Since the 8-2 demolition suffered by Arsenal at Old Trafford earlier in the season, the North London side have regrouped and worked their way back into contention for Champion’s League places, positions that seemed far beyond their grasp after their poor showing that day. In contrast, that heavy result began something of a dip in form for Manchester United, although continuing to get the results required, there were also some big slips along the way, notably a 6-1 defeat to Manchester City.
However, despite the setbacks, most recently two consecutive defeats against Blackburn and Newcastle, United continue to find themselves competing for honours, keeping themselves within reach of the top of the table, failing to allow too much of a gap to emerge between themselves and the league leaders. The Sunday fixtures saw United play at the Emirates following City’s 3-2 win over Tottenham, meaning a win would be of the utmost importance to keep the pressure on. Sir Alex Ferguson welcomed back Phil Jones to the side, taking place at right back, with Jonny Evans and Chris Smalling pairing up at centre back in front of Anders Lindegaard, with Evra on the left. In midfield, Ryan Giggs and Michael Carrick partnered centrally, with Nani and Valencia out wide and Wayne Rooney and Danny Welbeck up front. Two teams, both in need of victories for their own reasons, most observers a far closer tie than what occurred previously, but could we still expect fireworks?
The game began with Arsenal controlling much of the possession, United starting off fairly slowly, getting into the game and picking up control of the ball as the first half progressed. 15 minutes in, and Phil Jones goes down, leaving United exposed at the back as Arsenal went forward. The chance came to nothing as the ball across was cleared, but the news was not so good for Jones, apparently twisting his ankle and having to go off, replaced by Rafael Da Silva. There are worries that ligament damage may have been sustained, potentially ruling him out for a few weeks. As the half played out, observers found the game well balanced, with both sides showing promise, United threatening out wide with Arsenal looking more central in their play. Nani in particular was proving dangerous in his match up with Djourou on the left.
As the half began to draw out, it United began to show more control of the ball, dominating possession more than they had done, and with the game looking to start the second half goalless, Giggs whipped in a cross, finding Valencia at the far post to nod home. 0-1 to United and a welcome advantage going in at half time. Second half and Arsenal make a change, Djourou (in fairness, not a full back) replaced by Yennaris, a young full back given one of the biggest tests as a young footballer. The start of the second half saw Arsene Wenger’s side pick up the pace, taking on an attacking mentality as United looked as though they were stepping back a little. This allowed Arsenal to create chance as United got sloppy, notably when Rosicky pounced on a mistake by Smalling to go through on goal, passing the ball across to Van Persie, who failed to punish the defensive lapse, putting his shot wide, rather unusually for the striker. A lucky reprieve but a warning as the the consequences if United did not up their game. The Old Trafford side also came across chances to put the game away, often countering and finding situations to to exploit the defence and use the ball out side. One such example is when Danny Welbeck found himself through on goal, beating Mertesacker, staying up rather than trying to gain the penalty to put the ball over the goalkeeper, only for the ball to be cleared off the line by Mertesacker as the ball bounced goal ward. However, United’s failure to capitalise on their chances eventually counted against them, as Koscielny snuffed out the break, setting up an attack in the process as Oxlade-Chamberlain played the ball to Van Persie, who swiftly finished low into the far corner, beating Evans. 1-1 with 20 minutes to go, it was anyone’s game. The effective Nani went down injured soon after, and so was replaced by Paul Scholes, as Park replaced Rafael, himself a substitute from earlier. As well as this, Arshavin was brought on for Oxlade-Chamberlain, much to the displeasure of the home fans, who clearly voiced their opinion. Their disgruntled nature was soon justified, as he was easily beaten by Valencia as he made a break for the penalty area, playing a neat one-two in the box, before playing a short pass across for Danny Welbeck to finish and give his side a 1-2 lead with 10 minutes to go. And so it remained, United seeing out the final moments of the game, although not without it’s nervy moments in the process and leaving North London with all 3 points. Next up for Manchester United is a hotly anticipated FA Cup tie with Liverpool, fans will be hoping that their side maintain their form and find success at Anfield next week. With that, here are five things that may be taken from the game.
