This game was everything you would want one between Arsenal and Manchester United to be: relentless, dramatic, end-to-end, combining brilliant football, buckets of chances and a sprinkling of violence. But when the dust settled on what felt like a throwback to the great old days of this fixture, this was a thumping vindication for Jose Mourinho, overturning years of underperformance in games like this.
Mourinho teams have struggled in these Big Six away ties, four goals and five points in their last 11 before today. Here at the Emirates they came away with three of each, exerting as much pressure as they still can on a Manchester City side threatening to pull away into the distance.
This was a game so full of events, turning points and contingencies that nothing that happened can be said to be inevitable. But the way it did go, United taking it 3-1, was a result for Mourinho’s gameplan, and proof that he does still know how to come out of games like this. It just takes an amenable opponent, a world-class goalkeeper and a touch of luck.
This was not a perfect display by United, they allowed Arsenal too many real chances, especially in the second half. Nor was it a perfect afternoon, with Paul Pogba sent off for a thoughtless stamp on Hector Bellerin in the second half that will keep him out of the Manchester derby next Sunday. That could be a costly moment in the broader context of the title race. But at least United are in one: if City beat West Ham tomorrow they will be 15 points ahead of Arsenal.
Wenger had confidently remarked in the build-up to this game that Arsenal’s back three system had made them more secure against the counter-attack. That may well have been the case before today, but unfortunately for Arsenal no system can accommodate defensive errors this bad. United went 2-0 up within 11 minutes and both goals came from cringe-worthy mistakes in possession.
Mourinho has always maintained that the team with possession is more likely to make a fatal mistake, which is why he prefers not to have the ball in games like this. It does not always work out like that: remember United’s dire 0-0 draw at Anfield or their 1-0 defeat at Stamford Bridge. Those were games when United were sat waiting for their hosts to cough up good chances that never came, leaving them frustrated and empty-handed at the final whistle.
But here the Arsenal defence was in a generous mood, and it proved Wenger wrong and Mourinho right. Yes, United took both goals well, and the second came from a thrillingly incisive three-man move. But the mistakes that led to them were disastrous, especially for a team who wants to compete at the top end of the Premier League this season.
The first came when Laurent Koscielny, usually so assured in possession, tried a risky square ball to Sead Kolasinac after just four minutes. Before Kolasinac could receive it, Antonio Valencia darted in and stole the ball. He passed to Paul Pogba, the remnants of the Arsenal defence ran towards him, and when Pogba gave Valencia the ball back it was simple enough to beat Petr Cech.
The second, seven minutes later, was even worse. Shkodran Mustafi tried to bring ball out but dallied and was robbed by Lingard. Lukaku evaded Mustafi and rolled a pass to Martial, who held off Koscielny and flicked it through to Lingard, running through, and he finished. It was a perfect example of counter-attacking precision to exploit the Arsenal error.
There are few better teams than Arsenal when it comes to turning it on once the game already looks lost. True to form, having gone 2-0 down they then started to play, dominating possession and even creating chances against United’s tight back five. Alexandre Lacazette was a surprise inclusion up front, having gone off at half-time of Wednesday’s game with a groin problem that Wenger said would put him out of this match. But here he was excellent, and was in the thick of it as Arsenal laid siege at the end of the first half: Marcos Rojo blocked one shot before David de Gea tipped another onto the bar. Just before the break De Gea had to save from Lukuaku, reacting with characteristic speed to stop the own-goal.
Arsenal needed to start the second half with the same intensity, and they did, and this time they found a way past De Gea. Alexis Sanchez chipped a ball over to Ramsey, breaking the off-side trap, laying the ball back to Lacazette. He had more than enough time to pick his spot and beat De Gea, for his ninth Arsenal goal.
That is what it takes to beat the best goalkeeper in the world: time, space and a free shot from eight yards out. The rest of this game was a reminder that any other shot from any other chance will not beat him. De Gea dived to deny Alex Iwobi and then pulled off a remarkable double save: first from Lacazette then sticking out a foot to stop Sanchez.
The problem for Arsenal is that the more men they threw forward, the more open they were at the back. And this United team, with Lukaku, Martial, Pogba and Lingard, was perfectly set up to slice through them on the break. At the start of the second half Lingard had a shot deflected onto the bar but soon enough he got his second. United won the ball, Lingard broke down the middle, Pogba shrugged off Koscielny with ludicrous ease and Lingard tapped the finish in, his third goal this week.
It was a brilliant moment showing all the skills, confidence and authority that makes Pogba one of the most exciting footballers in the world. But 10 minutes later he showed why he still not the complete player, getting sent off for a mindless stamp on Bellerin that will put him out for three games. United play City next Sunday and they will not be able to play the same way without him.
That was all the encouragement Arsenal needed and with Danny Welbeck and Olivier Giroud on, they ended the game playing a 3-2-5 formation, throwing everything they had at the United backline. Welbeck was dangerous and when he was tripped by Rojo in the box, Arsenal should have had a penalty. But they did not, another of the long list of moments that broke against them here. For all their possession and chances, their commitment to attack, they ended up on the wrong side of a 3-1 defeat.
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