Arsene Wenger’s decision to start Gabriel Paulista ahead of World Cup winner, Per Mertesacker, cost Arsenal two first half goals, allowing an understrength Manchester United to sit in and see the game out on the counter.
Despite a 50/50 possession share in the opening twenty minutes, Arsenal – channeling their attacking play down the left – looked likelier to break the deadlock. Although Sky’s Davie Provan praised United’s pedestrian centre back pairing for nullifying the pace of Arsenal with a deep line, in reality the hosts’ back four pushed up quite high before Marcus Rashford’s quickfire brace. Arsenal’s clearest chance of the game, in the 7th minute, saw Nacho Monreal fail to convert Mesut Ozil’s lofted through ball. United’s right back, Guillermo Valera, who picked up a booking minutes later for a tug on Alexis Sanchez, was caught playing the Spanish full back onside as his comrades pushed up.
As Varela struggled to his right, auxiliary centre back Michael Carrick also picked up a yellow for committing too early on the much quicker Danny Welbeck. Manager Louis Van Gaal’s rather offensive strategy was looking unwise against an Arsenal selection clearly chosen with three points in mind. However, in three crazy first half minutes, his opposite number’s defensive selection let him off the hook.
Gabriel, Arsenal’s 25 year old centre back, failed to defend two right wing crosses, allowing Premier League debutant Rashford in for his second consecutive double. The first saw the defender make a hash of clearing a Varela cross, while the second stemmed from him allowing the teenage striker to get ahead of him to head past Cech. Sanchez also takes some of the “credit” for the double blow for leaving Monreal isolated on both occasions, as Arsenal’s old defensive transition failings reared their ugly heads again. As indeed they did for Ander Herrera’s untracked counter-attacking run and finish for United’s 65th minute third.
Now, United’s defensive line dropped off, rendering the threat in behind of the likes of Walcott and Welbeck null and void. Wenger responded through the introduction of the aerial threat of Olivier Giroud on the hour mark, but Arsenal failed to reach the byline at all in the final half hour, only managing a paltry six crosses from open play. The fact that one of these crosses resulted in Mesut Ozil’s lifeline goal and the other produced a headed chance for Giroud at the back post should have demonstrated the way to go for the Gunners. Instead their build-up play was pedestrian and predictable, culminating in a host of hopeless late long balls.
Only Ozil, registering a goal and an 18th assist, emerged from this game with any credit for Arsenal. Once again, Wenger has fielded a side that abrogated their defensive responsibilities in a key game. Gabriel’s individual performance, paired with a longstanding inability to defend as a unit at transitions has cost him a vital three points against an injury-stricken, inexperienced side. Wenger’s rejection of the notion that his side are serial chokers earlier in the week looks even more ridiculous now. Meanwhile, North London rivals Tottenham came from behind to secure victory for the fifth time this season. The mentality of this Spurs side is unrecognisable from that which has gone before. For Arsenal fans however, it’s the same old story.