DOES this classic smash-and-grab result really signal lift-off for Louis Van Gaal at Manchester United and the end of Arsene Wenger at Arsenal?
Was the Dutchman proved to be a dynamic tactical genius against a worn out Frenchman who has become a footballing fool? Those were the sort of questions being knocked about by both sets of supporters after this fairly remarkable match in north London.
The answers are not so obvious, however, as Arsenal were by far the better side for so much of this match, succumbing again to poor finishing and defensive naivety.
United were resilient at the back, though, and a first away win for Van Gaal and a rise to fourth place in the Premier League table would indicate he has finally got things moving in the right direction, but they will need to play better than this to stay there.
A few whistles and jeers from the crowd to accompany Arsenal’s worst start to a season for 32 years seem to compound Wenger’s woes, but there is a long way to go before the drama will be fully played out.
Despite winning a match with only one shot on target, United’s first strike was a Kieran Gibbs own-goal before a wonderful Wayne Rooney finish on the break. That compared to Arsenal forcing David de Gea into nine saves from 23 attempts on goal, but Van Gaal was happy to acknowledge suggestions victory was largely down to him.
He agreed Arsenal were a team vulnerable to the counter-attack and sometimes had five playing across the back, with Robin Van Persie, Angel Di Maria and Wayne Rooney ready to break.
He said: “That’s why I play this formation because I know I have to play with two young defenders. Yes, it was a risk.
“But I was sure that Arsenal wanted to attack and to press us. Then, you know that Arsenal is giving a lot of space away and then [Per] Mertesacker and our friend [Nacho] Monreal has to defend. That’s why I put Di Maria against Mertesacker and Van Persie against Monreal.
“That’s why I changed for [James] Wilson. More pace! So, yeah, that’s what you are thinking in advance of a match and when it is ending like this you can be happy.”
The growing feeling in the Arsenal supporter ranks is Wenger could have left last summer with his head held high and the FA Cup a deserved eighth major trophy to show for his revolutionary 18-year reign in English football.
But he felt he could develop the team in to title challengers again by adding players such as Alexis Sanchez, David Ospina, Danny Welbeck and Matthieu Debuchy. So, he signed a new three-year contract. If only he had signed a few more defenders, a defensive midfielder, Cesc Fabregas and a goalkeeper without such a poor injury record and he might have got it half right.
He still has the full backing of the board and the sympathy, if not full support, of most right-minded fans, but he is in serious danger of being hounded out on a low by the impatient vocal minority.
He has not helped in this match by yet more defensive errors, another poor display from Aaron Ramsey, some schoolboy finishing from Jack Wilshere, a few substandard attempts by Danny Welbeck and referee Mike Dean’s inability to see two stonewall penalties. And all that before United took their 56th minute lead following a calamitous clash between Gibbs and keeper Wojciech Szczesny, aided by a shove from the otherwise very impressive Chris Smalling.
Either way, it left him fielding an assault of questions afterwards on his attacking tactics. Wenger said: “We had a great finish to last season and what is worse is that we bought five very good players and our results are not there at the moment because we lack a bit of maturity defensively and we pay for it.
“Look, I don’t know what you call an offensive manager. Is an offensive manager someone who doesn’t want to defend? Or is it just someone who wants to attack when he has the ball? You cannot say you play at home and you don’t attack. Of course we want to be a team which attacks but we want to defend well as well.
“If you look at the game again, and you watch it well, you will see we won many balls in their half because we defended very well from up front.”
The Arsenal players looked shellshocked as they drifted out of the dressing room afterwards; Wilshere and Szczesny hobbling and unlikely to be fit for Wednesday’s Champions League visit of Borussia Dortmund.
At least striker Olivier Giroud, who scored Arsenal’s goal after coming on as a substitute following a broken leg in August, will be ready for that one and it was left to a bemused captain Arteta to offer an apology to the supporters and vow to make amends.
One senses it will not be the last time he has to do that this season, nor the end of Van Gaal leaving Premier League grounds with a smile on his face.
