at Old Trafford, a stadium where there could not even make David Moyes suffer. And though Hector Bellerin was tested early on by the wide player who is running at full backs as we thought di Maria would – Ashley Young – Wenger’s players were the ones with a plan. Nothing titanic from them: sit, allow United possession and strike on the counter-attack. Santi Cazorla was bound the operation together but the regularity with which Van Gaal’s side s passed up easy possession – three times in 20 seconds from Danny Blind at one stage and a di Maria calamity which saw Ander Herrera  booked in the rescued effort - made it a serviceable approach.

Wayne Rooney celebrates after making it 1-1


Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, the most dangerous player of the first half, found width to operate, too. He had already clipped narrowly over the bar after seizing a slightly undercooked Danny Welbeck pass and driving forward, when he took on Mesut Ozil’s measured ball and embarked on a slalom across the edge of United’s area, beyond Young, Blind and Smalling. He slid the ball left to Nacho Monreal to slide home an opening goal: only his second for Arsenal.

Michael Carrick and Danny Welbeck challenge for the ball


Wenger jigged with delight on the touchline, a lead at Old Trafford being the reward for the same midfield resilience the team had displayed in that win at Manchester City in January and for enterprise in the way that they broke at pace. The goal really was gift wrapped, though: too much space for Ozil, no challenge on Chamberlain and Monreal left unmarked because Antonio Valencia had gone roaming and not made it back.

Angel Di Maria is shown the red card

It was a catalyst for United to find some kind of life. The prime strategies - diagonal crosses to Marouane Fellaini – wasn’t quite what we had always anticipated when they were spending all that money last summer. Any port in a storm though. As things turned out, Rooney was the one jockeying for space when di Maria delivered from the right, only three minutes after United had fallen behind. Laurent Koscielny was at fault but Rooney’s movement was as exquisite as his headed finish.

Van Gaal’s sense of discomfort was clear with two half time substitutions – most significantly Michael Carrick for Ander Herrera, who had been struggling against Cazorla – and though the night ended desperately prematurely for Oxlade-Chamberlain, with a snapped hamstring, Arsenal continued to threaten. Chris Smalling was the weak link. David de Gea made four superlative saves again but, with the exception of one moment’s danger from di Maria, United had nothing.

There was an inevitability about Welbeck’s goal. In hope of some sparkle, Adnan Januzaj arrived but then, within minutes, di Maria was gone – booked for diving in search of foul under barely a challenge from substitute Aaron Ramsey and dismissed after grabbing referee Michael Oliver’s shirt. He was not worthy of the claps from the Stretford End which accompanied his dismissal.

Januzaj’s booking for simulation was more theatrically ridiculous still as the chasing Monreal followed him into the box. But in an assured disaply of refereeing Michael Oliver was unmoved. Even then, there were more chances for Arsenal. Alexis Sanchez sent a ball skimming across the area at the death. For Wenger, joy. For van Gaal, public assuredness but a private struggle to know where things go from here.