Arsenal’s meetings with Manchester United always tend to provide drama and this latest installment in one of the Premier League’s longest running rivalries has not been a disappointment.
Some great goals, a late controversy involving the Video Assistant Referee (VAR) and Declan Rice’s stoppage-time goal… it all added up to another memorable encounter.
Our experts break down the big talking points.
Rice’s big moment
What a moment for Declan Rice. These are the moments when he came to Arsenal and his first goal for the club couldn’t have come at a better time.
The emotions shown in his celebrations with the fans on the North Bank are exactly what he deserved in his first match in the red shirt. He has often helped Arsenal ‘live’ throughout matches and this was the perfect example, even before he scored the winning goal.
He made three 50-50s in just the first 20 minutes. The second was the most impressive as it set up Arsenal with their best chance of the match up to that point. From there, the hosts became more confident in their play with and without the ball.
The 24-year-old seems to have a good read on what is needed in the game as well. The more promising Manchester United looked to have spells of passing, if he won the ball, the more he passed to take the sting out of the game and help Arsenal reset. If he needs to get forward with the ball, he’ll have no problem doing that either.
While conducting their summer business, there was an understanding that Granit Xhaka was heading to Bayer Leverkusen. With that, there was one “thing” they had to replace: attendance. There’s no doubt they did that with Rice, who has made the difference in every game he’s played so far.
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But did VAR rule the match?
It has become the norm to reflect on the match by discussing the key VAR decisions that were made, and today was no different.
Starting with the big one. Alejandro Garnacho thought he had stolen the game in the final minutes of normal time when he raced towards goal and slotted the ball past Aaron Ramsdale. It was a close game, but Gabriel’s sudden stop on his run was enough to intercept the Argentine offside.
Earlier in the second half, it looked like Kai Havertz being brought down inside the box would almost certainly be a penalty in real time, but a VAR check showed the German was the one to send himself off looking for contact and landing. A quick screen check from Anthony Taylor quickly overturned the decision.
In the end, both decisions were correct, and in a match of this size, it is the fine margins that decide the outcome of the match.
That’s why Rashford is better on the left
Is Marcus Rashford better on the left or in attack? It’s a debate that went on for years before it was quietly answered by the striker himself in a chat with Gary Neville this summer.
The 25-year-old finds himself most comfortable on the left, but is willing to go further forward (or even to the right) to help his team when needed.
His 27th-minute goal at the Emirates Stadium was proof that he helps his team best when allowed to flourish in his best position. In a rare moment where space opened up for United in midfield (due to a mistake by Kai Havertz), Christian Eriksen passed the ball to Rashford in the left channel, before the striker advanced into the box and slotted a shot into the bottom right. Hand angle.
It was a goal largely out of nothing (Rashford only touched the ball five times before scoring this one) and the finishing touch was his trademark. It highlighted why Rashford is better on the left flank, as it not only allows him to make dangerous runs into the half-space with the ball, but also because he directs his pressing strikes better off the ball too.
Ten Hag has been annoyed by United’s ‘back and forth’ pressing in early games this season, partly because Rashford does not offer the same flexibility when operating against the ball at centre-forward.
Until Rasmus Hoglund is properly positioned, Rashford remains the strongest member of United’s attacking three, even if he was uncharacteristically lethargic when United went on a three-on-three counter-attack late at the Emirates.
Despite this, Ten Hag will likely keep him on the left of the 4-2-3-1 for as long as possible.
Havertz is still unlucky
Mikel Arteta did what any good manager would do and defended his player when pressed in Kai Havertz’s mixed start at Arsenal.
“I think he did really good things,” Arteta said after the 2-2 draw with Fulham last week. “Today it was difficult in certain moments. He got into great areas and the ball didn’t arrive. In many situations, he should have scored a lot of goals already this season. That’s what’s missing there.”
It becomes a bit more difficult to defend Havertz when he’s not helping himself, as the narrative continued against Manchester United.
Initially, he had a chance with his powerful left foot to connect well with the ball from seven yards out in the first half, but snatched the opportunity away with a weak shot that went wide.
