When the Manchester United players who took on Arsenal at the Emirates on Saturday evening read the back pages on Sunday, they could be forgiven for not believing what’s written in them.
The Red Devils recorded their first away win of the season, beating the Gunners 2-1 and thereby pushing their way into the top four with 19 points in 12 matches.
This, in spite not having an attempt on goal until the 35th minute and not getting a single shot on target in the entire first half.
Prior to the game, United’s injury list had enough players to fill an entire wing of a hospital. Thus, when the team sheets revealed that manager Louis van Gaal was reverting back to his preferred 3-5-2 formation with a back three of Chris Smalling, Paddy McNair and Tyler Blackett, the 90 minutes ahead of them would have seemed like a tortuous eternity for the fans.
On expected lines, Arsenal bossed possession in the opening exchanges and were all over the beleaguered men from the north.
The build-up to the game had all been about the Manchester born and bred Danny Welbeck, who had been sold by United to Arsenal over the summer. Van Gaal had said that at United, Welbeck was a substitute player, rather than a “line-up” player, saying that he lacked refinement to be a regular starter. This was the perfect opportunity for Welbeck to prove his previous employers wrong.
However, the 23-year-old fluffed a couple of great chances in the first 30 minutes and over the course of the match only vindicated van Gaal’s decision.
Arsenal’s biggest chance of the match came in the first quarter of an hour when a rare mistake by United’s now talismanic goalkeeper David De Gea resulted in Jack Wilshere having the luxury of the entire goal in front of him with almost no pressure.
But in a play that defined the Gunners’ evening, the Englishman decided to aim his shot very close to De Gea, who dived low to his left and made a fine save. It was one of many spectacular saves and moves made by the Spaniard during the game, who is one of the main reasons United are in the top half of the table.
It wasn’t until the 35th minute of the first half that United had their first attempt on goal when Angel Di Maria capped his sprint down the right wing with what looked like a delicious left-footed curler, only for it to fly inches wide of the top-left corner of the goal.
If not a goal, United gained some confidence from that attack and created their first spell of sustained pressure on the Arsenal goal, which lasted until the whistle for half time. But they still hadn’t had a shot on target. Arsenal, meanwhile, should have been at least 3-0 up.
So ridiculous was the game that United went ahead in the 56th minute without a shot on target, via a deflected own goal by Kieran Gibbs. If anything, the Red Devils appeared more stunned than their hosts with the goal. To make matters worse for the Gunners, keeper Wojciech Szczesny picked up a knock on what appeared to be his ribs and had to hobble off.
As expected, Arsenal laid siege on United’s goal for the remainder of the game, but were thwarted by a disciplined, if inexperienced, defence. The back three, who had led to much anxiety among United fans prior to kick-off, had weathered an early storm and calmly steadied the ship.
Smalling, who had come under much criticism following his red card at the Etihad earlier this month, led the charge and organised the back line exceptionally well. McNair and Blackett, playing a match of this scale together for the first time, stuck to the basics of old-school defending and would have come out as wiser and more mature footballers.
Ahead of them, Marouane Fellaini was proficient in performing his duty of being a robust 6’4″ wall in front of any line of attack by the opponents, shielding the back line from constant bombardment. In fact, his unflinching rigidity probably saved Wilshere from being sent off in the first half when the Englishman appeared to head-butt Fellaini right in front of the referee following a tackle. The Belgian responded relatively coolly and did not go down, which he so easily could have done.
The nail in Arsenal’s coffin came in the 84th minute when a United counterattack took full advantage of the hosts leaving just one defender behind during an attack. Wayne Rooney then capped a splendid week in which he became England’s third-highest goal-scorer with a sublime chip over the substitute keeper Damian Martinez to all but seal the three points.
Arsenal pulled one back in injury time via a superb, unstoppable strike by Olivier Giroud, who had come on as a late substitute following a three-month injury layoff. But it was too little too late for the Gunners, whose own mediocrity had left them incapable of vanquishing an injury-plagued, highly unstable Manchester United.
Arsene Wenger’s side have a lot of self-introspection to do. “It’s a game that we dominated for 80 per cent of the time and we haven’t dominated a game like that against Manchester United for a long time,” said the Arsenal manager, as quoted by Sky Sports. Evidently, that is not nearly enough if the Gunners aim to be contenders for the top four.
The loss leaves Arsenal eighth in the table and a whopping 15 points behind league leaders Chelsea. Their four wins out of 12 games this season have all come against teams in the bottom third of the table.
United, meanwhile, leaped back into the top four with the win. As lucky or unconvincing as it may have been, United could use the victory as a springboard to a sustained run in the league. The Red Devils play their next two games at home, against Hull City and Stoke City, in which they should be aiming to bag all six points ahead of a tricky two weeks that follow when they travel to second-placed Southampton and host arch-rivals Liverpool.
Manager Van Gaal was pleased for his players, but urged caution. He told Sky Sports: “It’s the first away victory and the players are very excited but it’s just one victory and we have to confirm it by winning the next two home games. Then we can say we have the spirit and we can look up, not down, in the table.”
Featured image courtesy: wonker (Creative Commons)