Manchester United slipped to another home defeat as a Pierre Aubameyang penalty in the 70th minute gave Arsenal a deserved win at Old Trafford. The nature of the defeat is bound to raise fresh doubt over the managerial position at the club.
As United remembered Nobby Stiles, it was fitting that United faced Arsenal, a fixture that has historically seen plenty of bite in the Premier League.
Both current managers are hoping their teams are more refined than the dogfighting these encounters were often reduced to. But the diamond that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer persisted with was more rough than polished; this new formation ostensibly helps possession but McTominay and Fred are ball winners and not keepers, and Paul Pogba does not possess a suitable skill-set either. So United consistently surrendered the ball in a sloppy opening.
They were helped by Arsenal’s own quest to rediscover a new identity. For a while they seemed to channel George Graham’s Gunners, registering set play after set play. That is slightly unfair to the visitors, who controlled and dominated the opening of the game and might have scored if Bellerin’s crossing was more precise.
United’s first effort in anger came in the 21st minute when Rashford’s exceptional slide rule pass found Greenwood; the latter shot on goal but it was comfortably saved.
The greater numbers in midfield ought to have helped United looked more secure in defence – but they didn’t, and the back-line often struggled to break the first line of the press. Arsenal consequently played the majority of the first half in United’s own half, and had the better chances; Willian grazed the crossbar and Saka headed wide when he might have felt he should have done better. United were fortunate to get to half-time level.
Solskjaer did as he is known to do – he gave the existing team a chance to put it right, and shifted the formation, moving to a 4-2-3-1 with Pogba wide left. It was enough to improve his team but not enough to gain an advantage. Games against these teams are much of a muchness and United often find themselves let down by their weaknesses.
And, despite a marginal improvement, those weaknesses presented themselves. Rashford headed back and Fred inexplicably decided to withdraw from a challenge. Arsenal almost scored there but Aubameyang fired wide. Then Lindelof slipped on the ball and was incredibly fortunate nobody was present to seize on it.
Fred was replaced by Matic, Solskjaer sacrificing pace for precision. But another home error was never far away and Arsenal weren’t going to pass up all of them. Pogba in his own penalty area is a repeated recipe for disaster and he was culpable again, being teased into a needless foul on Hector Bellerin who was going nowhere. Bellerin seemed confused by the rashness of the challenge, considering his much-delayed reaction. Mike Dean was never going to pass up the opportunity to award the kick – Aubameyang finished easily.
United had one cause for grumble – Dean’s inconsistent refereeing should have seen Holding booked in the first half and certainly should have seen Gabriel dismissed. It didn’t. United’s chances of created against a ten man team would still likely have been slim, even after Cavani and Van De Beek were introduced.
Their response to going behind was a Maguire shot from 30 yards in the 76th minute that almost went 30 yards wide; a cross from Van De Beek that deflected onto the post from Leno’s head in the 85th minute; and a 20 yard weak right-footed effort from Matic. It was turgid.
Three key things to take away from the selection – the diamond shape, Van De Beek (and Cavani) on the bench, and the continuation of Lindelof and Maguire in the middle of defence.
Solskjaer clearly believes in the value of giving players a chance to right their wrongs and even though Lindelof was sometimes tempted out of position, he also made a couple of important contributions in the first half.
But going with a diamond was a little concerning. Of course it did well in midweek and theoretically there was nothing wrong with going with it again but it did suggest that Solskjaer’s tactics come game-by-game depending what’s available, rather than coming opponent-by-opponent.
Roy Keane was right in the build-up – United shouldn’t fear anyone, but that is the reputation and not the reality. That’s not to say they should fear Arsenal, but it should be appreciated that their natural game wasn’t enough to beat Palace at home, so it’s always better when the weaknesses are compensated for instead of highlighted.
It seems a fine line between the two – the disparity in both quality and compatibility in the defenders and midfielders means it is sometimes difficult to strike the right balance, and when you don’t have it, it can often look as if they are miles off the pace.
The counter point to that is while those lines are fine then it always seems within the manager’s capability to turn things around from the bench. Against Chelsea it seemed like they needed five changes instead of three. It was the same here.
Today it once again felt as if one of the changes the club needed was in the dugout. This was Solskjaer’s 100th game in charge, he’s been here for almost two years as manager and at times it feels as if he is guilty of trusting in his players too much. He is fooled by a good performance and trusts them to do something different to the norm next time out.
Here is a matter of fact. David Moyes won a European game against a German side with a five goal scoreline. In the two league games before he was sacked United scored four against Aston Villa and at Newcastle. The job was too big for him.
The frustration is that the football under Solskjaer has been the best at the club since 2013. When he has applied his tactical plans – when trust has been taken from the players and instruction has clearly been given – United have been at their best. That is a sign of strength of the manager. But trusting in the players to take the impetus in games like this when they don’t have the quality is a sign of naivety. He’s been in charge for 100 games now. That’s long enough to know better.
The worst thing wasn’t that Arsenal won. It was that they won without having to break a sweat. That’s the fourth home game in a row where United have been depressingly poor; and only Chelsea’s own lack of ambition perhaps stopped four defeats in a row. You can talk about shapes. It’s been different formations for almost all of the home games.
The players ran out of excuses long ago. But these changes from the manager happening as quickly as they are indicate a man who doesn’t know what to do with the players he has. We have been here under David Moyes, Louis van Gaal and Jose Mourinho.
It’s a dangerous game with a worryingly inevitable conclusion. Ed Woodward knew the squad wasn’t strong enough when he witnessed the 3-1 defeat against Palace and 6-1 loss to Spurs. He knew it wasn’t good enough when the transfer window concluded.
And so the games go on and Solskjaer looks out of his depth because the buck stops with the manager. Maybe he is. But his trust in certain players to come good, when the likelihood is that they just won’t, is almost guaranteed to end his reign before too long.
De Gea 5
Van De Beek