Four things we learned: Arsenal v. Man United

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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.

PL Sunday preview: Liverpool in chase mode; Arsenal v. Man Utd

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By the time Sunday’s slate of Premier League fixtures is complete, nearly all 20 clubs will have played 30 games in the 2018-19 season, signaling the official start of the run-in.

[ MORE: What did we learn on a wild PL Saturday? (video) ]

From the title, to the top-four, to the relegation battle, there’s still so much left to play for…

Liverpool v. Burnley — 8 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com

From runaway PL title leaders and favorites, to staring a four-point deficit — with a game in hand, albeit — square in the face, the last two months have been anything but ideal for Liverpool. It’s not as if Jurgen Klopp‘s side has cratered and even lost a single game, so much as Manchester City have regained their brilliant, historic form of last season (three points dropped from their last 11 games) and managed to capitalize on the Reds drawing four of their last six. When 17th-place Burnley visit Anfield on Sunday, Klopp and Co., will have their hands full against increasingly desperate opponents who now sit just two points and one place clear of the relegation zone. There can be no looking ahead to Wednesday’s UEFA Champions League clash with Bayern Munich (0-0 after the Reds’ home leg).

As for the Clarets, Sean Dyche‘s side was the very definition of up-and-down since mid-January: three draws, followed by two wins, followed by two losses most recently. Prior to starting their potentially season-saving run just before the start of 2019, Burnley sat 19th in the PL table. After winning three straight to start the new year and eventually extending their run to eight games unbeaten (five wins), they had risen as high as 14th. Back-to-back defeats to fellow relegation battlers Newcastle United and Crystal Palace have since dropped them back into perilous danger as they head northwest to take on one of the Europe’s most prolific, irresistible sides on Sunday.

INJURIES: Liverpool —  OUT: Joe Gomez (ankle), Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (knee); QUESTIONABLE: Dejan Lovren (hamstring) | Burnley — OUT: Aaron Lennon (knee), Steven Defour (calf), Jonathan Walters (achilles)


Chelsea v. Wolverhampton Wanderers — 10:05 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com

Maurizio Sarri‘s debut season in the PL has been one he, and many Chelsea fans alike, would like to forget. And yet, it’s the sixth-place Blues — of the three teams currently jockeying for fourth place — who control their own destiny, due to having a game in hand and trailing the Champions League places by just two points. Sunday’s opponent, sixth-place Wolves, will be anything but a pushover, which they demonstrated the first time these sides met this season: Wolves 2-1 Chelsea, in December.

Raul Jimenez and Diogo Jota inspired Nuno Espirito Santo‘s side to the comeback victory at Molineux Stadium, and the prolific duo (17 goals and nine assists between them this PL campaign) will be desperate to complete the unlikely double over such a giant in their first top-flight season in eight years. Against all odds, it’s Wolves who have lost just once in their last seven league games (four wins), and the Blues who have lost three of their last six (three wins) and suffered a frustrating slide down the table. With a six-point advantage over 11th-place Everton, and Sunday’s game in hand, Wolves are merely a handful of results away from mathematically securing a top-half finish with plenty of the season still to run.

INJURIES: Chelsea —  OUT: None | Wolves — OUT: Ryan Bennett (suspension)


Arsenal v. Manchester United — 12:30 p.m. ET, on NBC and NBCSports.com

The leading contestants for a top-four finish are set to face off in a titanic clash at the Emirates Stadium on Sunday, with the added bonus of making a real push to catch and surpass a Tottenham Hotspur side suddenly spiraling out of control. Man United moved to within three points of Tottenham with their comeback victory over Southampton last weekend, only for those very Saints to do the Red Devils a massive favor on the back end: handing Spurs their third loss in four games.

