Arsenal have Declan Rice and Gabriel Magalhaes to thank for their victory, but not Kai Havertz. Manchester United were fine but Erik ten Hag is a coward.
1) That was an objectively hilarious way for the final stages of an association football game to play out.
2) No protagonist was more suitable in terms of deciding that match than Declan Rice. A sublime, relentless performance was already the best of any on the pitch before Manchester United allowed him time and space to bring the ball down from a corner, consider his options, read the fine print of the payment structure on his West Ham move and score the winning goal.
Rice was dominant in the centre, helping maintain Arsenal’s intermittent periods of authority with an unrivalled rest defence which slowly suffocated Manchester United. Those drives forward were purposeful and incisive. Everything the hosts did in the build-up ran through him. That degree of maturity and control at 24 with no prior expertise in a proper Big Six game of this magnitude is not normal.
How refreshing it is to see a player back himself to perform at a much higher level and provide immediate justification. Some felt Rice does not offer enough in attack, that he was not a complete enough all-rounder, that he lacked a certain experience. After an international break in which he will presumably continue to excel for the fourth-ranked nation in the world, Rice shall make his Champions League debut as the most important player for the second-best team in England. It has been a long time coming.
3) Those margins have rarely been finer. In an alternative universe Manchester United are celebrating an almost perfect away game: soak up pressure, defend deep, attack with pace and numbers on the counter and bring on fresh legs to make the difference late on. The line between a 3-1 defeat and the 2-1 win Alejandro Garnacho seemed to have earned is infinitesimal, the sort only Stockley Park should chew over.
The game plan was well-crafted and largely executed effectively. That will be lost in the narrative void that is an international break dominated by outcome bias discourse but Manchester United played well and any attempt to shift the crisis baton onto them over the next fortnight should be resisted. There were enough signs of improvement on what came before both this season and in general away at any competent side last campaign to be satisfied, provided it continues.
4) With that said, Erik ten Hag is an absolute coward for trying to pin anything on the referees.
“I thought we played a very good game but everything went against us,” he said. “It was not offside. It was the wrong angle. It was a penalty on Hojlund, then we concede a goal that’s a foul on Jonny Evans – clear and obvious.”
Conspiracy-fuelling rubbish. And nothing particularly different to the card most managers try and play while everyone praises them for Building A Siege Mentality and bravely taking the flak away from the players (and dumping it onto the most abused party in the entire sport).
This is a risible part of the modern game now. But equally: don’t spend millions to formulate an approach based entirely on fine margins, then cryarse when some – and absolutely not all – of them go against you in a pretty even game. There doesn’t even need to be any blame for losing away at Arsenal so why create it?
5) There was nothing Andre Onana could realistically be expected to do differently with any of the Arsenal goals. It was a delightful finish from Martin Odegaard, Rice’s shot was deflected through a mess of legs from about 10 yards out and Gabriel Jesus was never going to be thwarted in that situation.
But it is pretty boring to focus on the way this goalkeeper kept goal. One of the most fascinating plots of the entire game was his display, not only in how Manchester United consistently used him as a safety blanket in possession but how Arsenal reacted to that.
The commentatorial disbelief that the Gunners were not pressing the Cameroonian enough was a weirdly manufactured talking point. Arsenal tried to put Onana under a bit of pressure in the opening half an hour but he just dropped a shoulder and left Eddie Nketiah running. The hosts quite justifiably deemed it far safer to let Onana prowl 30 yards from his goal under no duress rather than committing an extra player too far forward and playing a higher defensive line, allowing the keeper to exploit the subsequent spaces in behind.
Considering the sheer volume of long passes Onana tried to play to Marcus Rashford, it is difficult to argue Arsenal should have done anything different. Other teams might fall into the trap and allow the keeper to showcase his range, but not this one. But either way, it is great fun to see a Manchester United keeper leave his line, never mind venture about a third of the way down the pitch.
6) The plight of Kai Havertz continues. Even in the elation of victory the separate bandwagons of believers and doubters in the German merrily chugged along, yelling slurs at the other and calling them “washed” or “mid” or something or other.
He treated the Emirates to all the hits: misplaced six-yard passes, an airshot in the penalty area, a good block on a Christian Eriksen shot and a penalty won then overturned, gloriously suiting the agendas of everyone as Havertz either did wonderfully to drive into the area or dived because he was too timid to shoot.
It still does not look like a natural fit and strikes a little bit as Mikel Arteta trying to reinvent the midfield wheel. But the problem seems to be one of nonchalance. Not a lot Havertz does appears from the outside to have much urgency. It often just looks sloppy, much like the lazy pass Eriksen intercepted to create the Manchester United goal.
Let the debate rage on.
7) Phenomenal work from Sky Sports to show a Manchester United touch map graphic showing about two dots in the Arsenal half just before Rashford’s goal. Glorious assist.
8) Eriksen leading a scintillating counter-attack is a very funny sight and it was no surprise to see him offload quickly – and perfectly into Rashford’s path, it should be added.
From the left – fuelling another tiresome discussion – Rashford cut inside and clipped a wonderful shot past Aaron Ramsdale, who could only tip the ball onto the post on its journey in.
The England forward remains a cheat code on the counter and the way he created separation from Benjamin White before shooting was masterful. His and Antony’s tracking back was also noteworthy as Aaron Wan-Bissaka and the excellent Diogo Dalot received plenty of support and protection. Manchester United’s wide players were very good.
