LONDON — It was a case of unlucky 13 for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, as he lost for the first time as Manchester United manager in the Premier League at Arsenal on Sunday.
The Gunners scored in each half through Granit Xhaka and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang to push themselves into the driving seat in the top four battle as they won a ninth-straight home game. United missed numerous glorious chances and hit the woodwork twice as their heroic midweek win at PSG seemed to catch up with them.
Here’s a look at what we learned from a gripping encounter in north London.
EMERY HAS INSTILLED STEEL
It wasn’t pretty from Arsenal, but they got the job done and kept a clean sheet, and it is clear that Unai Emery has instilled a steely resolve into this Gunners team. In recent weeks they’ve held firm against the rampant attacks of Tottenham and Man United in the Premier League, and on Sunday it took a lot of courage to dig deep and fight back after their disappointing midweek defeat at Rennes in the Europa League. By the end of Arsene Wenger‘s Arsenal reign, they had become a weak-minded, fragile bunch of players. There is now a fighting spirit and grit to their play which complements their free-flowing attacking prowess. Despite various setbacks along the way this season, one thing that has improved drastically under Emery is their defensive organization. And despite that improved defensive solidity, helped mainly by Sokratis’ arrival, they have also scored more goals (63) than they had at this point last season. With three goals conceded in their last five PL games, if Arsenal’s defense keeps this up it will get them into the top four. Coupled with turning the Emirates into a fortress, the Gunners have finally added some steel to their silky attack.
UNITED’S MIDFIELD MUDDLE COSTS SOLSKJAER
25 minutes into the game Ole Gunnar Solskjaer had seen enough from his midfield. He switched the formation from a 4-3-3 to a 3-5-2 because Fred and Nemanja Matic were left woefully exposed to Arsenal’s fluid attacks. Young shifted to center back, Diogo Dalot went to right wing-back and all of a sudden United had more control. Pogba was drifting around aimlessly early on, not sure if he was playing in the center or on the left of midfield, and it was all a bit of a muddle. Ander Herrera and Scott McTominay were badly missed alongside Matic, and although Fred gave away a penalty kick, he didn’t play too badly. United’s failure to finish chances was their biggest downfall on Sunday, as Solskjaer’s fine unbeaten run is over. Injuries, constant personnel changes and the PSG win in midweek caught up with them, but there is still plenty of life left in their top four quest.
LUKAKU GOES COLD IN FRONT OF GOAL
After scoring twice in each of his last three outings, Romelu Lukaku was bang on form heading into this game. Moments before Arsenal took the lead he somehow hit the crossbar from close range, and before half time he gave Bernd Leno just enough time to claw the ball away after he rounded him. In the second half Lukaku was clean through again but was denied and it just wasn’t his day in front of goal. The Belgian striker still caused problems with his runs and combination play with Marcus Rashford and Paul Pogba, but he had an off-day in front of goal. Lukaku going stone cold in front of goal was the main reason why Man United failed to get anything from this game. And the fact that only 14 percent of Lukaku’s 113 Premier League goals have come against “big six” opposition (16 in 75 appearances) will add fuel to the fire of those saying Anthony Martial must replace him in the starting lineup.
TOP 4 BATTLE BLOWN WIDE OPEN
The race to finish in the top four of the Premier League got real this weekend. Tottenham lost at Southampton. Chelsea drew at home against Wolves. And Arsenal beat Man United. Arsenal now sit in fourth on 60 points (just one point short of third-place Spurs), Man United are in fifth on 58 points and Chelsea are in sixth on 57 points with a game in hand.
In the matchday programme Arsenal skipper Laurent Koscielny said that this was a “crucial game” for the Gunners and their season. It’s cliche, but every game between now and May 12 is huge for Emery’s Arsenal project. And the same can be said for Pochettino, Sarri and Solskjaer at their respective clubs.
This race for UEFA Champions League qualification will go down to the wire and you have to say that Arsenal have the edge with an easier remaining schedule than their rivals. Spurs still have to visit Liverpool and Man City, while United have to play City and Chelsea. The latter have to play Liverpool and United, so there are plenty of twists and turns ahead in the top four race. Momentum means a lot at this stage of the season and Arsenal’s big win gives them a spring in their step ahead of the run-in. And that is a run-in where they do not have to play against any of their rivals and can sit back and watch them all take points off one another.