Three points won’t come easy on Sunday, however, as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer‘s side was pushed to its limits in the Champions League on Wednesday, only securing their passage to the quarterfinals in the 93rd minute against Paris Saint-Germain. Further complicating matters, United find themselves in the midst of something of an injury crisis (see below). On the bright side, Paul Pogba will be fit and fresh after missing Wednesday’s game due to suspension. On the brightest of bright sides, United remain unbeaten in 12 league games (10 wins) since Solskjaer took over for Jose Mourinho in mid-December.

Arsenal, on the other hand, will be considerably fatigued themselves after losing to Rennes in the Europa League on Thursday, and playing nearly 50 minutes with just 10 men. With dwindling hope of lifting the final trophy still in play for the Gunners, Unai Emery‘s main objective has become exceedingly clear: get the club back into the Champions League for the first time in three years. Three points would not only send Arsenal two points clear of United for fourth, but would also trim the gap between themselves and Spurs to just a single point with eight games left to play.

INJURIES: Arsenal —  OUT: Lucas Torreira (suspension), Hector Bellerin (knee), Danny Welbeck (ankle), Rob Holding (knee) | Man United — OUT: Alexis Sanchez (knee), Jesse Lingard (hamstring), Juan Mata (hamstring), Antonio Valencia (calf); QUESTIONABLE: Anthony Martial (groin), Nemanja Matic (leg), Ander Herrera (hamstring), Phil Jones (illness), Matteo Darmian (undisclosed)

Herrera, Lingard, Martial among debilitating Man United injury list

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Manchester United has a sizable 2-0 hole to dig itself out of when the Red Devils take the field against Paris Saint-Germain on Wednesday in Champions League play.

Making matters far more difficult, they’ll try to make up ground while missing a whopping nine first-team players who are either injured or suspended for the second leg of the Round of 16 match in the French capital.

Manchester United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer announced he would be without the services of injured midfielders Nemanja Matic, Juan Mata, and Ander Herrera plus forwards Jesse Lingard and Anthony Martial, with defenders Phil Jones, Matteo Darmian and Antonio Valencia also unavailable. Paul Pogba is suspended, meaning Manchester United will be leaving 263 total appearances this season on the sideline.

“Not really, no,” Solskjaer said when asked if any of his currently injured players could find themselves fit in time for the match. “It doesn’t look like it. I don’t think we can risk Martial. He’s not been training yet, so I don’t think so.”

It’s likely that Chris Smalling and Victor Lindelof pair at the heart of the Red Devils defense, as they did against Southampton in the Premier League on Saturday, while Scott McTominay could also see the field either along the back line or in midfield, with Solskjaer preferred the latter of late as he navigates this injury crisis. 23-year-old Andreas Pereira has also seen the field recently in a deputy role, and Romelu Lukaku will almost certainly lead the lines up front. Eric Bailly or Marcos Rojo could also be used at the back if Solskjaer wishes to rotate his defense.

This could also be a big opportunity for 25-year-old Brazilian midfielder Fred who has made just one start since the start of the new year, but he came off the bench for eight minutes in the match against Southampton and went the full 90 minutes against Crystal Palace in late February. With Pogba out, Fred would be a natural replacement for the Frenchman.

It is also possible that facing a 2-0 deficit and such a long injury list, Solskjaer essentially throws the PSG match and uses a completely second-choice lineup featuring youngsters like Diogo Dalot and Tahith Chong, deciding not to risk his healthy first-team players with such little depth remaining. With Manchester United sitting fourth in the Premier League table and looking over its shoulder at Arsenal and Chelsea, it’s not inconceivable that Solskjaer pragmatically decides to focus on just the league battle with such a handcuffed roster. Manchester United has a critical match against Arsenal on Sunday, making his decision to risk first-choice players – or not – even more important.

Liverpool freeze as Solskjaer stakes claim

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MANCHESTER — Like a rabbit startled in the headlights, Liverpool were at sixes and sevens throughout their draw with Manchester United at Old Trafford.

Mohamed Salah was ineffective and hauled off. Roberto Firmino was injured. The midfield was cumbersome. United’s injuries confused the heck out of Jurgen Klopp‘s side.

