The win puts The Red Devils into the fifth round of this season’s FA Cup and ensures that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has now won his first eight games as Manchester United manager. What did we learn?
1. Narrative can’t always save Alexis
It’s hard to truly understand what happened to Alexis Sánchez when he moved from Arsenal to Manchester United. Perhaps it was that he “switched off” in his last six months at Arsenal and has just been unable to switch his skill back on at his age.
Or perhaps something has gone in him, physically, and he just can’t play like he used to. Or hell, maybe he’s still suffering having left one horrible situation with a past-it manager at Arsenal to walk straight into another horrible situation with a past-it manager at United. That’d certainly take a bit of getting over, so it’s understandable perhaps that he’s still looked poor under Solskjaer.
Alexis Sanchez’s game by numbers vs. Arsenal:
83% passing accuracy
3 take-ons completed
1 chance created
1 shot on target
A memorable return to his former club. 🏟 pic.twitter.com/5k9s3jXmgf
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) January 25, 2019
Sure, he scored today. An exceptionally well-taken goal where he skipped around Petr Cech before lofting the ball into the back of the net with a very deft chip from a tight angle. He even played fairly well; but he was facing Arsenal at the Emirates, he had a narrative on his side. That won’t happen again, so he will have to actually start playing well if he wants to turn his United career around.
2. Aaron Ramsey: the (departing) diamond
Despite all the high-priced talent on the field for Arsenal, their best player was the one that cost them less than £5m a decade ago. Aaron Ramsey has often shown his quality playing at the head of Arsenal’s diamond, but only intermittently. Tonight, he played there again and he showed his quality almost every time the ball went near him.
It’s hard to think of a single thing that Ramsey did wrong. His movement was sublime, flitting into space (wherever it was) to overload United’s defensive set-up. He pressed United when out of position too, which, along with Alexandre Lacazette, prevented United from making easy passes through the middle of midfield. And then, of course, he created Arsenal’s only goal with a wonderful run and cross. If he truly is leaving for Juventus in the summer, Arsenal will struggle to replace him.
3. Lethal Lukaku in his element
Romelu Lukaku is a big man. He’s broad-shouldered, barrel-chested… he’s massive. He must be unfathomably strong; one could imagine him in a WWE ring, suplexing opponents and wearing great suits. But here’s the thing: that’s not at all how he plays.
Lukaku is always praised in regards to his strength and size, which is ironic because using his strength and size is arguably the thing Lukaku is worst at. He has no idea of how to use his physicality, which is so amusing given his hero is Didier Drogba. Instead, his game relies on intelligent movement and fast runs into space. He’s basically a 6’3 Javier Hernandez.
But he bulked up to play at the World Cup, and obviously, José Mourinho was intent on using him as a target man, so he has struggled to get into the rhythm that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has set up at United. Until tonight, that is.
Alright, he’s still some way off reaching Rashford’s comfort in this new look United, but against Arsenal, he showed a massive leap in performance. Playing as one of two strikers split wide, almost as a winger, Lukaku was often running into spaces down the flank, finding room to play behind Arsenal’s advancing full-backs. He was in his element and it really showed.
He didn’t score, but his impact on the game was enormous. He produced two assists, one which showed that he can drift central from his wide position and thus avoid markers. He was in space at the top of the box and produced a gorgeously deft reverse pass to set Alexis Sánchez free. And then, just minutes later, he played his role very straight, barrelling down the right of the pitch before calmly picking out Jesse Lingard for the Englishman to double United’s lead. He went off with 20 minutes left but showed he has a place in United’s future.
4. Arsenal need a defence
It’s so frustrating watching Arsenal because the top half of their team works exceptionally well. Aaron Ramsey’s movement between and around Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang is just sensational, and the Francophonic strike duo are in glorious harmony. Both can perform solo wonders but are also at ease in a system set-up. Lacazette’s defensive work and link-play are staggering.
Arsenal have failed to progress past the fourth round of the FA Cup for the second successive season.
The FA Cup record winners are knocked out in January again. 😳 pic.twitter.com/miOHWPotUV
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) January 25, 2019
But then you drop deeper, and suddenly things become shambolic. Arsenal’s midfield is so determined to push up and be aggressive that they leave canyons behind them wide enough to be seen from space and that enables opponents to counter them with ease.
This happened repeatedly against Manchester United. Worse still, Arsenal’s two starting centre-backs both had to leave the field through injury, and they weren’t exactly defensively solid, to begin with! But after their subs, any time United seriously ran at their defence they looked capable of scoring. Who knows what’s going on at Arsenal with their transfer system but they absolutely need to sign a centre-back, even more so than Manchester United do. A fit defender who can organise that back-line and even the midfielders ahead of it.
5. Pogba the rampaging ring-leader
In the first half at the Emirates, Pogba was kept bottled up by Arsenal. He still played well but wasn’t at his expansive best as Arsenal saw a lot of the ball and he struggled to impact the game. That all changed second half, however.
The change was small but Ole Gunnar Solskjaer simply stationed Pogba a bit higher up the field. What this changed was that when United were breaking out from defence to attack, the ball was nearly always at Pogba’s feet. The Frenchman became the catalyst for countless United counters and Arsenal couldn’t live with his skill, his size or his speed.
The third goal came directly from a situation like this and it was fitting that this capped the game off. Pogba picked the ball up 10 yards inside his own half and with one step forward he was already behind the Arsenal midfield. The World Cup winner ran fully 40 yards with no Gunner challenging him, so of course, he let fly. Cech saved, but Martial had an easy finish to kill the game.
Getting Pogba into this position, where he is comfortable acting as the ring-leader, rampaging up the field as the focal point of Manchester United’s counter-attacks, is the absolute dream for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. It’s putting him in the best position to use his skill-set to hurt the opponent. When Pogba is dynamic, United are dynamic, and when United are dynamic, Pogba can be dominant.