With the players knowing that City had beaten Spurs, United took to the field knowing they had to match their rivals and beat Arsenal. Arsenal were hoping to avoid a third straight league defeat and importantly put some pressure on Chelsea in the Champions League positions. Ferdinand missed out due to a back injury whilst Giggs partnered Carrick in the middle. For Arsenal, Oxlade-Chamberlain was handed a Premier League debut and Vermaelen was passed fit to start.
Below, we discuss the talking points and invite Arsenal fans as well as United fans to join in the discussion.
Park for Rafael
Rafael looked disillusioned and dejected as he warbled off down the tunnel having been subbed for Park with 12 minutes to go, and it is hard not to have sympathy for the young Brazilian. Gradually finding his match fitness of late, Rafael is getting more minutes on the pitch, and was even mooted to start today, with Arsenal having to resort to playing Vermalen (a centreback) at fullback. In fact he probably should have done, in place of the slightly erratic (possibly lacking match sharpness) Phil Jones. When the latter got injured early on in the first half, Rafael’s introduction gave United more of a balance and the away team quickly exerted their control on the game. Rafael and Valencia worked well in synergy down the right side, despite the majority of United’s ambition very much being down the left with Evra and Nani in the first half.
Chalkboard 1: Valencia pulled back deep
Then two things happened: Firstly Rafael was harshly cautioned by Mike Dean for slightly tugging at Van Persie’s shirt as the forward pounced on a loose ball and drove forward. (It was Dean, who has perhaps ‘categorised’ the Brazilian who cautioned, and sent him off, in a fixture away at Spurs two seasons ago for a similar offence, but this one was even harsher.) And secondly, the fullback later went on a marauding and opportunist run on the counter, as Arsenal were left short at the back. Rooney slid him in perfectly, only for Koscielny to execute a perfectly timed tackle and distribute up field. Because Arsenal had already committed numbers to the attack, United’s three-man defence was overwhelmed and Oxlade-Chambers laid in Van Persie to finish. He was subbed shortly after by the aggrieved Ferguson (for Park), and United can think themselves lucky to have snatched the game in the manner they did. Valencia was moved to right back to counter Arshavin, but as Park drifted infield, the Ecuadorian did exactly what Rafael attempted and seized the initiative; scoring from the position he knows best, wide right. The manager may well tell us that the substitute was in fear of second caution or injury, but the truth is Rafael was intelligent in his defensive display throughout. This slightly defensive substitution aside (see chalkboard), United won away again, and hopefully the fit again Rafa can challenge Sagna as the league’s best in the months and years to come.
If it were a boxing match, the ref would have ended the fight much earlier than half time, something Arsene Wenger did for Johan Djourou. Wenger may have made a daft substitution later on in the match, however he had no choice in taking off Djourou as he was terrorised all afternoon by United’s number seventeen.
Whether it was a dummy, step over or burst of pace – Nani had the beating of Djourou all day long. To be fair to the make shift Arsenal fullback, he had little support from Theo Walcott or Alex Song – who was no doubt more occupied with Wayne Rooney (more on that in a bit). Many reds may have been critical with Nani’s final ball or his hesitance at certain times when he got in behind the Arsenal defence, but his build up play and constant threat down the left hand side no doubt shook Djourou. The chalkboard below highlights how Michael Carrick tried to shift play to the left hand side for Nani to latch on to:
Chalkboard 2: Carrick passing
The goal may have come from a sublime Ryan Giggs cross, however Djourou’s awful defending – where he failed to cross down United’s number eleven and made himself as narrow as possible to block the cross – was due to his nightmare first half up against the Portuguese winger. Valencia, for me, was MOTM – but Nani was a joy to watch at times against Arsenal.
After strange form and missed penalties, Rooney decided to put in one of his most selfless displays of the season. Playing behind Welbeck, Rooney not only occupied Alex Song but also stopped him. Song is somewhat under-appreciated by non-Arsenal fans, he’s not just a player who breaks up play but he’s a ball carrier too. In the past, Anderson has been deployed as the destroyer but on this occasion it was Rooney.
Chalkboard 3: Rooney tackling and Song passing
Rooney won an impressive nine out of eleven tackles and forced Song not only to play higher but to play more horizontally than usual. That’s not necessarily a bad thing but considering Arsenal like to play through the middle, it forced them to change their tactics. Rooney’s own passing may have been inaccurate but he didn’t have a shot all game and constantly played for the team both defensively and offensively.
