Manchester United suffered an embarrassing loss at the hands of Arsenal at the Emirates stadium on Sunday. Nothing really went the Red Devils’ way right from the beginning. The United players seemed to be hopelessly unaware of the fact that the game had actually begun; in fact they looked tired and half-asleep.
Arsenal were two goals ahead after seven minutes, before Alexis Sanchez added a third 12 minutes later, and it felt like United left themselves with a virtually impossible task. United started the weekend as Premier League leaders but, after winning their previous four games in all competitions, were soon in trouble at the Emirates Stadium.
Arsenal looked ferocious right from the start. They played good attacking football and dominated possession greatly – something that should’ve been United’s forte. It’s not easy to beat Arsenal at their stadium, but when you lose 3-0 after the first 20 minutes, then that’s just tragic. From that moment on, United didn’t really create much, only a good one from Anthony Martial right before half-time, and that was the end of it.
The Gunners cut through the visitors with the kind of precise and quick passing that had “Arsene Wenger” written all over it. Mesut Ozil created the opener and converted the second, while Alexis Sanchez struck twice in a first-half display that has definitely left defender Matteo Darmian sleepless.
Bastian Schweinsteiger and Michael Carrick particularly struggled with the high tempo, as Arsenal could easily make their way around the seemingly stagnant duo. At 3-0, Arsenal sat back as United tried to convert their possession into clear-cut chances. But few key players delivered and not even in-form Anthony Martial succeeded, despite his lively movement. In the end, Louis van Gaal was left to contemplate a disastrous first 20 minutes.
Certainly, few could have foresen this kind of opening. Before kick-off, United had the joint-best defensive record in the league with five goals shipped in seven fixtures; they had also conceded the fewest shots, with an average of 8.9 per game.
Yet Van Gaal’s side were 2-0 down inside eight minutes. Individual battles were lost, passes were misplaced and the spaces between the lines were too big.
For the first two goals, Ozil capitalised on these gaps. First he popped up on the right to orchestrate the attack that started with a one-two with Aaron Ramsey and finished with him setting up Sanchez for a glorious back-heel goal. Two minutes later, Santi Cazorla zipped a sharp pass to Sanchez who found Ozil; once more, Carrick and Schweinsteiger were caught too far upfield, and Ozil had acres of space. The playmaker combined neatly with Theo Walcott to double the lead.
Inside those eight minutes, United had been forced into four clearances, lost three defensive aerial challenges and misplaced six out of just 11 passes. Arsenal had completed 52 out of 57.
One of the most grievous offenders was Schweinsteiger. Van Gaal selected him alongside Carrick and omitted Morgan Schneiderlin, despite the Frenchman being touted as his most efficient defensive midfielder, with an average of 3.1 tackles and 2.9 interceptions per league game.
Given that Schweinsteiger and Carrick are less mobile than Schneiderlin, you might have expected United to be compact. Yet they were anything but. Schweinsteiger wandered deep into Arsenal’s half to close down and was often level with Martial and Wayne Rooney, which obviously ended up being a very bad choice.
Another part of United’s downfall was the several individual battles they lost, the most obvious being Darmian’s handling of Alexis Sanchez. The ex-Barcelona man started out wide before cutting inside and, before the fifth-minute opener, he had already pulled away from the right-back. Soon after, when Sanchez scored his first, it was Darmian he outran inside the area.
On 19 minutes the forward got another one-on-one, darted inside and hammered the ball into the top corner. Eleven minutes later, Darmian pulled him down and got booked. With 45 minutes on the clock, Sanchez had bypassed him three times.
Darmian also had time to get outmuscled by Ozil when competing for a high ball. When the second half started, it came as no shock to see him replaced by Antonio Valencia.
More than once, the ball was played to the feet of lone striker Martial, who possesses a powerful frame to complement his pace. The 19-year-old Frenchman tried to dribble past defenders in wide zones in a similar manner to how he scored against Liverpool and bypassed Younes Kaboul to set up Rooney against Sunderland, but Arsenal’s compactness meant he completed only two out of eight take-ons after the break. That denoted United’s overall success: they mustered just one shot from inside the box in the second half, which came when Schweinsteiger was denied by Cech.
Eventually Wenger could reflect on a fine triumph that confirmed how exhilarating Arsenal can be when it all clicks, and how solid they can be when focused and disciplined.