[ MORE: 3 things we learned

Against a United side which was missing two key players (Nemanja Matic and Anthony Martial through injury) and then had to make three subs due to injury in the first half, the 0-0 draw feels like a big opportunity missed for the new Premier League leaders.

Yes, they now have a one point lead at the top of the table but they’ve drawn four of their last five games in all competitions and their rampant attack has ground to a shuddering halt. This was the first away game this season they have failed to score in and the likes of Mane and Salah were off, while their midfield three couldn’t get a hold of the game amid United’s constant string of first half injuries.

Speaking to reporters after the game, Klopp was far from happy with the result but pointed at Bayern Munich last week and now Manchester United playing very defensive against his side.

“Of course there is pressure. Actually, from my point of view, it is very positive pressure,” Klopp said. “But I don’t have to play. I sit here and say dumb things. That is easy. The boys, we all have to learn in this situation. The only way we can do it is with passion. The heart and soul of this club is passion, that is what we do. Wednesday night we have another chance and then there’s a derby. They are always emotional games. Today it was a bit constructive, the game was here and there, we had to fight. But it was a different fight than we expected and we didn’t adapt exactly like we should have. But you can now say that is not ‘class’ or whatever, but we know where we are coming from. We know where we are now. Let’s make sure we use this situation as good as possible. We will see where it ends. Today was not brilliant. We lost here more often than we drew. It feels like we should have won.”

As for Solskjaer, you could argue this was another huge hurdle he has got over as he pushes to be named United’s new manager on a permanent basis. The way he reorganized the team on the fly given all of the injuries showed he has another string to his bow after big wins against Chelsea, Arsenal and Tottenham so far.

This performance lacked the attacking swagger and incisiveness of those displays, but it was the gritty underbelly which impressed him most.

Solskjaer was a little disappointed that his team didn’t take big chances in the second half to win the game, but given all of the injuries his side endured he was happy with how deep they dug amid major adversity.

“They dominated possession but we had the biggest chances,” Solskjaer said. “I don’t think it was a case of them not wanting to win the game. I think it was because we defended so well. They couldn’t get through. We should have, could have, won it, with the chances we have. We take it. Four clean sheets in a row domestically. That is fantastic defending.”

Luke Shaw and Scott McTominay were superb for United, the former locking down Salah and the latter shielding a solid back four, and United coped with a dire situation very well.

As well as their three first half injuries, Marcus Rashford should have been taken off for United but he had to stay on. Even though they were hampered on the pitch, United were driven on by their fans as Solskajer’s name was sung loud and proud throughout the game. The fans are certainly backing him to get the job, and understood the important role they had to play after a freak set of injuries disrupted the game.

“I’ve never seen the like of this before. Having three hamstrings in the first half, Rashy was kicked and did his ankle straight away. We should have took him off as well, but we couldn’t. Could we?” Solskjaer said. “We played with ten-and-a-half, but the fans made up for it. Rashy’s attitude made up for it to be fair. He worked the line well. We had to put him through the middle because we couldn’t risk them coming down the sides. It was a difficult game in that respect.”

United showed a different side to Solskjaer’s management and this draw against a Liverpool side who are top of the table was another feather in his cap.

Three things we learned: Man United v. Liverpool

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MANCHESTER — Manchester United and Liverpool played out a tight, tense 0-0 draw at Old Trafford on Sunday.

United boss Ole Gunnar Solskjaer had to make three substitutes in the first half through injury, while Liverpool never got going and lost Roberto Firmino through injury. Despite the drew, their third in their last four PL games, Jurgen Klopp‘s men are one point clear atop the Premier League table with 11 games to go.

Here’s a look at what we learned from an absorbing battle at a raucous Old Trafford.

