Having returned to the top of the table last week, Manchester United came crashing down to earth on Sunday, as they suffered their second defeat of the season, losing 3-0 away at Arsenal. Goals from Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil within the first 20 minutes obliterated United, who were lucky not to suffer a bigger defeat and will now have to regroup ahead of a difficult trip to Goodison Park after the international break.
Here’s five talking points from yesterday.
1) United fail their first test
The trip to the Emirates was the first real test of the season for United, the initial instalment of what promises to be a particularly tasking month. United have failed the test spectacularly. In fact, given the way they were blitzed off the park by Arsenal, they did not ever bother turning up to attend the test. Sluggish off the ball, intimidated when in possession, United suffered the fate Arsenal have had to endure in a number of big games in recent years. Under Sir Alex Ferguson, capitulation such as yesterday’s were followed by an immediate response. Does this United side have what it takes to bounce back?
2) Slow start costs United
For a side that had been praised for its defensive solidity earlier this season, United defended with all the composure of a man who’s been helping himself to a free bar and is now fumbling with his phone as he attempts to call a cab. Matteo Darmian was tormented by Alexis Sanchez, Ashley Young confirmed a makeshift left-back is prone to be exposed by sides of a certain calibre, while Daley Blind’s shortcomings against quick strikers were laid bare.
Amid all of this, even Chris Smalling, arguably the league’s standout defender this season, drowned in the first 20 minutes, as Arsenal ran riot, scoring three goals and narrowly missing another.
United had already gone behind against Club Brugge and Wolfsburg but in both cases had managed to drag themselves back in the game. Against Arsenal, however, they sunk without a hint of fight.
Making a habit of going behind is a dangerous thing to do at this level.
3) Wayne Rooney is finished
Yes, he’s England all time top-scorer and could soon hold the same record for United. Yes, it is harsh to single him out given the mediocrity that surrounded him yesterday, but the United captain does not help his case.
Against Arsenal, Rooney’s first touch was so delicate that resembled a tackle, his contribution was non existent and is sense of position so poor that one wandered where exactly he was asked to play.
The goals against Brugge and Sunderland were a false dawn, Rooney has been in decline for a long while and Van Gaal’s refusal to drop him is puzzling and worrying at the same time. Once he recovers from injury, Ander Herrera should be given a chance to make the number 10 role his own, for Rooney has offered absolutely nothing this season.
4) Lack of pace exposes United
United’s wins against Arsenal in recent, particularly away from home, had a common denominator. United would sit deep, soak up the pressure and hit on the counter, largely by relying on having two defensive midfielders, one of whom was tasked with breaking up play, while the other was asked to orchestrate United’s passing.
Against Arsenal, Louis Van Gaal opted to have two of the latter, with Michael Carrick and Bastian Schweinsteiger given the nod ahead of Morgan Schneiderlin, whose dynamism and ability to break up play was sorely missed as Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez tore through United’s midfield and defence at will.
Neither Carrick nor Schweinsteiger could cope with Arsenal’s pace, which ensured United were dead and buried with the game barely 20 minutes old.
5) Realistic expectations
As far as appalling performances go, Sunday’s defeat was arguably United’s worst display under Van Gaal. However, losing to a direct rival is part of the game and the defeat, embarrassing as it was, leaves United still in third place and only two points behind league leaders City.
Despite being barely two months old, this campaign has already proved to be arguably the most unpredictable in recent years, with Chelsea struggling and all the other top sides, City included, having already suffered a minor blip.
Just as they weren’t title favourites after going top of the table last week, United aren’t relegation fodder now but they must find some kind of consistency from now on. With the exception of City, the Premier League is far from being formidable and United could and should capitalise on that.
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