By Exposed Uganda
Again. For Manchester United it is – once more – a case of one step forward and two leaps backwards. A 5-0 demolition of RB Leipzig in the Champions League midweek followed by a damp squib in the November rain in the Premier League against Arsenal.
Even in this craziest of seasons they are unfathomable and consistent only in their inconsistency, which does not reflect well on manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
This was a well-deserved first away win against another “Big Six” side for Arsenal in five years, ending a sequence of 29 games, although given the fact that the result leaves United in 15th place, can the losers really claim that status right now? Certainly a third home league defeat in four games so far this season – and no win – is a damning statistic for a club with their huge resources and ambition. That has not happened since 1972.
Much of the focus will centre on a poor performance from Paul Pogba, who carelessly conceded the penalty from which Arsenal scored the only goal, with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang converting. It ended the striker’s tally of five league games without a goal and came as Pogba tracked the run of Hector Bellerin before needlessly sliding in to catch the wing-back’s right foot.
It was all so dishevelled but, then, so was much about United’s ragged display, as Arsenal ran out deserved victors, having lost their past two league games. There were outstanding performances in the centre of midfield by Mohamed Elneny and, especially, new signing Thomas Partey, as well as in the heart of defence by another recent arrival, Gabriel Magalhaes.
The difference was also summed up by the ambition shown by Arsenal as they poured forward down their flanks through wing-backs Bukayo Saka and Bellerin, while United’s full-backs provided no width whatsoever and the midfield diamond that shone against Leipzig was dimmed. At one stage a forlorn Solskjaer could be heard shouting at Bruno Fernandes: “Bruno! Find our shape again.” He never did.
This was the first time Fernandes and Pogba had started together since the 6-1 humiliation against Tottenham Hotspur – when Pogba gave away another penalty – and it looks like something has to give. That something appears to be Pogba, who Solskjaer, for whatever reason, cannot get the best out of.
Fernandes trudged off before the end and his replacement, Donny van de Beek, went closest for United when his cross-cum-shot deflected off Elneny’s boot, then ricocheted off the head of goalkeeper Bernd Leno before striking the outside of a post. At the final whistle, Van de Beek looked confused at what was going on, while Scott McTominay walked off muttering under his breath and all of this on United’s first game since the death of one of their most celebrated midfielders, Nobby Stiles.
They have taken just seven points from their first six league games, their lowest return since David Moyes succeeded Sir Alex Ferguson in 2013 and when they eventually finished seventh. On this form, even that placing looks wildly optimistic.
The only frustration for Arsenal, who have tightened up defensively but have found goals hard to come by, is that their superiority did not lead to them winning more comfortably. Even so, once ahead they were hardly under sustained pressure and, apart from Van de Beek’s deflected effort, remained in control, especially with Partey dictating the game. United could not cope with the high-pressing game demanded by Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta which, given they are a counter-attacking side, was another failure.
Three times in the first half Bellerin delivered from the right and three times Arsenal spurned the opportunity. For the first, Willian slipped a pass out to the full-back and his cross should have been anticipated by Aubameyang.
Then Bellerin did find Aubameyang, with Aaron Wan-Bissaka misjudging the flight, and he squared only for Victor Lindelof, at full stretch, to toe-end the ball away, before Alexandre Lacazette could shoot. So sure was Lacazette that it would reach him that he swung his leg in an air shot. Finally Bellerin picked out Saka, who could only guide his header over the bar, even though there was no pressure from either Lindelof or Wan-Bissaka, who were both caught out.
For United, their only chance came when Marcus Rashford collected the ball from Wan-Bissaka and sent a superb arcing pass that caught out Rob Holding and ran into the path of Mason Greenwood, whose first-time shot was bundled away by Leno with his legs.
Apart from that, United offered nothing and it was Arsenal who were wasteful again when they capitalised on a slip by Fred, as Lacazette found Aubameyang. As Harry Maguire covered, the Arsenal captain took the shot early from the edge of the area, his effort bouncing a foot past a post.
A more in-form Aubameyang would have scored but, in fairness to the Arsenal captain, he was unerring with his penalty as he drove the ball to David de Gea’s left while the goalkeeper went the other way.
There was time for United to respond, but there was precious little guile or impetus. Solskjaer afforded Edinson Cavani another brief cameo but Arsenal ran out winners in the league at Old Trafford for the first time since September 2006. One-nil to the Arsenal – as they used to say. “That’s football for you,” Solskjaer said which was, well, one way of looking at it.
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