Given the recent form of Manchester United, their stellar record against them since Mikel Arteta’s arrival as well as the fact that Manchester United are still without interim manager Ralf Ragnick in the wake of the departure of Ole Gunnar Solskjær, Arsenal had a right to be optimistic of securing a result on Thursday night that would have seen them leapfrog West Ham and move into 4th.
Mohamed Elneny and Gabriel Martinelli were the only changes made to the Arsenal side that beat Newcastle last Sunday, with Albert Sambi Lokonga and Bukayo Saka dropping to the bench.
Arsenal started very well at Old Trafford, racking up the corner count to 3 in the opening 2 minutes, and attacked United with real gusto. Gabriel Martinelli was a constant thorn in the side of the United defence and United seemed unable to contend with Arsenal’s ferocity.
Another corner from the visitors led to the controversial opening goal. Martin Ødegaard’s corner was headed out, for Mohamed Elneny to cushion a ball for Emile Smith Rowe’s superb left-footed volley to fly into the back of the net. Referee Martin Atkinson was forced to give the goal, because even though there had been a foul on David de Gea in the build-up (from his own player no less), he had not blown the whistle and Arsenal wheeled away in celebration in one of the most bizarre goals you’ll see in a while.
From there, it was one-way traffic.
Manchester United, stung that Arsenal had scored such a controversial opening goal, began to take the game to the visitors and it was only through sheer willpower that Arsenal managed to fend them off for so long.
But their resilience wouldn’t hold out and Manchester United soon found themselves level just before the break as Fred set up an on-running Bruno Fernandes to slot the ball past a diving Aaron Ramsdale.
The second-half saw Arsenal switch on a bit more, but United still managed to punish them.
Nuno Tavares, inexplicably picked for such a big fixture over the more experienced Kieran Tierney, was caught at least 20 yards out of position, providing no cover on the right-flank, which Manchester United exploited with Marcus Rashford, who squared it for the ever-dangerous Cristiano Ronaldo to give the home side the lead.
Their ecstasy was short-lived, however, as Arsenal found their way back into the game almost immediately.
A slide-rule pass from Thomas Partey found Gabriel Martinelli, who’s first-time pass found Martin Ødegaard, who didn’t hit the ball as well as he would have liked, but it still snaked into the back of the net to draw the hosts level.
What was sure to be heading for a draw, perhaps even an Arsenal victory was soon turned on its head.
From hero to zero, Martin Ødegaard stupidly went to ground in the box and scythed down Fred to gift the home side a penalty, which Ronaldo promptly converted.
Arsenal had one or two other chances, but they ultimately fell to nothing and they slumped to a frustrating loss, one that should have been won and one they will surely live to regret.
It wasn’t even a poor overall performance. Sure, Arsenal weren’t at their very best, but there have been worst performance from the team and one or two silly errors are to be expected from such a young team.
Despite this, there are obvious areas that need to be addressed.
The inclusion of Mohamed Elneny in the starting XI was clearly to add balance to the midfield, reminiscent of Arsenal’s famous win at Old Trafford last season, but the Egyptian’s terror of having to pass the ball forwards meant that many Arsenal attacks were scuppered by the Egyptian’s conservativeness. Backwards or sideways passing has it’s place, but not when you’re 3-2 down and chasing the game.
The Nuno Tavares experiment seems finished as well. For all Arteta’s dogmatic assurances that the full-back needs game time, his performance showed why Kieran Tierney should be the starter. Tavares was not overtly at fault for the second goal, but his positional play left the flank utterly exposed and his poor crosses and general Bambi-on-ice routine when getting into the box left Arsenal fans wondering why the superior Tierney was left to watch from the sidelines.
It was also yet another poor performance from Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, who’s poor form from last season seems to have carried forward to this one. The Gabonese captain looked utterly disinterested and devoid of ideas. A couple of decent flicks here and there could not mask an overall woeful performance that was typified by his inexcusable miss at the end that merely spared his blushes owing to a raised offside flag.
Gabriel Martinelli looks to be a much better option for Arsenal in the future as the Brazilian reaked havoc on the United defence all evening, sending a clear message to Mikel Arteta that he should be starting every match from now on.
All is not lost, if West Ham and Wolves lose at the weekend and Arsenal are able to beat Rafael Benítez’s out-of-form Everton, then they will move into the top 4, but Thursday’s performance is perhaps the most frustrating of the season so far and serves as a reminder of just how far there is to come for this young Arsenal side.
32.) Aaron Ramsdale
18.) Takehiro Tomiyasu
4.) Ben White
6.) Gabriel Magalhães
20.) Nuno Tavares
25.) Mohamed Elneny
5.) Thomas Partey
35.) Gabriel Martinelli
8.) Martin Ødegaard (Nketiah 79’)
10.) Emile Smith Rowe (Saka 70’)
14.) Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (c) (Lacazette 79’)
33.) Arthur Okonkwo
16.) Rob Holding
3.) Kieran Tierney
15.) Ainsley Maitland-Niles
23.) Albert Sambi Lokonga
19.) Nicolas Pépé
7.) Bukayo Saka
30.) Eddie Nketiah
9.) Alexandre Lacazette
Manchester United team:
1.) David de Gea
20.) Diogo Dalot
2.) Victor Lindelöf
5.) Harry Maguire (c)
27.) Alex Telles
39.) Scott McTominay
10.) Marcus Rashford (Lingard 79’)
18.) Bruno Fernandes (van de Beek 90’)
25.) Jadon Sancho
7.) Cristiano Ronaldo (Martial 88’)
Manchester United subs:
26.) Dean Henderson
3.) Eric Bailly
4.) Phil Jones
34.) Donny van de Beek
8.) Juan Mata
14.) Jesse Lingard
16.) Amad Diallo
11.) Mason Greenwood
9.) Anthony Martial