Manchester United completed an unexpected rout at the Emirates Stadium defeating hosts Arsenal 2-1 on the back of a Kieran Gibbs own goal and a Wayne Rooney strike as the red side of Manchester entered the top 4 of the Premier League for only the second time this season. Here are 5 things we learnt from the game on Saturday.

Arsenal’s defensive problems are more than unavailability of players

Arsenal started the game with Per Mertesacker and Nacho Monreal minding central defense and Kieran Gibbs and Calum Chambers as the wide defenders. Kieran Gibbs was tied into multiple knots by United’s early substitute, Ashley Young. In fact he was guilty on multiple counts for United’s first goal. When Ashley Young swung the ball in from the left, Gibbs was ball watching and failed to realise that his goalkeeper was coming out to collect the ball. Not only did he launch into Szczesny causing the keeper to fumble the cross but it also injured to keeper in the process. The resulting rebound was drilled back into the box albeit off target by Antonio Valenica. However, Gibbs, who was still prone on the ground and not fully aware of his surroundings, simply stuck his leg out causing the ball to deflect into goal. The entire series of events cost Arsenal one goal and their keeper who had to be substituted immediately thereafter. For the second goal, the entire Arsenal team had gone forward leaving behind only substitute goalkeeper Martinez and Mertesacker behind.

The German centre back is more like a tank. Stout defensively but slow on the turn. The result was that when Fellaini broke from the corner of United’s penalty box and passed out to Angel di Maria, Mertesacker ended up playing both Rooney and di Maria onside. Faced with two attackers and with his back to goal, Mertesacker had to commit to taking on di Maria. His defensive partner Monreal tracked back but by then Rooney was already motoring away on his bike with the goal squarely in his sights. Monreal, in fact, isn’t even a central defender and unlike their opposition defense, Arsenal’s defense did fall apart when United countered. Chris Smalling returning after his poor show against Manchester City put in a proper shift effecting 5 interceptions and as many as 16 clearances.

Young Paddy McNair displayed a lot of confidence too and while Tyler Blackett took some time to get going, he too stuck to his job with unprecedented steadfastness. Antonio Valencia, who started in the role of right wingback too produced a solid display to contain the dangerous Alexis Sanchez and render him ineffective. Ashley Young, who replaced Luke Shaw, provided Arsenal with a handful to deal with on the left flank too. By all arguments the defense fielded by Arsenal was stronger than the one fielded by United yet it was United’s defense that produced the more assured performance, providing a testament on how it can be done.

David de Gea is United’s best player

David de Gea was at his spectacular best to deny Arsenal repeatedly

David de Gea was at his spectacular best to deny Arsenal repeatedly

For all the reams that have been written about van Gaal’s prodigious tactical shift and Arsenal’s burgeoning injury count, United would have been 3-0 down after 20 minutes were it not for the spectacular efforts of David de Gea. The young Spaniard is prime candidate for United’s Player of the Season and bar a spectacular upheaval by another of his colleagues on the pitch, it does seem like the shotstopper will win the accolade at the end of the season. David de Gea was spectacular in denying Welbeck, Wilshere, and Oxlade-Chamberlain on multiple occasions even as he played behind another changed defensive line that comprised Chris Smalling, Paddy McNair and Tyler Blackett. De Gea’s contract runs out at the end of next season and the vultures are already circling with reports from Spain indicating that Real Madrid are interested in securing the ex-Atletico player as long-term replacement for Iker Casillas. If United want to hold onto the player who is practically the crown jewel of these troubled times, they have to move fast and decisively and tie him up in a long term contract to keep him at Old Trafford.

Rooney is a captain who leads by example

Wayne Rooney's goal capped off a fine performance as captain

Wayne Rooney’s goal capped off a fine performance as captain

A lot of fans have not forgotten how Wayne Rooney held the club to ransom not once but twice in the last three years of Sir Alex’s reign. Yet today he is the captain of the side under the stewardship of Louis van Gaal. And on Saturday he produced a captain’s performance. Rooney’s work rate has always been exemplary and on Saturday he brought out more of the good stuff with his excellent work rate, dropping in deep to defend, picking the ball up and then moving it forward quickly. The icing on the cake was the goal that he scored, going one on one with the goalkeeper and executing a composed finish not possible for many of the best forwards. Rooney has started developing a nice partnership with Angel di Maria working in tandem to carry the ball forward. Their partnership in fact has made many old time faithfuls reminisce of the days when Rooney partnered with Carlos Tevez, Dimitar Berbatov and Cristiano Ronaldo.

