Arsenal and Manchester United have had many fierce battles in the last 20 years. These clubs were constantly challenging each other, trading titles and cups. Those days have long been archived to the history books though.
First, it was Arsenal’s decline from regular title challenger to perennial 4th place finishers. They then fell out of the top 4 altogether recently. Manchester United, on the other hand, challenged for the title and won it until Sir Alex Ferguson retired. Since he retired, United have been far from contesting for the league title.
While it is natural that whenever these two teams meet, talk will divert to momentous past meetings. The era where United and Arsenal were going to toe-to-toe for the league and cups were truly the golden era of this tie.
The reality of today is that Arsenal is rebuilding under the new reign of Unai Emery. Emery took over from the long-serving Arsene Wenger this summer. United is still trying to find it’s feet after Sir Alex’s retirement. Ole Gunnar Solksjaer is the 5th manager since the great man’s retirement.
As a United fan, I used to hate Arsenal as they were our closest rivals. That hatred has mellowed down a great deal over the years. It is sad to see how far behind these two teams are from their glory days.
They met in a 4th Round FA Cup tie at Emirates on Friday. United deployed the counter-attack to perfection to tear Arsenal on the counter and win 3-1. In Mourinho’s reign at the club, he was constantly criticized for “parking the bus”. In the two big games coincidentally away from home, Solksjaer has used the same tactics. The only difference is that United’s attack has been more incisive and devastating under Solksjaer.
I feel the performance was a mixed bag. At the start of the first half, United struggled to hold on to the ball in midfield. Arsenal poured forward but United’s fragile defense held firm. Out of nowhere, United scored twice in 2 consecutive counter attacks. The much-criticized Romelu Lukaku playing on the right of the attack provided 2 assists for United to score.
Alexis Sanchez and Jesse Lingard were the beneficiaries of Lukaku’s precise passes to stun Arsenal. United seemed to be control and Arsenal shell-shocked and vulnerable in defense. Arsenal though had a great last 5 minutes of the first half. They increased the tempo of their attack and got behind United’s defense to pull one back. From a comfortable two-goal lead, United was hanging on.
Arsenal started the second half from where they left off. They were denied by a great Sergio Romero save though. For the remainder of the half, United’s defense surprised me by holding firm in the face of Arsenal attacks. United always kept their threat and did not weaken their attacking position too soon by bringing in more defensive minded players at 2-1.
It was frustrating that United had opportunities to counter-attack but seem happier to slow things down. They got casual and lost the ball too in good attacking positions. I feel if United really went for the jugular, they could have scored more goals or at least have more attempts on goal.
The defense was a positive. The defense has been so porous that it has been a nightmare to watch. However, despite a positive defensive display, United still conceded a goal. As Solksjaer said in his post-match conference, there was a better structure in United’s defense compared to their last match against a big opponent in Tottenham Hotspur.
United have now recorded 8 wins in a row. It has done wonders for everyone’s confidence and esteem. The players are very clearly buzzing. Players that are not starting regularly are chomping at the bit to get involved. There’s still a long way to go though. You don’t win anything for winning 8 matches in a row. Let’s see how this run progresses. In the time being, let’s just enjoy this good period of form and results.