Arsenal 1 – 2 Manchester United
Gibbs 56 OG, Rooney 85, Giroud 90+4
Louis van Gaal has dispensed with the monkey on his back. Manchester United have moved into the fourth Champions league place after defeating Arsenal 2-1 at the Emirates, giving the Dutchman his first away win as manager.
A second-half own goal from Kieran Gibbs put United ahead – a goal which also saw goalkeeper Wojciech Sczesny taken off – before Wayne Rooney’s 85th-minute chipped finish took United two goals clear. An injury time strike from Olivier Giroud gave Arsenal some hope but it wasn’t enough.
It was a game littered with errors and for Gibbs, his was a fatal one. From a Angel Di Maria cross from the left, a lack of communication resulted in defender and goalkeeper colliding violently and the ball fell to Antonio Valencia, whose shot was going wide before the felled Gibbs stuck out a leg and deflected the ball past the stricken goalkeeper. It would be Sczesny’s last act of the game.
Half an hour later, as Arsenal overcommitted forward, Rooney pounced. After a breakdown in the home side’s pressing Di Maria sprinted clear with only one defender in between him and Rooney. The Argentine’s pass was perfectly timed and Rooney’s left footed finish was perfectly chipped beyond Damian Martinez. The striker’s fourth goal of the season would be a death blow for Arsenal.
Considering the manner in which United started, both the first goal and the victory were unforeseeable. The first forty minutes saw a siege on David De Gea’s goal and to describe the back line as all over the place would be generous. Van Gaal’s decision to revert to 3-5-2 saw Tyler Blackett on the left and Antonio Valencia on the right, with Smalling in between.
Van Gaal’s earlier abandonment of the three man back line and the stability that the alternative brought made the reversion a curious move. For a good half an hour Arsenal were able to penetrate United seemingly at will whilst being met with little resistance. Only the heroics of De Gea, who at this rate looks to be on his way to another player of the season award, kept Arsenal at bay.
De Gea was superb throughout, unaffected by the finger injury that had initially put him in doubt to start. But more clinical finishing on Arsenal’s part could have seen them two or three goals up within half an hour. Jack Wilshere had the best chance of the half after cutting right through the clueless United’s defence, but his hesitant finish was blocked by De Gea who’s gamble to dive left paid off.
Wilshere should consider himself fortunate not to have been sent off after pushing his head into the taller Fellaini’s chin after seemingly innocuous coming-together. The Belgian’s reaction – to stay on his feet rather than go down clutching his face – was probably Wilshere’s saving grace, as referee Mike Dean chose a lecture rather than the more serious alternative.
United had to wait until nearly the 40 minute mark to create any kind of sustained pressure and when they did, it was Angel Di Maria, given more freedom by Van Gaal after several games marooned on the left wing, who was at the centre. The Argentine’s curling effort from the right flew inches past Scezny’s right post and several minutes later he cut a swathe through Arsenal’s back line and set up Wayne Rooney, whose effort was blocked.
De Gea was called into almost immediately after the break, blocking Welbeck’s finish from close range after the forward had burned passed Paddy McNair down the left flank. Shortly afterwards, a challenge from McNair appeared to twist Wilshere’s left ankle and he was replaced by Santi Cazorla shortly thereafter.
With twenty minutes remaining there was a desperation in Arsenal’s attacks and a tetchiness in the home crowd that could sense the match was slipping away from them. A Alexis Sanchez downward header was saved smartly by De Gea, as was a sharp volley from Cazorla five minutes later. The murmurs of frustration around the Emirates were audible.
At the death, with Arsenal again throwing everyone forward in search of an equalizer Di Maria sprinted through with 50 yards green grass between him and the Arsenal goal, but his finish bounced harmlessly wide. On his return from injury Giroud’s superb finish deep into added time gave his side some hope, but this was United’s day.