Arsenal’s meetings with Manchester United always tend to deliver drama and this latest instalment in one of the Premier League’s longest-running rivalries did not disappoint.
Some fine goals, a late controversy involving the Video Assistant Referee and Declam Rice’s stoppage-time winner… it all added up to another memorable encounter.
Our experts analyse the big talking points.
Rice’s big moment
What a moment for Declan Rice. These are the moments he came to Arsenal for and his first goal for the club could not come at a better time.
The emotion shown in his celebrations with the fans in the North Bank are just what he deserved for his first block of games in a red shirt. So often he has helped Arsenal ‘live’ throughout games and this was the best example, even before he scored the winner.
He made three 50-50s his own in the opening 20 minutes alone. The second was the most impressive as it set Arsenal up for their best chance in the game until that point. From there, the hosts were much more confident in their play both with and without the ball.
The 24 year old seemed to have a decent reading of what was needed in the game too. Whenever Manchester United seemed to have more promising passing periods, if he won the ball, he would pass to take the sting out of the game and help Arsenal reset. If he needed to drive forward with the ball, he had no problem doing that, either.
When conducting their summer business, there was an understanding that Granit Xhaka was heading to Bayer Leverkusen. With that there was one ‘thing’ they had to replace: presence. There is no doubt they have done that with Rice, a difference maker in every game he has played so far.
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But did VAR decide the match?
It has become the norm to reflect upon a game by discussing the major VAR decisions that have been made, and today was no different.
Starting with the big one. Alejandro Garnacho thought that he had snatched the game in the final minutes of regular time as he ran through on goal to slot the ball past Aaron Ramsdale. It was a tight one, but Gabriel’s sudden halting of his run was enough to catch the Argentine offside.
Earlier in the second half, Kai Havertz’s fall in the box looked certain to be a penalty in real time, but a VAR check showed the German to be the one to kick out himself to seek the contact and go down. A quick check of the monitor from Anthony Taylor quickly reversed the decision.
Ultimately, both decisions were correct, and in a game of this magnitude, fine margins are what decide the outcome of a game.
This is why Rashford is best on the left
Is Marcus Rashford better on the left or up front? It’s a debate that has gone on for years before quietly being answered by the forward himself in conversation with Gary Neville this summer.
The 25 year old views himself as most comfortable on the left, but is willing to go up front (or even on the right) to help out his team when needed.
His goal in the 27th minute at the Emirates was evidence that he helps his team best when he’s allowed to flourish in his best position. In a rare moment where spaced opened up for United in central midfield (due to an error from Kai Havertz) Christian Eriksen got the ball to Rashford in the left channel, before the forward drove into the box and bent a shot into the bottom right hand corner.
It was a goal largely out of nothing (Rashford had touched the ball just five times before scoring this goal) and it was a finish that has become his trademark. It underlined why Rashford is better on the left, as it not only allows him to make dangerous runs into the half space with the ball, but also because he angles his pressing runs better when out-of-possesion, too.
Ten Hag was annoyed at United’s pressing in “the front and the back” in this season’s early games, in part because Rashford does not offer the same resilience when working against the ball at centre-forward.
Until Rasmus Hojlund is properly bedded in, Rashford remains the most potent member of United’s front three, even if he was uncharacteristically wasteful when United had a three-on-three counter-attack late on at the Emirates.
Despite that, Ten Hag will likely keep him on the left of the 4-2-3-1 for as long as possible.
Havertz is still luckless
Mikel Arteta has done what any good manager would do and defended his player when pressed on Kai Havertz’s mixed start at Arsenal.
“I think he’s done already really good things,” Arteta said after their 2-2 draw with Fulham last week. “Today it was tough in certain moments. He got in great areas and the ball didn’t arrive. In a lot of situations he should have scored a lot of goals already this season. That’s the thing that is missing there.”
It is getting a little trickier to defend Havertz when he is not helping himself — as the narrative continued against Manchester United.
First, he had a chance on his stronger left foot to make a good connection with the ball from seven yards out in the first half, but snatched at the chance with a tame effort that spun away.
To compound his low confidence, a sloppy pass into a central area allowed Christian Eriksen to break forward and play Marcus Rashford in behind to score Manchester United’s opening goal.
