Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang scored the only goal as Arsenal won at Old Trafford in the Premier League for the first time since 2006.
With Marcus Rashford and Bruno Fernandes back in the starting lineup, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s men looked to pick up where they left off in their 5-0 Champions League win over RB Leipzig in midweek, in the Norwegian’s 100th game as United boxx.
But pressed high by a well-organised Arsenal side, once more playing in a 3-4-3 formation, the hosts struggled to create early on as they were penned back by the visitors.
And, increasingly, the opening period was played out in United’s own half.
Although the first save of note saw Bernd Leno deny Mason Greenwood on 21 minutes, Arsenal were perhaps unlucky not to lead at the break, as Willian hit the crossbar and Bukayo Saka headed over from close range.
United changed shape at the break, pushing Pogba wide left in a bid to offer more attacking threat, but Arsenal again looked most likely to score in the second half, with Aubameyang bending wide before Thomas Partey and Mohamed Elneny tried their luck from distance.
And with 20 minutes remaining, they were handed the chance to lead from the penalty spot.
Pogba brought down Hector Bellerin, Mike Dean had no doubts about pointing to the spot, and Aubameyang made no mistake, coolly converting.
United threw men forwards in their quest for an equaliser, bringing on Donny van de Beek and Edinson Cavani.
But despite Mohamed Elneny turning a Van de Beek cross off his own post, the visitors stood firm, and claimed all three points.
Here are six talking points from Old Trafford
1. Ole’s diamond isn’t forever
After the thrashing of RBL, using a midfield diamond that stifled the German upstarts and allowed United’s front men to ultimately flourish, Solskjaer stuck with the set-up.
Again, Fred and Pogba started, with Scott McTominay returning at Nemanja Matic’s expense and Bruno Fernandes at the tip; the latter duo having been on the bench in midweek.
On Friday, Solskjaer spoke about having four separate formations at his disposal now, including options to play three across the front and three centre-backs.
He wants that flexibility, and it certainly served United well in Paris recently, when he changed formation mid-game, out-thought Thomas Tuchel and turned a draw into a potentially crucial Champions League victory.
“Every game lives its own life and you have to lay the foundation with your work,” he told MUTV pre-game. “The first hour in the game against Leipzig laid the foundation for a fantastic result in the end.”
That building of a foundation was why he elected to stick with the same formation here.
But that doesn’t necessarily mean we’ll see it every week, nor should we – especially when it doesn’t work.
At half-time, Solskjaer was proactive, seeing that it wasn’t having the desired effect and reverting to 4-2-3-1.
2. Arteta not for turning on Aubameyang
Suddenly it’s become very fashionable for pundits to question Mikel Arteta’s use of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.
The Arsenal skipper’s home under the Spaniard has been from the left of a front three, with neither manager nor player seemingly wanting him to be the central focal point on the attack.
Last season it worked splendidly, most notably in the FA Cup success as the Gabonese scored braces in both the semi-final and final.
But it’s not been a success in the early part of the new campaign, with his opening day goal against Fulham his solitary Premier League strike this term pre-game.
However when the opportunity presented itself here from the penalty spot, he made no mistake with a cool conversion from 12 yards.
Statistics show that, during his Arsenal career, Aubameyang scores more in this role than when used through the middle.
But until he finds his scoring touch again from open play, his manager can expect more comment and conjecture over his use.
3. First-half shows where United miss Matic
Now into his twilight years, Nemanja Matic may not be able to charge around the field like in his pomp. He’s not as mobile as either Fred or Scott McTominay.
But what the Serbian can do is play forward passes. He’s arguably underrated for his ability to play through the lines, working it through midfield and getting ‘better’ players on the ball in attacking spots.
Rio Ferdinand tells a brilliant story about Roy Keane and an early training session at United, where he played a safe sideways pass and Keane laid into him: “You’re not at Leeds or West Ham now, at Man United we take risks. If you want to be a winner, you take risks!”
Unfortunately, both Fred and McTominay are particularly risk averse with their passing.
And thus against Arsenal’s press, United struggled to work the ball through the thirds in the first half; just 8 percent of their touches came in the attacking third, while they only had three touches in the opposing penalty area too.
Certainly, in Rashford and Greenwood, with their speed and movement, plus the ability of Pogba and Fernandes backing them up, the talent was there among the starting lineup’s most attacking quartet.
But if you can’t get them the ball in positions where they can do damage, then what’s the point?
Fred and McTominay have done really well lately as a pairing in protecting the defence. But this side does need someone able to pass from deep, and if the assumption is that Solskjaer no longer wants to use Pogba in such a role, then he will need to revert to Matic, or look for someone new.
4. Welcome to the Partey
Perhaps the ideal solution that United’s midfield needs, someone who can work both ways, who is both defensively responsible and adds craft, was on in the opposition midfield.
And once more, Thomas Partey was impressive.
With Granit Xhaka and Dani Ceballos left out, Mohamed Elneny partnered the £45million new boy but he continues to show precisely why Mikel Arteta and Edu were so keen for owner Stan Kroenke to underwrite his signing and a big money contract.
He was defensively diligent, pressed well to stop forward passes, won tackles when required – notably to stop Pogba when a shooting chance opened up just before the hour mark.
But he also showed the technical quality he has been so keen to talk up following his arrival from Atletico: an ability to ease past opponents (for a big guy, he’s surprisingly nimble), to switch play from one wing to another, to work the ball into his frontmen.
The more you see, the more impressive he looks at the heart of Arsenal’s midfield.
5. Rash Pogba pays the penalty
How often does it happen in football that when a player makes a mistake, in the art of trying to rectify his error, he makes another one?
You see it all the time when players take a loose touch and duly fly into a tackle – only to mistime it and then be sent off.
It was a similar situation here with the penalty that handed Arsenal the lead.
Pogba, having shifted over to the left flank, allowed Bellerin to escape his attention for a split second and was caught out; in his attempt to make up for it, he clipped the Spaniard for the spotkick.
He’s certainly not the first to attempt to make up for a mistake with another one. He certainly won’t be the last either.
6. Arteta gets it spot on again
Tactically, in big games when the onus perhaps isn’t on his side to attack and dominate, Arteta continues to get things right.
This was another showing where his side were well set up and carried a significant threat whenever they won the ball back; that they did it, often, in the opposing half, only helped.
The next step now is making things count in matches when they do have the majority of possession.
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