Manchester United sucker punch punishes wasteful Gunners
There were many potentially fascinating subplots ahead of this duel, but the theme that dominated as Manchester United (outsiders at 33/1 with Coral to win the Premier League) downed Arsenal 2-1 was defensive wobbles and woes.
Instead of a story of two strikers returning to their former clubs, or an exciting match-up between two attacks stacked with top quality options, this encounter quickly became a tale of two porous backlines.
Arsenal began brightly, compensating for a makeshift back four that once again featured Nacho Monreal at the heart of defence by boisterously pressing a nervous Red Devils rearguard.
Louis van Gaal had reverted to a back three, given the injury crisis, and United took some time to settle into a system they had never really taken to in the first place.
Misplaced passes and sloppy possession presented the Gunners with a wealth of chances, but Arsene Wenger’s men, notably Jack Wilshere and Danny Welbeck, failed to convert.
Most of the credit for the home team’s early failure to get on the scoresheet should certainly go to David de Gea, however. There is little doubt that the super stopper is the Red Devils’ best player, and the Spaniard once again outshone his outfield peers to deny an eager Arsenal.
If not for his sensational string of saves, this encounter could easily have been finished before the break, and the young custodian continued his fine form in the second half. De Gea, who had been a doubt due to a broken finger, gobbled up almost everything aimed at him.
United were repeatedly sliced open, with Per Mertesacker comfortable enough to bring the ball almost to the halfway line, but the vistors were emboldened by Arsenal’s inability to finish.
It was a testy battle that saw Luke Shaw, Wojciech Szczesny and Wilshere all leave the pitch with injuries that will worry both misfortune-stricken sides.
Wilshere was lucky to remain on the pitch for as long as he did, however. After being harshly denied an early penalty claim, the feisty Englishman’s frustration eventually boiled over into a shoulder-butt on Marouane Fellaini, but he received only a stern talking to.
It was the much-maligned United duo of Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia who eventually broke the deadlock. Substitute Young’s swinging cross made the difference and caused havoc for Szczesny, who collided with Kieran Gibbs.
Bullish Valencia pounced, but his shot would likely have been dealt with if a rash Gibbs had not stuck out a wayward leg and deflected it into the net.
Arsenal continued to be adventurous in search of an equaliser, with Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain their standout attacker, continuously toiling and turning United’s defenders inside out.
The Red Devils, meanwhile, played a dangerous game and seemed content to surrender possession. Their cautious approach eventually paid off, as Fellaini and Angel Di Maria sprung a counter attack for skipper Wayne Rooney to deftly lift over replacement keeper Emiliano Martinez.
Di Maria could have made it three, but his cheeky chip went wide and United were almost left to rue the Argentine’s attempt to dazzle, as Oliver Giroud returned with typical French panache.
The substitute striker reminded the Gunners what they have been missing and pulled a sensational late strike out of nowhere to finally beat determined De Gea.
It was too late for Arsenal, though, and a familiar tale for fans. For all their possession and intent, the Gunners failed to make it count once again.
Meanwhile, whilst United will be pleased with their points haul, a place in the top four and a first away win under Van Gaal’s rule, their performance was far from polished.
Stronger-willed sides will have found plumb points to exploit against both clubs, as these two teams put on an exciting display in which all their frailties were exposed.