[ MORE: Match recap | Stars + Duds ]


IN-GAME INJURIES HIT UNITED HARD, LIVERPOOL HARDER 

Four players going off injured in the first half of a game must be a Premier League record. Manchester United have to use all three of their subs (including subbing a sub due to injury) was quite unbelievable and had a huge impact on the flow and outcome of this game. First Ander Herrera went off, then Juan Mata had to be replaced by Jesse Lingard and 18 minutes later it was Lingard who had to be replaced. That severely altered United’s gameplan as the Red Devils, already without regular starters Nemanja Matic and Anthony Martial for this game, had to be more pragmatic and had to rely on Alexis Sanchez, Andreas Pereira and Scott McTominay to take their chance to shine. They stepped up mildly, as Roberto Firmino’s absence, also through injury, seemed to impact Liverpool more than United’s trio of changes. The injuries disrupted the game and, all things considered, probably helped United out more. Liverpool just didn’t adapt to the formation and personnel changes and Klopp said as much afterwards. Marcus Rashford was caught early on by Jordan Henderson and never fully recovered, but he battled through at 60 percent. The fact Romelu Lukaku was shifted out to the right and Rashford stayed central suggested Rashford just didn’t the have the pace to impact the game. Injuries were the main storyline to come out of this game.


LIVERPOOL SETTLE FOR DRAW

As mentioned above, the loss of Firmino impacted Liverpool’s attacking fluidity as his replacement, Daniel Sturridge, didn’t get into the game at all. This was the first Premier League away game this season that Liverpool had failed to score in. Even before that Liverpool lacked their usual spark going forward and in the end they seemed more than content with a point at the home of their bitter rivals. In the grand scheme of things, this is not a bad result for the new Premier League leaders. Their lead is now just one point with 11 games to go and their toughest games remaining are against Chelsea and Tottenham at home, with a trip to Everton a tricky one to negotiate. Of course, Jurgen Klopp did show some intent to push for the winner late on as he brought on Xherdan Shaqiri for Jordan Henderson, but it was more of an afterthought. Liverpool would have taken a draw before the game kicked off, and aided by United’s injuries they never truly looked like there were going to lose this game. Not the performance Klopp wanted, but a result he can easily be content with.


SOLSKJAER SHOULD GET THE JOB FULL-TIME

Ahead of this game Solskjaer said he wouldn’t play mind games like Sir Alex Ferguson used to. But United’s caretaker boss couldn’t help himself and his words will be ringing in the ears of Liverpool fans across the world: “I have loads of Liverpool fans back home [in Norway] and every year is going to be their year,” Solskjaer said. “It has got to October and it’s: ‘OK, next year.’ Now they are in the race so for them, it is going to be an exciting finish to the league. That is none of our concern. We just have to concentrate on ourselves.”

And United must remove uncertainty about themselves as soon as they can and appoint Solskjaer. This United side are in the top four hunt, they are showing a hunger that has been badly missing. Defensively they were well organized with Luke Shaw locking down Mohamed Salah (he has now failed to score in four PL appearances for Liverpool against United) and Ashley Young doing a job on Sadio Mane, and had Lingard, Matic and Martial been fit, you would have fancied United to win this game. This was United’s second home clean sheet of the season and Solskjaer has now set a new record points total (25) for a manager taking charge of his first 10 games at a Premier League club.

The first line of the new favorite chant at Old Trafford sums it all up: “Ole’s at the wheel! Tell me how good does it feel!?”

Even though United failed to beat Liverpool on Sunday, Solskjaer set up, and adjusted, his injury-hit team smartly. United are on the longest current unbeaten run in the Premier League with eight wins and two draws from their last 10 games. And this draw will go down as another key hurdle passed in Ole’s quest to become the new full-time boss. The feel-good factor has returned to United and Solskjaer should now be given a long-term contract, and transfer funds to improve this side in midfield and defense. Given the way he has rejuvenated many of United’s stars he won’t need that much cash to kick them on to the next level and become genuine title contenders again. He has shown enough so far to suggest he is the right man at the right time to lead United.