A squad ravaged by injuries made the trip down to London and returned with 3 points and the first away win of the season. Victory for the Reds seemed unlikely following a nervy and disjointed start to the game in which the Gunners could quite easily have been out of sight, but for yet another accomplished display from the ever-impressive David de Gea. Nevertheless, an inexperienced defence grew into the game and the oh-so-obvious counter-attack paid dividends once more at the Emirates.
Scepticism was rife as the news filtered through of a return to a 3-5-2 system, and it was only heightened following a calamitous opening period in which the Reds looked all at sea. Welbeck, Sanchez and Wilshere all had their moments but United weathered the storm and in the second half delivered a compact and disciplined performance. It was far from pretty and a world away from the fluid, exciting, attacking football that so many associate with the club, but it got the job done.
Following resolute defending, Arsenal were exposed on the break allowing Antonio Valencia to smash a ball across the box and deflect into the net off Kieran Gibbs. United’s second was less fortuitous, as Rooney and Di Maria broke away, with the latter feeding the Reds’ captain who finished superbly. The Argentine should have added a third late on but Giroud’s well taken reply proved nothing but a consolation. In truth, it was a poor game with very little good football on show but, encouragingly, it was United who battled to come out on top; here are five things we learned from Van Gaal’s first away win in the dugout.
Eyebrows were raised as the Dutchman returned to a 3-5-2 system with the inconsistent Smalling and the inexperienced McNair and Blackett deployed as the three centre-backs.
It’s hard to argue that when tested at the start of the season the system itself did not fail to deliver performances or results. Much of the philosophy behind the switch was sound: the ability to play a no.10 in support of two strikers, providing cover for a dearth of quality defenders and numbers in the midfield; it was a system that appeared to suit the playing staff at the manager’s disposal. Nevertheless, results failed to materialise and it was evident, particularly defensively, that players were struggling to adapt.
In this sense, the return of the system against Arsenal was even more commendable. Despite criticism and obvious flaws earlier in the season Van Gaal, beset by injuries, chose a system that he believed would win the game. It demonstrated unwavering confidence and belief in his own methods and paid dividends with a welcome away win.
The decision may well have been a forced one, with a half-fit Luke Shaw the only recognised full-back available. But towards the latter stages the decision to play Di Maria in a forward role (similar to the one Arjen Robben had been deployed in the World Cup) proved fruitful as the Argentine broke away and set-up Wayne Rooney for the winning goal and then should have added a goal of his own.
The performance itself was far from fluid, but it was gritty, and the right players were in the right positions at the right times to capitalise. When the injury crisis eases the Dutchman may well revert to a back four, but at the Emirates United’s manager proved (in stark contrast to his opposite number) that he will sacrifice fluid football when necessary.
2) It’s Carrick, You Know
One huge positive from Saturday’s game was the performance of Michael Carrick. The midfield veteran displayed composure and excellent positioning throughout and his experience in front of such a young defence was crucial.
Daley Blind’s unwelcome injury on international duty has deprived the Reds of one of their better performers so far this season, but Carrick certainly stepped up in the Dutchman’s absence.
The contribution of the former Tottenham man often gets overlooked but in both midfield and defence Carrick held the team together against Arsenal. It is hoped that the England international can stay fit after a frustrating start to the campaign on the sidelines.
3) It’s a Squad Game
Injuries have proved a major concern throughout Louis Van Gaal’s tenure so far and against Arsenal the squad was certainly bare. Nevertheless, players stepped up all over the pitch and the squad truly contributed to a well-earned victory.
After Luke Shaw was unfortunate to turn his ankle, the much-maligned Ashley Young performed admirably at left wing back providing industry and a fantastic clearing header when under pressure. Marouanne Fellaini continued his good form and his pass to set Di Maria away for Wayne Rooney’s goal should not be understated. The Belgian delayed before playing the ball in behind Arsenal’s midfield and once more his physical presence was difficult for the Gunners to deal with.
Perhaps most impressive, though, were the performances once more of Paddy McNair and Tyler Blackett. Their inexperience is clear, and the opening half an hour of the game was nothing short of a shambles, but both centre-halves grew into the game and defended resolutely against a tricky and pacy forward line.
United will hope that injuries begin to subside but Saturday proved that even against good opposition there are members of the squad capable of performing to the required standards.
4) Time to be Ruthless with Robin?
Robin Van Persie’s form has been a concern for some weeks now and against his former club the Striker failed to influence the game once more. With just 2 completed passes and only 9 touches in open play, the Dutchman was on the periphery and, unfortunately, adding very little to the cause.
The return of Radamel Falcao to training may well see Van Persie in danger of losing his place in the side, with Wayne Rooney also in good form. Moreover, In James Wilson the club have a young talent who certainly has the ability to become a mainstay in the United side. The academy product has pace, good technical ability with both feet and the ability to finish coolly under pressure. With an impressive record at Youth level and a brace on his Premier League debut Wilson arguably deserves his chance.
For Van Persie, there are whispers emerging that the club may wish to offload the Dutchman in the summer. Following an outstanding first season, guiding United to their 20th title, the striker has struggled to replicate such scintillating form. The wrong side of thirty and with a questionable injury record, if form doesn’t improve it may be the right time to move on.
5) United of Old?
Fluid, high-tempo, attacking football it was not, but there was plenty about Saturday’s performance that stirred memories of many memorable performances away to Arsenal under Sir Alex Ferguson.
With Di Maria deployed high up the pitch and Rooney’s energy utilised deeper in midfield, the tactics were not dissimilar to those utilised many times. The Reds were set up to frustrate Arsenal and then hit them on the break. It’s a simple and glaringly obvious tactic against the Gunners, which calls into question their manager’s seeming inability or stubbornness to adapt and change when necessary, and once more United reaped the rewards.
Devoid of free-flowing football, the performance demonstrated a character that was perhaps lacking under Moyes. The players defended, fought and scrapped for everything and then had the quality to capitalise on the break. Time will tell but in Ferguson’s latter years United made a habit of winning when not playing well, the win at the Emirates may just prove a turning point.