Alexis Sanchez scores a brilliant first goal to give Arsenal the lead over United
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It was going so well. Top of the league, looking down at the multitude of implosions that threatened to keep Louis van Gaal’s Red and White Army in title contention, scoring goals and conceding next to nothing. It was going so well that it had to end at some point but no one expected it to be within the first twenty minutes of Sunday’s game at the Emirates. It wasn’t going THAT well.
Let us make no mistake on this one: the opening half was an embarrassment that saw Arsenal rip Manchester United to shreds with quick counter attacking movements and a freedom to roam in midfield that should have dissipated the moment the reds brought half of Europe’s midfield options back in the summer. Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil took less than seven minutes to put the game to bed, before Sanchez closed the coffin lid just twelve minutes later.
I’m loath to even attempt to remember the game, for my own mental health if nothing else. But let’s do it anyway. (Oh lord help us…)
So what went wrong? Everything.
There was a moment during the game where every Man Utd fan instantly flashbacked to the infamous 8-2 from a few seasons ago. Back then, the once-personally charged feud between the clubs was at its lowest ebb and Sir Alex Ferguson no longer took any true joy in beating his long-term rival. Here, it seemed painfully obvious that memories are long and revenge is best served cold and fast.
For what seemed like the longest first half in the history of football, the Gunners took full control of the game and tore through their opponents with frightening ease. Matteo Darmian, a bright spark in the season thus far, couldn’t handle Sanchez or keep the attacks at bay. Memphis Depay showed none of the usual gusto and failed to track back or provide any help behind him. Both were rightfully hauled at half time.
When a Fellaini/Valencia double-sub seems like the right decision to make, you can understand just how bad things became.
The problems spread far beyond two easy scapegoats though. Juan Mata was off the pace a little and Anthony Martial was given little to work with. His one moment of brilliance was on par with his newly created expectations, turning and swiveling until he could shoot straight into the arms of Petr Cech, but it was one of few.
More worryingly and to the eternal annoyance of Gary Neville on commentary, Bastian Schweinsteiger was played far too high. With a two man midfield, United gave Arsenal ample space to boss the central areas and outpace the defense with alarming regularity. Let this not be another excuse to batter Wayne Rooney as he wasn’t all that bad truth be told, but this was a game crying out for a three-man middle pairing and you can be the one to explain just how Ander Herrera didn’t even make a late substitution appearance.
Which can’t, if small mercies are to be found, be claimed of James Wilson who was brought on near the end in place of Mata. His contribution was muted at this late stage but the reds were far more pleasing on the eye in the second half with changed tactics and more attacking impetus. The fears of a Wilson loan move still linger but the youngster could still have a place in the starting XI. As it was, the 82nd minute was just 63 too late to make the difference.
Title hopes? Be hopeful, but be realistic too.
Arsenal deserve all the credit in the world- they were the better team and dismantled a lethargic back line like it was Lego. As always though, it is worth remembering that this was just one game. A poor, depressing game, but one single game nonetheless.
This performance was a blip after a sequence of good performances from a side that has shown the kind of teamwork that makes for title challengers. United may not be as ruthless in front of goal as their Manchester rivals but Ferguson’s reign was known to see the team close ranks and grind out results purely to clinch three points. Van Gaal seems to have a similar mentality and this game will likely instigate similar changes.
A result as embarrassing as this can be demoralizing for players as well as the fans, but the manager knows what went wrong and though I would love to see United batter another team by five goals or more, the next game is away to an in-form Everton and Van Gaal simply cannot afford to take risks leading into the Manchester derby a week later.
The next two games are of vital importance. The title race would still be far from over, but victories over the Blues tandem would move the reds back into the ascendency and the closer to the top they are by Christmas, the better it will be for the second half of the season – a time where United traditionally kick it up a gear.
If one or both games are lost, it won’t help that Arsenal have a run of should-win matches and that a newly re-Sturridged Liverpool are about to bring in a new manager which should boost their chances slightly. Man City, as much as I vomit whenever I type these words, are in the form that comes out on top come May, but they can still be chased. Unfortunately, United are being chased too.
If they can evade capture then they’ll still have a shot at the title but, if they’re caught early, it may be lights out. Just ask Alexis Sanchez.