Manchester United were gunned down 2-0 by Arsenal, with former red Danny Welbeck scoring the second for the home team in a 2-0 win. Jose Mourinho’s most likely route into the Champions League next season will be through the Europa League, if indeed United can overcome Celta Vigo on Thursday in the 2nd leg of the semi-final and emerge victorious from the final in Stockholm on May 24th. United are now four points behind Manchester City in 4th and five points behind Liverpool in 3rd, although the latter has played a game more. Arsenal have closed the gap to two points, but can leapfrog United if they win their game in hand.
Mourinho was full of praise for his players, despite not mounting any sort of comeback after conceding two goals in three minutes, calling out Phil Jones, Chris Smalling and Juan Mata – all who had returned from injury recently.
The first half saw both teams squander chances, with Wayne Rooney the biggest culprit for the away side – fluffing his lines following a woeful back pass by Rob Holding. The United captain should have slotted it past the out coming Petr Cech, who did spread himself well, or passed the ball square for Juan Mata to have a tap in. Rooney was praised by his manager post match for an “amazing” performance – however, it is clear to see that his best days are behind him with wayward shots, rash tackles and poor set piece delivery. There was debate many years ago suggesting that Rooney’s best position was indeed centre of the park, which of course on evidence of the past four years is completely inaccurate. His best position has always been as a number ten and making those explosive runs, which sadly have been a rarity for many years now and he could well be on his way out this summer.
David De Gea was called into action and saved brilliantly from Aaron Ramsey, low to his right as the Welshman found some space in behind Phil Jones. The Spaniard again saved strongly from a stinging Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain shot from long range, which took a deflection on route to De Gea’s goal. It is essential that United hold on to their prized asset from the lures of Real Madrid, which no doubt will come once again in the summer. There has been heavy speculation that he could be on his way out after the season’s end, however – United will demand a heavy price.
The game was devoid of any real action and was in dire need of a goal, which came from Granit Xhaka ten minutes after half time. It was a lucky goal having hit Ander Herrera, who was slow to close down the Swiss International and appeared to be suffering from an injury. The Spaniard turned his back and Xhaka’s shot smashed off the midfielder’s back and looped over the helpless De Gea.
Mourinho had adopted the same tactic as he had done at the Etihad with both wide players asked to defend deep against the full backs, which against Arsenal were the wing backs Kieran Gibbs and Oxlade-Chamberlain. At times United had a back six, with the attack minded Juan Mata and Henrikh Mkhitaryan being asked to track back and defend whilst Matteo Darmian and Premier League debutant Axel Tuanzebe moved narrow and closed down Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil when they got on the ball. The goal changed everything and United never mounted a serious comeback following Welbeck’s powerful header following good work by Oxlade-Chamberlain on the right handside.
One positive for United was the performance of youngster Tuanzebe, who was of course up against the talented Sanchez on Arsenal’s left hand side. The defender, who usually plays as a centre half, was exceptional – confident on the ball, strong when faced with a one on one with the Chilean and was not fazed throughout the match. Mourinho will be extremely pleased with his performance as United enter the business end of of the season. Arsene Wenger will be delighted with the much needed three points and the performances of Ramsey, Oxlade-Chamberlain and Laurent Koscielny.
Ramsey was given man of the match and was a constant threat to United, getting in between the lines and creating changes. Oxlade-Chamberlain continued to motor up and down the right hand side and his delivery for Welbeck’s header was exceptional. Koscielny, who is one of the league’s best centre half, was superb at the back marshalling Anthony Martial – who had a lively first half but was very quiet in the second forty-five.
It is looking increasingly unlikely that United will finish in the top four and all eyes will be on the semi-final of the Europa League on Thursday with Mourinho looking to build on the one goal lead picked up in the first leg. United will be back in London next weekend to visit second placed Tottenham.