Strong at the back
Rafael’s contribution has already been touched upon but I think in general it’s worth stating just how impressive United were defensively. Evra was awarded man of the match and he had some swagger back in his game as he marauded forward down the left. On the other side Rafael showed how good it is to have a natural right back play in that position. Between them they won an impressive 16 tackles:
Chalkboard 4: Evra and Rafael tackles
The real bonus for United though came in the middle. With Ferdinand missing due to yet another back injury (he could be back for Liverpool), Evans and Smalling were paired together. As per many performances this season, they were imperious. Smalling is a natural and scarily may well be our second best centre back already, behind Vidic. Despite one slip he showed his calmness in possession and cleverness when defending. He seems to compliment Evans well – Jonny’s equally as comfortable with the ball at his feet but seems to enjoy contact that bit sooner than Smalling. Not only did they keep Van Persie quiet for most of the game, but they reduced him to a minimal involvement and played a big part in his poor 44% passing accuracy. It seems hard to look beyond the Smalling-Evans pairing as the long-term option.
United’s away support
It may seem a bias point to make, but I make it sincerely nonetheless. Having been part of the ‘away crowd’ for a large part of the 90’s and a lot of the noughties, I can safely say that United’s away following is always absolutely superb, if not the best in the country (however you measure that). Not only do they (we) have an unequalled array of songs across the land, often singing heartily throughout any given game, but they also seem to have a unique telepathic understanding at times, more so when the chips are down. This can often translate into spontaneous vocal support for the team, differing from the general revelry shared in games where the result is less ‘meaningful’ or at risk. Today, after a brief period of stunned silence after Arsenal’s equaliser, United’s following sprung into action. The clock read nine minutes to go, and with Valencia receiving the ball in an advanced position on the right, testosterone-infused shouts of ‘United’ were heard echoing around the stadium. The group just ‘knew’ that this was their moment, United’s moment; a crucial juncture in the title race had been reached, with City clinching a late winner versus Spurs only two hours earlier. The team sensed it too, and more to the point, Valencia did. Buoyed by the crowd his dribble was opportunism and direct wing-play at its best. While Arshavin was harshly criticised in the aftermath, there was only ever going to be one outcome with the Ecuadorian in this kind of mood. Valencia even had the panache and concentration to pull the ball back for Welbeck, who subsequently stroked the ball into an empty net. Cue wild celebrations from the players and Fergie alike; but more importantly, cue frenzied outpouring of emotion from the little section away in the far left corner of the Emirates. They had sensed the 3 points was there for the taking, but more importantly, they had impelled it to happen.
United made sure they matched Man City by winning 2-1 at Arsenal. A hard game took its toll though as yet more players picked up injuries and knocks – Rooney, Rafael, Jones, Nani and Carrick all could face some time out.
Arsenal started both halves strongly, lead by Oxlade-Chamberlain on his debut. In the middle, Rosicky had his most effective game in a long time but his performance was bettered by Carrick for United who was and his controlling-best. United always looked dangerous on the counter-attack and regularly got joy out wide through Nani. Right on half time they got what they deserved as Valencia powerfully headed in a perfect Giggs cross.
Arsenal’s response was positive and various efforts from outside the penalty area were fired in on goal but Lindegaard was untroubled. Welbeck lead the line well for United and could well have scored a few goals on the break but good defending from Mertesacker and Koscielny denied him. Arsenal drew level late on through Van Persie. His finish was instinctive and deadly after a clever through ball from Oxlade-Chamberlain. The goal stemmed from a quick break after United had committed men forward.
Arsenal’s fans turned from delirious to grumpy soon after though as Arshavin replaced Oxlade-Chamberlain. Boos rang around the Emirates and a chorus of “you don’t know what you’re doing” could be heard. Sure enough, United went on to score a winner which Arshavin maybe could have done better on. Valencia’s surging run into the area saw him exchange passes with Park before he had the presence of mind to lay the ball back to Welbeck who scored but was incredibly left unmarked.
United’s walking-wounded collapsed at the full time whistle but most still found the energy to go and applaud the away fans. An exhausting day in London may have taken its toll injury-wise but United showed an incredible amount of character to win such a hard-fought game. Next up is a trip to Anfield in the FA Cup. With the league looking increasingly tight, Fergie’s team selection and possible prioritising of the league should make for an interesting weekend.