Wayne Rooney celebrates United’s first goal as Kieran Gibbs looks on helplessly
Manchester United notched up their first away win of the season and what a win it was. The visitors were under siege for the majority of the first half, with only the heroics of David De Gea stopping Jack Wilshere from opening the scoring for Arsenal. United were up against Danny Welbeck for the first time since his move in the summer, but the former United forward couldn’t find the breakthrough for his new club.
Kieran Gibbs was extremely unlucky to turn Antonio Valencia’s wayward shot into his own net, but it was what United had needed following Arsenal’s first half dominance. United were then able to sit back and soak up pressure and hit the home side on the counter attack, which was achieved to perfection in the 85th minute. Marouane Fellaini found Angel Di Maria on the right of the pitch and the Argentine burst forward before slotting in Wayne Rooney who finished with a delicate chip. Olivier Giroud responded late on for Arsenal, but it was too late as United picked up all three points. Here we discuss the talking points from the game and welcome comments from both sets of fans.
Well, where to start. For the opening thirty minutes, United were as poor as they have been all season, with Arsenal cutting through a makeshift defence with ease and only David De Gea keeping the away side in the game. Gradually, however, United began to impose themselves on the game and took advantage of Arsenal’s mental fragility to record their first away win under Louis Van Gaal.
In many respects, the victory was typical of many of the latter day Ferguson era defeats of Arsenal which can effectively be summed up as rope-a-dope. It was a vital win for United, sending them above their opposition and into the top four, with the knowledge that their fixture list up until the New Year is more welcoming than it has been over the last month. As for Arsenal, it’s conceivable, on this evidence, that this may be the year that they finally miss out on a top four finish and that would be a far bigger problem for them than it has been for United, with their commercial juggernaut providing a short-term shield of sorts.
The rise and rise of David De Gea
I would suggest that this may have been De Gea’s finest performance for United, all things considered. There may not have been a specific save the equal to his save from Mata’s free kick a few years ago, or his saves against Everton at Old Trafford earlier this season, but he was practically a one man team in the first thirty minutes and throughout provided much needed confidence to an inexperienced, unsettled defence.
It was interesting to hear Van Gaal suggest after the game that De Gea can still improve, given his performance earlier in the day. De Gea’s strength, as alluded to by Van Gaal, has been his shot-stopping and he hadn’t, prior to this season, shown the ability to dominate his penalty area in the way that a figure like Peter Schmeichel had during his time at United.
His performance against Arsenal suggested this is something that he and Frans Hoek have been working on, demonstrated by his rush off the line to close the angle against Chamberlain and two saves, against Wilshere in the first half and Welbeck in the second half, that were typical of Schmeichel.
The fear, of course, for United fans at the moment is that De Gea is playing so well that unwelcome attention from Real Madrid may come sooner rather than later. If a new contract isn’t signed by the end of this current season then a return to his home city may unfortunately come sooner rather than later. You would hope, and presume, that United move heaven and earth to keep him.
Too often, over the last twelve months or so, when United have completely folded when they have been put under pressure. Although undoubtedly let off by Arsenal during the opening exchanges, it was encouraging to see United become increasingly composed as the game went on.
One of the key factors for this was the performance of Michael Carrick who underlined why Van Gaal was so disappointed when he got injured in pre-season. Together with Marouane Fellaini, he helped protect a defence that featured two teenagers in a formation that hadn’t been seen since August.
Whilst Fellaini continued his reformation, showing increased composure and restraint, particularly when butted by Wilshere (an incident Mike Dean had a clear view of but, you know, thought he’d ignore), it is Carrick’s influence that brings a calmness and intelligence to United’s play; something that has been missed earlier in the season, despite Daley Blind’s generally good performances.
In addition, there were good, authoritative displays from Chris Smalling and Wayne Rooney that, in addition to the two central midfielders and the goalkeeper, provided United with enough impetus to record a victory.
If United could get Evans fully fit, or even Jones, and be able to play Carrick and Rooney regularly, the spine of the team would be far stronger than it has been in recent months.
We need to talk about Robin
When you consider his contribution to Ferguson’s final title winning campaign, it would be difficult to argue that the signing of Robin van Persie has not been a success. However, despite this, it would also be accurate to suggest that, despite a good (but not spectacular) scoring record, his form after the first six months at the club has been increasingly diminishing.
The concern with Van Persie is that his form has been poor for so long and there seems very little evidence to suggest he will turn it round. It was noticeable that James Wilson offered far greater dynamism in the 15 minutes he was on the pitch than Van Persie did in the preceding 75 minutes.
In particular, there still seems very little interplay between Rooney and Van Persie. Eighteen months ago, the indication was that it was Rooney whose career at the club was drawing to a close. The roles have now been fully reversed and Van Gaal will have no option but to leave Van Persie out should his performances not improve substantially in the coming weeks.
United can’t afford to carry a player who has only 9 touches of the ball in open play over 75 minutes and, given the options (Wilson, Mata, Herrera, Januzaj, Falcao if he’s ever available) that Van Gaal has, it currently feels inevitable that the pecking order will soon be changed.
The top four
The victory over Arsenal took United into the top four which, all things considered, is a remarkably healthy position to be in at this stage. Whilst underwhelming to admit, if United were offered the chance to end the season now, with 4th place assured, they’d undoubtedly take it.
Give the recent run of fixtures, with Chelsea at home and City and Arsenal away in the space of four games, Van Gaal will be relatively content with a return of 7 points. It could have been better, of course, and the performances are still scratchy at best, but it could have been far, far worse. With these games out of the way, United have, on paper, a good run of games up until the New Year; there are some challenges, such as Southampton away, but United should be optimistic that they can go into the New Year with their place in the top four still held.
My view since the first few games of the season has been that United should hope to be within 5 points of the top four by New Year’s Day and that, if they are, then they have an excellent chance of reclaiming Champions League status for next season. In many respects they are ahead of schedule, although this is largely due to the poor form of the likes of Arsenal, Liverpool and Spurs.
Whose injury is it anyway? Luke Shaw – twisted ankle
It’s way beyond ridiculous now, nothing really more to add on that front.
So, a very strange game that United could have been out of after 20 minutes but could easily have ended up winning by 3 or 4 goals given Arsenal’s complete lack of strategy and composure, ends with a hugely important victory. If United can follow it up, as they should, with victories at home against Hull and Stoke, Van Gaal and his players will begin to feel a corner has been turned.