It is not every time Arsenal are two goals down by half time and the manager would not have much to complain about. But this was a special match. Arsenal versus Manchester United matches usually are. All the television promos before the match harked back to the great classes between the rivals in the early noughties. Even now that both teams are no longer the only teams challenging for the league in the land, matches between them have still retained that sparkle. And when you add the Wenger-Mourinho rivalry into the mix, you can be sure the matchup will always be a cracker.
There were surprise inclusions in the team sheets of both team; Alexandre Lacazette and Nemanja Matic had both limped off for their respective teams in their last Premier matches and both expected not to start. Alas, both had miraculously recovered in time to take their place in the starting eleven.
In matches against Man Utd of yore, especially at the Emirates, it has been the Mancunian team that has always started much strongly and that trend continued. It was immediately clear from Jose’s formation of playing three at the back and choice of Jesse Lingard to play central midfield that his gameplay was to press high against Arsenal’s three centrebacks and force them to errors. And if that press is bypassed, fall back into a low block.
Even Jose could not have hoped that his plan would work so excellently so early in the match. Not even that they would have quickly scored twice even. For the first goal, Laurent Koscielny’s wayward pass was intercepted by Antonio Valencia. The Ecudorean continued his run into the Arsenal area and when the ball was returned to him, fired the ball through the legs of both Nacho Monreal and Petr Cech. Only a few minutes later, Shkodran Mustafi pulled up as he was about to make a pass. The ball was stolen from him and found its way to Lingard who scored off the post.
Up until that point, Arsenal had not showed any attacking intent but immediately it felt like a switch was flicked. Maybe it was something about being two goals down ay home to a rival with only quarter of an hour gone that riled the Arsenal players as they pushed forward in torrents and pounded at the away team’s backline. I also think that the switch in formation occasioned by Alex Iwobi replacing the injured Mustafi contributed a whole lot to how suddenly impressive and penetrating the home team’s attack became.
I know I go on and on about how much i detest the three at back formation for Arsenal because of how it has stifled our attacking play. The way the Arsenal players found spaces and created chances after the formation was changed only gave me more reason to hate it. Physicists and data analysts would be needed to explain how Arsenal didn’t score in that first half. De Gea’s brilliance, shoddy finishing and lack of composure in the final third are not enough to explain how Arsenal went into the dressing room still two goals down.
Arsene was speaking earlier in the week about why he decided to employ the new formation at the tail end of the last season, essentially to shore up the defence and prevent being caught on the break. I might be wrong but I saw no evidence of that while the team played three at back. Not that it was better when the formation was changed but it was not a whole lot worse.
The match itself didn’t feel like a Premier League match most times. Probably because the home team were down by so many goals so early, it had the familiar whiff of a Champions League second leg tie with Arsenal trying so hard to cancel a first leg defeat. Man Utd, on the other hand, were content to sit back and defend their lead.
Arsenal got just reward for all of their attacking play early in the second half. A delightful ball was played into the United box. The ball fell to Aaron Ramsey, who did the surprising and possibly wisest thing by laying the ball off to Lacazette who smacked the ball in. Suddenly it felt like Arsenal were going to claw something from the game, especially when Cech made a brilliant save to deny Lingard during a Man Utd breakaway.
The more Arsenal pressed forward for the equaliser, the more gaps they left behind. Man Utd broke forward and Laurent Koscielny allowed Paul Pogba go around him and square the ball to an unmarked Lingard who scored.
Arsene Wenger, in typical fashion, went gung ho and brought in Danny Welbeck and Olivier Giroud for Saed Kolasinac and Granit Xhaka. In other matches, against other teams that are not coached by Jose Mourinho, this strategy might have yielded dividends. But today was not the day. Not even the dismissal of Pogba made things easier for the Arsenal team.
In the end, it was the two early defensive mistakes that determined the course of the match and although the loss feels very painful – any loss to Man Utd usually is – the team, manager and fans can take a lot of heart from the performance. Until the next one.