9) The risk-and-reward factor of playing Eriksen in a midfield two was laid bare within 35 seconds of kick-off, as Arsenal immediately equalised with a sumptuous move. Fine link-up play between Gabriel Martinelli, Oleksandr Zinchenko and Nketiah created the sort of opportunity Martin Odegaard feasted on last season: a lay-off he could run onto, unmarked in the area with one side of the goal gaping.
It was Eriksen’s responsibility to track the run but the Dane has never been famed for his defensive instincts. And even then he made more tackles than Casemiro, who was mostly bypassed. Sofyan Amrabat is needed and frankly the discipline of Scott McTominay might be too.
Ten Hag on Amrabat: “It was one of my wishes to get another holding midfielder in the squad, because with the season you need the depth there with Casemiro. Others we have to make compromises. He is strong, very dynamic, very good in duels. Also he can play a bit higher.” #MUFC
— Laurie Whitwell (@lauriewhitwell) September 3, 2023
10) It was a great cut-back from Martinelli, who showed the peace of mind necessary to find Odegaard on the edge of the box. In the first minute the winger was in a similar position with Odegaard and Nketiah as support but a wasteful cross frustratingly bisected them and the moment passed.
Martinelli was bright throughout, his flick earlier in the move for the first goal absolutely crucial and that battle with Wan-Bissaka a quiet classic. But his understanding of and combinations and relationship with Havertz is one of the German’s main problems currently. Their wavelengths are diametrically opposed and neither seems to have a grasp on the other’s movements or inner machinations yet.
Havertz was constantly making overlapping runs that Martinelli never used. The latter just never seemed to notice the former; it would genuinely be a surprise if they shared more than a handful of completed passes with one another. Arteta has to address that malfunctioning part of the attack.
11) Nketiah enjoys this fixture. He was very good in a selfless, tireless role and his hold-up play has improved exponentially. Arsenal did not have to use that option frequently but it was eminently reliable on those few occasions.
The desire and technique Nketiah showed to get two Manchester United defenders booked was brilliant. Victor Lindelof horribly misjudged one high ball which the Arsenal forward kept in and nudged down the byline before being brought down; Lisandro Martinez injured himself getting turned on the halfway line and clattering Nketiah as the forward dropped deep to knit together an attack he instantly leapt off the ground to join.
An England debut next, and not a moment too soon on this form.
12) The penalty, then. Excellent from Rice in the build-up and positive work from Havertz, who drove into the space between Wan-Bissaka and Casemiro before going down.
Was it definitely a penalty? No. There was contact and both Manchester United players seemed to impede Havertz at least a little bit, but it was minimal and could have gone either way. But here’s the key: was it definitively not a penalty? Because that is where the supposed high line exists with VAR. That was no clear and obvious mistake from the officials so overturning the penalty was ultimately just re-refereeing the game and making a 50/50 call the other way.
Debating VAR and referee stuff does, however, remain incredibly tedious. So there.
13) When Martinez went off, Ten Hag had the opportunity to do the funniest thing. But the Dutchman bottled it by bringing Harry Maguire on instead of Jonny Evans.
As it was, Leicester’s 2018/19 central-defensive partnership was reunited in the closing stages when Jonny Evans was introduced. That is a deeply unserious football club.
14) What a massive shame Peter Drury messed up his Rasmus Hojlund bit. Anthony Martial definitely didn’t make a debut impact against Arsenal in 2018. It was Liverpool, three years earlier. Did he get it mixed up with Rashford’s debut? Even that was in 2016. Weird.
Absolutely no notes on Roy Keane’s increasingly high-pitched pre-match chat about “going into battle” and “kicking lumps out of each other” when seeing a few opposition players shake hands in the tunnel, by the way.
But to Hojlund, who had an encouraging half-hour cameo. It was immediately clear to see the difference in Manchester United with a proper central focal point who offered some mobility and purpose. The flick for Garnacho’s disallowed goal was superb and there was more than enough there to suggest Ten Hag hasn’t just been completely conned. Based on that display, Hojlund will be very good for them indeed.
15) That third Arsenal goal was a thing of beauty: Rashford feigning a challenge at a high ball, pulling out and then losing a 50/50 with Reiss Nelson was pretty weak on the attack at 2-1 down in stoppage-time; Fabio Vieira’s pass to Jesus was perfect; the cut-back and finish from Jesus was impeccable; the lunge, eternal slide and collapse of Evans’ head into the Emirates turf as the Brazilian wheeled away was the single most existential thing ever.
Vieira is carving out quite the niche from the bench. It is a nice little wrinkle from Arteta instead of just copying the whole Pep Guardiola ‘awful in the first year, amazing after that’ blueprint for new signings. The problem is that he warrants a start now.
Fabio Vieira has to start over Havertz next game
Also, I feel for Smith Rowe, he might not touch the pitch all season
— Jason Soutar (@jbsoutar) September 3, 2023
16) But props to whoever had Gabriel Magalhaes down as the game’s most influential player.
He was excellent at centre-half, handling the threats of Rashford, Martial and Hojlund well. Manchester United were much more threatening when they had less of the ball and Gabriel, on his first start of the season, barely put a foot wrong.
Beyond that, his personal offside trap to catch Garnacho for the disallowed goal might just be the most daring and brilliantly implemented plan ever devised, and the tussle with Evans from that corner created the Rice goal. That is how a centre-half can turn a 2-1 defeat into a 3-1 win without scoring, folks.