1) United exploited Arsenal’s lack of an experienced full back
With the likes of Valencia and Nani out wide, it has become a staple part of United’s attack that they use their width, also making use of the offensive potential of Evra on the left as well as from the right back, depending on who exactly takes position their, such as Rafael. Arsenal on the other hand lack an experienced full back at present, and it was Djourou who was charged with trying to hold off Nani and Evra. For much of the game this is where United channeled their attacks, with the left looking far more dangerous than outright, generally creating the better chances early on. For a side that often uses width in their play, the chance to use the pace on the wings to exploit defensive weaknesses was one that could have given United a strong advantage and in the end making it count, with both goals having their wide-men involved. It was however, Giggs’ strong play to put in a tantalising cross that was met by Valencia at the far post, and the second, winning goal involved superb play by Valencia to set up Welbeck.
2) United need to close out games better with a one goal lead
One complaint that many United fans would probably have at this point is the seemingly regular occurrence of their side apparently “switching off” or sitting back when they have a one goal advantage. Certainly this seemed to be the case on Sunday evening as the second half began. Naturally, Arsenal were going to step up a gear in their search for an equaliser, but at times they were allowed to create chances all too easily, and could well have got themselves back into the game early had Van Persie not spurned a golden opportunity after Rosicky punched on Smalling’s lapse. United themselves had chances, particularly on the break in the second half as they looked to utilise the fact that the Gunners had pushed up so far, but failed to make the most of their chances before Arsenal equalised. It was a game that saw United create rather well, although Rooney was kept rather quiet, Welbeck was showing some threat up front and with 10 minutes to go was provided a chance by Valencia which he took to score the winning goal. This period of sitting back was a criticism on an otherwise solid day for the defence, although one could argue about why Rafael had pushed so far up field and left his side exposed at the back in the build up to the equaliser.
3) Valencia deserves more credit for the winner, than Arshavin does blame
Much to the bemusement of Arsenal fans, the rather effective Oxlade-Chamberlain was brought off for Arshavin, a player much maligned in recent times for having little impact and looking a shadow of the player they bought merely a few seasons back. Rather unfortunately for the Russian, he was to find himself taking much of the blame for conceding the second goal, as Valencia beat him all too easily and did not track back in a particular hurry, as the energetic Ecuadorian charged for the box, to brilliantly set up the winner. As stated, much of the blame for this was directed at Arshavin and Wenger’s decision to bring him on in the first place. However, one should also consider Valencia’s own superb skill in bringing about the goal, playing a sweet one-two in a tight space to provide Welbeck with the finish. It was a well worked goal and a danger that Arsenal’s defence as a whole could not cope with, As such I argue that Valencia ought to be praised for his strong play. On that note, I think Valencia deserved man of the match for his contributions to the victory, highly effective and showing good play beyond running the wings and crossing all afternoon, he showed glimpses of an extra dimension in his game.
4) Chris Smalling, self assured and solid at the back
Despite the one slip in the second half, Chris Smalling was a welcome sight in the centre of United’s defence, combining well with Evans in dealing with attacks, particularly when the opposition took a more direct route into the box in their search for a goal. Smalling dealt well with most threats, and in the absence of Ferdinand and Vidic for the long term, fans will hope that he stays fit as United close in on the business end of the season. Hopefully, Phil Jones will not be kept out for too long given his contributions to the cause this season and that his ankle injury is not too serious. Lindegaard also looked composed and dealt with most dangers well, taking charge of his box effectively.
5) Patrice Evra – strong showing all afternoon
As stated earlier, I would put Valencia as man of the match, but Patrice Evra deserves mentioning for his exploits at the Emirates. Throughout, he constantly looked a threat from left back, taking on Song and linking with Nani to beat Djourou many times, and probably could have grabbed himself a goal when through on the ‘keeper. An energetic display up and down the left, the Frenchman was certainly one of the most impressive displays on the day, although Oxlade-Chamberlain did not make life easy for him, as the youngster demonstrated his strength going forward. In all a strong display, and an important aspect in United’s performance as a whole which could be summarised as effective and doing what is necessary to get the win, although perhaps could have made things easier for themselves during the second half.