To compound his low confidence, a sloppy pass into the central area allowed Christian Eriksen to get forward and Marcus Rashford played in behind to score Manchester United’s opening goal.
Even as Arsenal fans thought his luck was about to change after he won a penalty in the second half, a VAR check deemed his stumble in the penalty area not worthy of a foul and the decision was overturned.
Yes, Havertz is putting himself out there. Sure, he covers some good ground for Arsenal. He certainly makes some strong runs off the ball that his teammates don’t always find.
You can find some positives, but few would argue that Havertz has yet to start his Arsenal career since joining this summer.
Onana changes United’s style
It’s a widely documented narrative for Manchester United this season, but the arrival of Andre Onana has changed their approach to possession.
That was as evident as ever on Sunday afternoon, especially in the first half – only Manchester City’s Ederson (41 against Burnley) attempted more passes in the first half of the game than Onana’s 36 against Arsenal.
As you can see below, a lot of these passes were short, and a good amount of them were from an advanced starting point outside his penalty area.
Onana’s strength in possession is a far cry from David De Gea’s weakness on the ball last season. For this reason, Arsenal were smart to allow United to build in deep areas and maintain their structure out of possession. Arteta’s men were reluctant to press Onana too hard knowing he has the technical quality to play out of pressure and find the backup man to break Arsenal’s pressure and push United forward.
This is shown below, as 44 per cent of United’s touches have been in their own third – the highest share among their four matches so far this season.
It is not surprising to see this approach from United since Onana’s arrival, but future opponents may want to follow the blueprint set by Arsenal, which is not to fall into the trap of pressuring Onana and losing their structure.
Arsenal got back into the groove defensively
Arsenal looked as usual, with Gabriel Magalhaes and Oleksandr Zinchenko returning to the defense line.
Gabriel, who has not started a game this season, has hardly missed a beat. He defended well against Anthony in the channel (aided by Declan Rice covering the space behind him) and helped Arsenal maintain a high line that kept most of the game in Manchester United’s half early on, even when the visitors had possession.
Gabriel’s return alongside Zinchenko was more important than one without the other. Although Zinchenko did not touch the ball in the lead-up to Martin Odegaard’s equaliser, it wouldn’t have happened without him. Away from the traditional left-back position for most of the half, the Ukrainian gave Gabriel time and space on the ball to pass Gabriel Martinelli when he remained wide of goal. Then Arsenal let the football do the talking.
As a unit, the back four needs to react more quickly to the keys of play. Marcus Rashford’s opener came from Arsenal’s right flank, with White and William Saliba needing to put more pressure on the striker. His goal means Arsenal have conceded from the first shot they have faced in seven league games in 2023, a theme that gives them mountains to climb more often than not.
Rasmus Hoglund gave Gabriel more work in two minutes than Anthony Martial did in just over an hour, but the Brazilian remained alert and used his body well. He protected the ball when he needed to and was in a good position to block the attacker when needed.
There was a major lull for Arsenal in the 88th minute when Alejandro Garnacho had a goal disallowed for offside, but overall it was an encouraging display.
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Hojlund’s promising cameo
After 23 minutes, 10 touches and a whole heap of promise, Manchester United may finally have a proper striker in Rasmus Hoglund if his impressive second-half performance is anything to go by.
His attempt to smuggle the ball across the goal line with his backheel indicated his clever improvisational streak. His duels with Gabriel off the ball gave United a much-needed physical advantage as well. The Dane’s presence up front has given his side a much-needed focal point, but unlike Wout Weghorst or Anthony Martial, he is there to do more than just deliver long passes.
Casemiro’s off-the-ball through ball in the 86th minute showed off his superior speed, something Ten Hag will want to use if United want to become a great transitional team. Martial has not been able to run properly since his performance in the first half during United’s 2-1 win in the Manchester derby last season.
Hoglund showed off his skills again with some tackles in the build-up to the ‘winner’ goal offside by Alejandro Garnacho. He must be successful this season for Ten Hag to achieve its ambitions. It was a promising start, despite late goals that ultimately sank his team.
(Top image: Glenn Kirk/AFP via Getty Images)
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