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Sunday was probably the most enjoyable afternoon of the season so far for the United Faithful as title contenders Arsenal arrived at Old Trafford at near enough full strength to face a struggling United side beset by injuries and turning to youth.
The Gunners began brightly but in the end an energetic and dare I say horny Old Trafford outfit came out on top. Here are 5 things we learned from an encouraging performance against Arsene Wenger’s side.
1) Young Guns Hurt Arsenal
Manchester United went into the tie at Old Trafford with a plethora of injuries to established first team players. Natural central midfielders were forced to play in the centre of defence and with a number of academy talents making the squad Louis Van Gaal’s side had a youthful look to it.
It’s often said that with youth comes energy, exuberance and no fear and that is certainly what materialised on Sunday afternoon. Guillermo Varela impressed at right back doing what the experienced Matteo Darmian had failed to do in the reverse fixture, keeping Alexis Sanchez largely anonymous. The young full-back’s potency in the attacking third should also be highlighted as once more Uruguayan contributed going forwards, playing a vital role in the opening two goals.
Manchester United’s substitutes bench (with the exception of goalkeeper Sergio Romero) was made up entirely of academy products. Timothy Fosu-Mensah also impressed on his Premier League debut having replaced Marcos Rojo and Jesse Lingard continued to provide good width on the right hand side. There was an energy, a bite and a potency about the Reds that has been missing in recent weeks and everyone associated with the club can be proud of the performances of many young stars thrown in at the deep end.
2) Rampant Rashford
Of course, of all of the youngsters on show one man stood out once more. As he had on Thursday night on his European debut, Marcus Rashford bagged a brace on his Premier League bow. There was a calmness and a maturity about the young striker unbefitting of his tender years.
It’s often said that floating into the danger area at just the right time is not necessarily something that can be taught, it has to come with the instinct of a natural goalscorer and with 4 goals in 2 games Rashford may be just that. What was perhaps more impressive was the composure shown after the teenager utilised his pace and made an intelligent run in behind the Arsenal defence and held the ball up before rolling it into the path of Ander Herrera for what proved to be the winner.
As ever, it’s important to be cautious and Rashford is by no means the finished article or guaranteed to make it at the very top level. But for an academy that has come under strong criticism in the media in recent weeks the performances of the young players, not least Marcus Rashford, give cause for optimism.
3) Memphis Maturity
Memphis Depay has largely struggled since joining the club in the summer. The young Dutchman has looked a shadow of the player who was the Eredivisie’s top scorer in a title winning campaign. However, in the Europa League on Thursday night and again against Arsenal the winger showed signs that confidence may be returning to his game.
Strong, quick and skilful, there is no doubt that Memphis possesses the attributes to make an impact in England and against Arsenal there were signs that his decision making is improving. Memphis held the ball up well and was positive whenever he isolated the full-back. It’s been widely reported that the wide-man has been getting plenty of one-on-one advice from United Assistant Ryan Giggs and there are signs in the last couple of games that it is paying dividends.
4) Passion and Purpose
Looking at the two sides on display Arsenal were certainly favourites at kick-off, but perhaps with the pressure off a little Manchester United dug deep and found a performance. Morgan Schneiderlin and Ander Herrera in the centre of midfield were superb, both snapping into the tackle and providing a solid base to move forwards.
Juan Mata continues to impress playing in his favoured role behind the striker and to a man the side were tenacious and purposeful throughout the afternoon. Manchester United often deliver when their backs are against the wall and on Sunday (for the first time in some time) it really felt like Manchester United.
Injuries remain a major concern but with academy talents taking their opportunities there are plenty of reasons to maintain a positive outlook. There was a real unity at Old Trafford on Sunday and it felt like every player in a red shirt truly understood what it meant to be playing for Manchester United and fought for the badge.
5) Still Fighting?
One step forwards and two steps back has become an unfortunate hallmark of the Van Gaal era at Old Trafford. Despite a good week in terms of results, in perspective the club are still way short of where they should be. Nevertheless, United remain in contention in the FA Cup and the Europa League and a top 4 place is still not quite beyond reach.
Results like the one against Arsenal on Sunday need to be built upon and it is crucial now that levels don’t drop. It’s excruciating to think that with wins against strugglers Bournemouth, Sunderland and Norwich, United would be 3 points off the top of the league. However, that just demonstrates the fine lines separating sides this season and it really is all to play for heading in to the final 11 games of the season.
With players beginning to return from injury anything is still possible, but now is the time for the side to finally find some consistency.