Arsenal vs Manchester United: In a heroic but ultimately flawed effort, the Gunners crafted their own downfall

Arsenal 1-3 Manchester United: Unai Emery's men created the perfect conditions for United's counter-attack

Jack Pitt-Brooke
Emirates Stadium
Friday 25 January 2019 23:02 GMT
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's Manchester United aim for top four

For much of this season Arsenal have looked lost, like a team unsure of their purpose or place in the world, of where they have come from or where they are going. What is Unai Emery trying to turn them into? What direction are they meant to be heading? Does he even have the resources to get there?

And yet there were moments here this evening at the Emirates where Arsenal put in something close to a classic performance, one that drew deeply on their history, and on the traditions of this fixture. As if the players had been studiously watching old Arsenal videos and were committed to faithfully recreating them on the pitch. That is how it felt watching them open themselves up in the first half, creating the perfect conditions for Manchester United to counter-attack through them.

Everyone can remember how much fun United had in the past against Arsenal teams, when Arsene Wenger would send the full-backs high up the pitch, living the centre-backs isolated, but with the disjointed team never putting enough pressure on the ball to stop the break.

Most famously of all that is how United took Arsenal to pieces here in the Champions League semi-final almost 10 years ago. Or even here in the league last season, when United nicked two on the break early on, capitalising on some shocking defending, sat back, survived Arsenal’s waves of possession and left with a 3-1 win.

One of the reasons Emery was brought in to replace Wenger was to put a stop to all that. To make Arsenal more solid at the back, not as obviously flawed, harder to play against for teams that come to the Emirates. And yet the evidence when you watch his team is that progress in this area has been limited at best.

A look at the Premier League table shows that Arsenal have conceded 32 goals from their 23 league games, more than Leicester and Newcastle, as many as Brighton and Crystal Palace. Watch them out on the pitch and you see exactly why. Arsenal are still as vulnerable on the break as they have always been.

Especially when Emery switches back to his back four, he leaves both of his centre-backs dreadfully exposed. That was the case back here three weeks ago when Arsenal beat Fulham comfortably but could have been two down early on to Ryan Sessegnon.

Here at the start of the game Arsenal held their own by Sokratis and Laurent Koscielny were always on thin ice whenever Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Sead Kolasinac attacked outside them. And then when Sokratis limped off and was replaced by Shkodran Mustafi, Arsenal’s whole plan caved in.

Sokratis was taken off injured in the first half
Sokratis was taken off injured in the first half (PA)

This is Mustafi’s third season in English football and he still does not seem to have come to terms with the pace of it yet, or how much quicker the game moves than he does. He is reckless and aggressive but never fast enough to make up the ground he needs to. And sure enough, he was shown up soon after coming on. First Arsenal were opened up by an incisive pass by Romelu Lukau, which made the most of a clever run by Alexis Sanchez. Maybe Arsenal’s defence could have argued that they were not expecting Lukaku to be that precise.

But the second goal just a few minutes after was so perfectly characteristic of this fixture that it could have been mapped out in advance. Alexandre Lacazette ran into Ander Herrera, who broke away past him, swiftly realising there were only two Arsenal defenders in front of him. Lukaku drove down the right, and suddenly the two Arsenal centre-backs were stranded, miles away from their team-mates, and with a wave of grey shirts about to envelop them. When Lukaku rolled the ball to Jesse Lingard the finish was easy enough

Mustafi and Kolasinac were a brittle defensive pairing (Getty)
Mustafi and Kolasinac were a brittle defensive pairing (Getty) (Getty Images)

Only having gone 2-0 down did Arsenal start to play – another vintage Wenger-era trait – but their fightback was never enough to turn the tie around. And as they pushed for the equaliser, they eventually left so much space they conceded a third. With Granit Xhaka having to move into the back four, his only response was to back-pedal when Paul Pogba ran at him. He shot and Anthony Martial tucked away the rebound.

Three sharp counters for United and three goals at the Emirates, with Arsenal’s possession counting for nothing. A familiar story told with a slightly new cast.

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