Man United 1-2 Arsenal
Arsenal headed to Old Trafford on Monday night with several doubts surrounding the team. Having not beaten Manchester United away from home since 2006 and so far having failed to defeat the worst United side in a generation, there was a feeling that the Gunners were suffering from a mental block when facing the Red Devils.
The last meeting between the two sides at the Emirates in November proved to be an extremely frustrating game for Arsene Wenger’s men as they dominated proceedings but were ultimately undone by two breakaway goals which saw United leave with all three points. It would have been easy for Arsenal to crumble under such negativity as they left the dressing room to fight for a place in the FA Cup semi-finals, but instead they showed great mental strength throughout the game.
Wenger set his team up in similar fashion to the last time his team visited Manchester, that time securing a win at Manchester City by sitting deep, soaking up the pressure and hitting their opponents on the break.That was the game in which Francis Coquelin emerged from the shadows to stake his claim on the defensive midfield role, while Santi Cazorla alongside him was simply immense. The same two players were vital on Monday night too, fighting it out for the man of the match award, with the Frenchman just edging it.
Coquelin and Cazorla complement each other beautifully. While Coquelin does the dirty work, shielding the back four and breaking up the play with numerous interceptions, Cazorla moves with the grace of a ballet dancer, using his supreme technique and quick feet to evade challenges, while also possessing the eye for a pass. Since moving to this deeper lying position, the Spaniard has also added a steeliness to his game, showing great strength to fend off challenges and a willingness to fly into tackles too. Together Coquelin and Cazorla are able to control the central midfield battle as they have all the tools in their collective armoury to ensure Arsenal are on the front foot. Yet on Monday night, their work was also supplemented by excellent performances from Ozil, Oxlade-Chamberlain and to a slightly lesser extent Sanchez.
Ozil is another player who possesses technique of the highest calibre and when Arsenal had won the ball, he played a vital role in ensuring they maintained possession with silky smooth passes that enabled the Gunners to sustain their momentum. The German is not noted for his work rate, but recent statistics show he has actually covered more ground than any other Arsenal player since returning to the first team and on Monday night his endeavour and desire when the Gunners didn’t have possession was equally as impressive as his work with the ball.
The power, strength and sheer pace of Oxlade-Chamberlain caused Manchester United numerous problems as Luke Shaw simply could not live with him. The Arsenal man just had too much in his locker for his former Southampton teammate and provided his team with a different option going forward, making runs in behind and pinning the fullback back, with Shaw terrified of surging forward and allowing Oxlade-Chamberlain space in behind to exploit.
Given their superiority in the midfield battle, it was not surprising to see each and every one of the Arsenal midfield involved in the build up to the opening goal of the game in the 26th minute. Cazorla, Coquelin, Sanchez and Ozil manoeuvred the ball amongst themselves, with United forced to chase shadows, before Ozil was released in the middle, following an excellent forward run. The German seemed to have space to carry the ball forward and unleash a shot on goal, but elected to play a square pass to Oxlade-Chamberlain instead. The decision at the time appeared slightly strange, but the Englishman’s skill ensured it was the right move. Oxlade-Chamberlain made a mockery of the United defence, showing great close skill to dribble his way past several challenges in a sequence similar to Lionel Messi, before spotting the run of Monreal and showing great composure to deliver a perfect pass. The Spanish left back had only ever scored one goal for the Gunners, but took the chance like a seasoned striker, taking one touch to get the ball out of his feet, before placing a shot past the onrushing De Gea and inside the near post. It was a wonderfully well worked goal from the Gunners.
Wenger’s side had executed the perfect away match game plan. For the first 20 minutes they had kept the game tight, frustrated their opponents and ensured the home fans had nothing to get excited about. They had now accomplished the second phase by taking the lead and had to at least ensure they made it to halftime in the lead. Unfortunately, they failed to do so with United hitting back only three minutes later. Di Maria was being allowed to cut inside onto his favoured left foot time and time again and Arsenal still hadn’t adjusted to it, when in 29th minute a cross into the box from the Argentinian evaded Koscielny and found Rooney for his customary goal against the Gunners.
Having performed so well up to this point, Arsenal could have allowed themselves to get frustrated and lose their way, with that issue of the mental block resurfacing. However the Gunners second half display showed the mental strength of this side as they were in complete control of proceedings following the interval. Oxlade-Chamberlain had to be replaced by Ramsey only five minutes in, but still the Arsenal midfield dominated.
Sanchez and Welbeck may not have been enjoying their best games since joining the club in the summer, but both were working extremely hard for the team off the ball, pressing the United defence and running back into position to help their team when possession had been lost. Their pressing and high work rate paid off just after the hour mark as Arsenal took the lead once more. A long clearance from Szczesny eventually found its way to Valencia and under pressure the Ecuadorian under hit a back pass to De Gea. Welbeck pounced, using his searing pace to get to the ball first, showcasing great skill to flick it round the onrushing De Gea and then composure to steady himself and slot the ball into the empty net. It was a wonderful moment for the former United man who had been cast aside by his boyhood club in the summer and one in the eye for Van Gaal who had described Welbeck as not good enough for United.
This time Arsenal did manage to hold onto their lead, helped in no small part by Di Maria’s moment of madness, earning himself two yellow cards in the space of 30 seconds, one for diving and the second for laying hands on the referee. United were now reduced to playing long balls up to Fellaini, and more desperate diving with Januzaj also booked for a ridiculous attempt to win a penalty.
With Arsenal defending with relative ease and in control, the Gunners could and should have won by a greater margin but De Gea produced two top class saves to first prevent Cazorla’s volleyed effort from nestling in the bottom corner and then in the dying seconds denying Sanchez with a fine fingertip save.
Wenger will not mind however with the victory not only taking the Gunners back to Wembley once more, to contest a semi-final with either Bradford or Reading, but also installing renewed belief and confidence within his side as they attempt to secure another top four finish and seek to overturn the defeat to Monaco in the Champions League. This is not a great Manchester United side by any stretch of the imagination, but the celebrations of the Arsenal players at the final whistle showed just what it meant to them to get over that mental block and how important a result it could prove to be.