EPL Gameweek 36: Arsenal 2-0 Man Utd

Previously, this was one of the most anticipated games of the season but this dour contest only served to highlight the current state of both clubs. One is struggling to make the top four for the first time in 20 years and the other is prioritising the Europa League over domestic matters.

Gone are the days of Roy Keane and Patrick Vieira eye-balling in the tunnel before kick-off, much to the disappointment of Phil Neville and Martin Keown.

Line-ups
Arsène Wenger made two changes to the side that lost at Tottenham last Sunday. Rob Holding replaced Gabriel in the back-three, while former Man Utd striker, Danny Welbeck, was preferred to Olivier Giroud. A more dynamic and versatile option for the home side.

José Mourinho made eight changes from his side’s semi-final first-leg win at Celta Vigo last Thursday. The Portuguese manager also gave Axel Tuanzebe his first Premier League start. The 19-year-old had a decent game which saw him finish top for tackles (five from seven) and joint-second for interceptions (three). The lack of intensity at The Emirates would have eased his introduction to top tier football but the full-back still had Alexis Sanchez and co to deal with.

First-half Goalkeeping
Both David de Gea and Petr Cech were called upon during a fairly tepid first-half and both produced good saves to keep the scores level going into half-time. Cech denied Anthony Martial at his near-post as well as Wayne Rooney after the Man Utd captain pounced on Holding’s poor backpass.

De Gea pulled off a smart save from Aaron Ramsey as the Welsh international looked to drill his right-footed effort into the far bottom corner. But the former Atletico Madrid keeper could do little about Arsenal’s quick-fire goals in the second-half.

The Ox & Xhaka
Less than 10-minutes in, Granit Xhaka received a pass from Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and was able to venture forwards under little pressure. Thirty-yards from goal, the midfielder took aim and benefitted from a deflection off Ander Herrera who had turned his back on the strike. It looped over a helpless de Gea to give the home supporters something to cheer about.

The time and space Xhaka had in the middle of the field was representative of United’s deep defensive approach – Henrikh Mkhitaryan only attempted seven passes in the attacking third during the hour he was on the pitch. Understandably, it’s a percentage play to allow your opponents a pot-shot from distance because the other options are closed off. But Mourinho will still be disappointed – even more so if it was Luke Shaw at fault – by how much time was afforded.

Man Utd went more direct with their balls into the attacking third with particular focus on the left-wing. Arsenal completed more passes in this area with 114 to United’s 91.

Man Utd’s deep defensive blocks led to an unsurprisingly high number of interceptions in their half.

Xhaka – one of Arsenal’s big summer signings – has come in for plenty of criticism, largely due to his poor disciplinary record. But the Swiss international had one of his better games on Sunday and could still prove to a decent purchase once he curbs his tendency to get sent-off and adjusts to the Premier League. His 93.24% pass completion (69/74) was one of the game’s highest.

Just a few minutes later and Arsenal doubled their lead thanks to some great work by Oxlade-Chamberlain down the right. The recently converted wing-back created the half a yard he needed to deliver a pinpoint cross for Welbeck to head home from close range. The cross dipped perfectly between Phil Jones and Chris Smalling – whose lack of availability has frequently an publically been condemned by their manager.

With two assists, this new wing-back role seems to suit Oxlade-Chamberlain and his physical attributes. He also managed the joint-second most tackles with three from the four attempts but there’s still room for improvement as he conceded five fouls, more than any other player.

Defensive United & Soft Arsenal
Mourinho’s implementation of defensive tactics against a rival fuelled a passionate debate between Jamie Carragher and Gary Neville during Sky’s Monday Night Football. Both are captivating pundits and made valid points, but there were a couple of comments by former United defender, Neville, that caught the attention.

Whilst acknowledging Man Utd’s league season has been unacceptable, particularly as they, along with neighbours City, were many people’s favourites for the title, Neville suggested it isn’t Mourinho’s team. A fair comment given it is his first season and he’s only added four players to his 24-man squad. But that isn’t to say the other 20 are useless or unwanted. Based on that approach, only four are Antonio Conte’s players at Chelsea yet he’s about to win the league.

It was also mentioned that Mourinho’s been unbelievable in the transfer market, a reference to the £45m raised from the sales of Morgan Schneiderlin and Memphis Depay. But that isn’t as impressive as presented given the pair cost nearly £50m just a season earlier and there has been a notable inflation in the transfer market which is partly influenced by United’s signings of Anthony Martial (2015) and Paul Pogba (2016).

But as Carragher was claiming, the tactics applied, particularly away to those in the top six, aren’t in-keeping with the traditions of United or the players at Mourinho’s disposal.

Despite initial appearances in the line-ups image, it was another case of a near back six instructed to all but suffocate the opposition and hope to utilise the frontman’s pace – in this case, Martial – on the counter-attack.

Carragher emphasised the fact they’ve failed to score in the four away trips to their rivals this season. The rest have managed at least four, which doesn’t reflect favourably on the pragmatic manager.

Mourinho’s side do however, have an opportunity to score their first goal and claim their first win at a top rival when they return to North London next Sunday for Tottenham’s final game at White Hart Lane. A challenge the former Chelsea man will no doubt relish.

Despite United’s scoring issues on the road, they have still managed more points than Arsenal. The Gunners’ solitary point came in the corresponding fixture at Old Trafford thanks to a late Giroud header. Failing to defeat such sides – home and away – has only driven many supporters to wanting Wenger out, although they did at least manage to edge past Man City in the recent F.A. Cup semi-final.

But the table below doesn’t make for great reading as Arsenal currently find themselves with the same points return as Watford against those in top seven. The Hornets claiming a surprise victory at The Emirates earlier this year. Furthermore, Bournemouth and 16th placed Crystal Palace have earned more points than The Gunners albeit via more games.

Summary
United’s 25-game unbeaten run finally came to an end, bookended by defeats in London (Chelsea and now Arsenal). As has previously been highlighted on The Mumbler, their points return during that period still didn’t better Chelsea’s or Tottenham’s such were the number of draws (12). But there was an inevitability to this outcome as the away side focus on Europe and continue to deploy such tactics.

Arsenal’s faint hopes of scraping into the top four remain after Liverpool drew at home to the Gunners mid-week opponents, Southampton. But with Stoke City away – a typically unattractive fixture for Wenger and a side that hasn’t beaten any of the top seven – next weekend, this victory could prove to be nothing more than a moral boost ahead of the cup final.

EPL Results (Gameweek 36):
West Ham 1-0 Tottenham
Man City 5-0 Crystal Palace
Bournemouth 2-2 Stoke
Burnley 2-2 West Brom
Leicester 3-0 Watford
Hull 0-2 Sunderland
Swansea 1-0 Everton
Liverpool 0-0 Southampton
Arsenal 2-0 Man Utd
Chelsea 3-0 Middlesbrough
Southampton 0-2 Arsenal