Five things we learned
Some stats don’t lie
Arsenal fans of a cheerful disposition could take some comfort in match stats that showed the Gunners had 23 shots on goal against Manchester United’s 12, nine on target to the visitors two, 11 corners against five and 61% possession against 39%. Those numbers suggest the better side lost but it’s far too simplistic to dismiss Arsenal’s defeat as bad luck. The more relevant stats are the following: Arsenal have now won just one and lost 11 of their last 15 clashes with United. A tally of 17 points from the opening 12 games is Arsenal’s worst Premier League start. Indeed you have to go back to 1982 for such an abject effort. Arsenal have won just four of those 12 and teams the Gunners have beaten all currently reside in the bottom third of the table. The picture that emerges is one of a team of flat-track bullies unable – over a sustained period of time — to cope with elite opposition.
United may still have problems but at least they have momentum
If Arsenal’s players had their shooting boots on then Saturday’s clash at the Emirates Stadium would have been a chastening experience for United. Louis van Gaal will have been concerned with the ease with which Arsenal exposed his side defensively, particularly in the opening 30 minutes.
The game could have been over as a contest long before half-time but the scale of United’s injury problems on the defensive front has to be acknowledged as a mitigating factor. Those problems intensified further when Luke Shaw was forced off after just 16 minutes but Van Gaal will have taken comfort in how his defence, notably Chris Smalling and Tyler Blackett, grew in stature after that shaky start.
Perfect it wasn’t but in spite of their injury issues and a woeful start to the season United are now up to fourth. The confidence and momentum they’ll take from a first away win since April is incalculable.
Arsenal never learn
Shortly after Kieran Gibbs’ frankly ludicrous own goal gifted United the lead Gary Neville made a prediction. “If United have anything about them they’ll score a second in the next five minutes,” the Sky pundit said.
His timeline may have been wrong but the prediction United would catch Arsenal on the break proved bang on the money as Wayne Rooney grabbed United’s second from an Angel Di Maria pass after Nacho Monreal was left in splendid isolation at the back.
The Gunners lost any semblance of composure after Gibbs’ own goal and only for an incorrect offside call against Rooney would have conceded a second within five minutes of the first.
Four minutes later Santi Cazorla was forced to take a yellow card after Arsenal were outnumbered four against two having lost the ball deep in United territory.
Still they didn’t learn and Rooney eventually punished them on the counter.
Even then the penny didn’t drop as Di Maria missed a gilt-edged chance to make it three with Arsenal’s defence absent without leave. It was kamikaze stuff.
De Gea is United’s most important player
Rooney’s goal may have ultimately proved the difference but the player who deserves the majority of the credit for United’s triumph was their Spanish goalkeeper.
Indeed, it’s hard to think of a player who has performed more consistently for United this season than David De Gea.
His first half save to Jack Wilshere from point blank range was stunning while his judgement when Alex Oxlaide-Chamberlain was played through was spot on.
Many keepers would have dived in and conceded a penalty in that situation but, having realised he wasn’t going to get to the ball first, De Gea shepherded Oxlaide-Chamberlain wide before blocking his shot.
Van Gaal was right about Welbeck
Danny Welbeck dominated much of the build-up ahead of his first game against his former club. Van Gaal’s decision to sell the striker has been questioned but Saturday provided further evidence that the Dutchman’s assessment of the England’s striker’s finishing ability was accurate. Excellent play from Oxlaide-Chamberlain provided Welbeck with a great chance after just four minutes but his shot lacked anything resembling conviction. Minutes later Oxlaide-Chamberlain found Welbeck again but his header from seven yards out flew over the bar. To spurn one of those chances was bad, to miss both was abject. Welbeck has pace, strength and a great team ethic but his finishing remains erratic, a fatal drawback in a striker.
ARSENAL: Szczesny 6 (Martinez 59, 6), Chambers 7, Mertesacker 6, Monreal 6, Gibbs 5, Ramsey 5 (Giroud 77, 7), Arteta 5, Wilshere 7 (Cazorla 55, 5), Oxlade-Chamberlain 7, Welbeck 6, Sanchez 6.
MANCHESTER UNITED: De Gea 8, Smalling 7, McNair 6, Blackett 7, Shaw 5 (Young 16, 6 (Fletcher 89, 6), Valencia 7, Carrick 7, Fellaini 7, Di Maria 7, Rooney 7, Van Persie 5 (Wilson 75, 6).
Referee: Mike Dean 4/10
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