This time however, Rooney is the ascendant of the two partners, taking the lead in scoring as well as unselfishly creating chances for others. Rooney has had a splendid week capping off a brace for England with the weekend victory over Arsenal thanks to his goal. In both cases Rooney has dragged his team across the finish line as any good captain must. Sir Bryan Robson is a tough act to follow but if Rooney continues in the way he has started off on his dual captaincy – England and Manchester United – he will earn the right to be mentioned in the same breath as Robson.

Arsenal need to figure out their attack

Hitherto, the focus had been on Arsenal’s flagging defense but the match against United has brought into stark limelight their extreme profligacy in front of goal. Saturday’s match seemed like a rerun of a matinee hit play where the script is one known to all. Arsenal started the game on the front foot, pushing back their opponents with spirited forays into the opposition box. The forays however result to nothing as the finishing in front of goal is pathetic. Gradually the opposition starts gaining a foothold and on the first opportunity they get, they score and lock Arsenal out of the game. Arsenal had pushed United back from the get go but their finish was lacking. Welbeck headed over the bar before shooting at de Gea rather than passing to Oxlade-Chamberlain who was open in the box. Wilshere fired the ball straight at the keeper on his first attempt and on his second one, lost the ball and his temper to Marouanne Fellaini, headbutting the latter in the process. Oxlade-Chamberlain also lingered on the ball and when he could have passed the ball to a waiting Kieran Gibbs, went for glory himself, allowing de Gea to make an all important block.

United slowly gained a footing in the game and di Maria even came close to breaking the deadlock, firing just wide of the post. Eventually, the deadlock was broken via a Kieran Gibbs own goal, Arsenal thus achieving the near impossible by helping United score with not a single shot on target. The score could have in fact been 3-0 had Angel di Maria not fluffed his own one on one with Martinez but it underlines the complete breakdown of Arsenal’s midfield in times of a crisis. Arsenal’s problems are two fold. In the middle of the park, both their midfielders Wilshere and Ramsey play a similar game always eager to join in the attack. This is a good thing when the team is moving forward but it creates a wide array of problems when the break is on. The midfield imbalance tends to stretch defense into playing a high line, something we have seen Arsenal’s current crop of defenders is incapable of playing. Mikel Arteta who plays the defensive midfielder role is aging and will be 33 before the season ends. There are a lot of miles on those legs and that shows when he needs to break up attacks. Mesut Ozil was supposed to be the saviour of Arsenal but he has been ineffective for a long time and is now injured.

Upfront Sanchez has been converting goals regularly for Arsenal but Welbeck has struggled to do the same. Pushed out to the left later in the game, Welbeck became even more ineffective. In a game where he could have proven van Gaal’s decision to sell him as wrong, Welbeck only vindicated the Dutch manager’s actions. Giroud’s late strike was born out of pure individual brilliance and it is hardly likely that the player would be able to repeat his performances match after match. Add to that his recent return from injury and it only highlights the fact that he cannot be expected to play every match. Arsenal need to sort out their attacking issues and quickly as they look to welcome Borussia Dortmund to the Emirated mid week in their Champions League group match.

Van Gaal is not afraid of taking risks

Louis van Gaal made some brave decisions

Louis van Gaal made some brave decisions

Van Gaal himself proclaimed that he was the kind of manager who prefers to play unchanged sides. However, with as many as 40 injuries to his wards in his short tenure at the club, van Gaal’s hand has been forced while making his team selections. Van Gaal fielded a side that had three central defenders to compensate for the lack of experience and nous amongst his available defenders. His team was setup to counter attack, knowing Arsenal’s weakness on the counter.

Louis van Gaal may have only won his first away game at the club and statistically is not doing much better than his predecessor. However, van Gaal inspires a confidence that he can turn around the club’s fortunes. Where David Moyes would have fielded a conservative side designed not to lose, van Gaal threw caution to the wind and took the attacking option. Both Rooney’s goal and di Maria’s late missed opportunity came off fast paced counter attacks after weathering an Arsenal attacking storm. In principle, United had a gameplan and it worked. This was something lacking in Moyes’ side last year and Wenger’s side on Saturday.

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