Even when Arsenal fans thought his luck was about to change after he won a second-half penalty, a VAR check deemed his tumble in the penalty area to not be worthy of a foul and the decision was overturned.
Yes, Havertz is putting himself about. Sure, he’s covering some good spaces for Arsenal. Granted, he’s making some strong off-ball runs that aren’t always being found by his team-mates.
You can find some positives, but few people would argue that Havertz is yet to ignite his Arsenal career since joining this summer.
Onana is transforming United’s style
It is a widely documented narrative for Manchester United this season, but the arrival of Andre Onana has truly changed their approach in possession.
That was as evident as ever on Sunday afternoon, particularly in the first half — only Manchester City’s Ederson (41 vs Burnley) attempted more passes in a first half of a game than Onana’s 36 against Arsenal.
As you can see below, a lot of these passes were short, and a healthy amount were from an advanced starting position beyond his penalty area.
Onana’s strength in possession is a far cry from David De Gea’s weakness on the ball last season. For that reason, Arsenal were intelligent in actually allowing United to build out in deep areas and keeping their out of possession structure. Arteta’s men were reluctant to press Onana too tightly in the knowledge that he has the technical quality to play out of pressure and find the spare man to break Arsenal’s press and get United on the attack.
This is shown below, where 44 per cent of United’s touches were in their own third — the highest share among their four games so far this season.
It is not surprising that we are seeing this approach from United since Onana arrived, but future opponents might want to follow the blueprint that Arsenal set, which is to not fall into the trap of pressing Onana and losing their structure.
Arsenal were back in the groove defensively
Arsenal looked like their usual selves with Gabriel Magalhaes and Oleksandr Zinchenko returning to their backline.
Gabriel, who had not started a game this season, hardly missed a beat. He defended well against Antony in the channel (aided by Declan Rice covering space behind him) and helped Arsenal maintain a high line which kept much of the game in the Manchester United half early on, even when the visitors had the ball.
Gabriel being back alongside Zinchenko was more important than one of them being back without the other. Even though Zinchenko did not touch the ball in the build-up to Martin Odegaard’s equaliser, it would not have happened without him. Away from the traditional left-back position for most of the half, the Ukrainian gave Gabriel time and space on the ball to find Gabriel Martinelli when he stayed out wide. Then Arsenal just let the football do the talking.
As a unit, the back four need to react more quickly to switches of play. Marcus Rashford’s opener came from Arsenal’s right, where White and William Saliba needed to put more pressure on the forward. His goal meant Arsenal have conceded from the first shot they have faced in seven league games in 2023, a theme that gives them mountains to climb too often.
Rasmus Hojlund gave Gabriel more to do in two minutes than Anthony Martial did in just over an hour but the Brazilian remained alert and used his body well. He shielded the ball when he needed to and was positioned well to block from the striker when needed.
There was a major let-off for Arsenal in the 88th minute when Alejandro Garnacho’s goal was disallowed for the most fractional of offside decisions, but overall this was an encouraging display.
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Hojlund’s promising cameo
Twenty-three minutes, 10 touches and a whole heap of promise, Manchester United may finally have a proper striker in Rasmus Hojlund if his second-half cameo is anything to go by.
His attempt to smuggle the ball over the line with a backheel hinted at his clever improvisational streak. His off-ball tussles with Gabriel gave United a much needed physical edge, too. The Dane’s presence up front gave his team a sorely needed focal point, but unlike Wout Weghorst or Anthony Martial, he is there to do more than just make the long passes stick.
An off-the-ball run for a Casemiro through ball in the 86th minutes demonstrated his blistering pace, something Ten Hag will want to use if United are to become a great transitional team. Martial has been unable to sprint properly since his first-half performance in United’s 2-1 victory in the Manchester derby last season.
Hojlund again demonstrated his skills with some hold up play in the build-up for offside “winner” for Alejandro Garnacho. He has to be a success this season for Ten Hag’s side to make good on their ambitions. This was a promising start, despite the late goals that ultimately sunk his team.
(Top photo: Glyn Kirk/AFP via Getty Images)