Arsenal welcomed Manchester United to the Emirates Stadium in north London in the fourth round of this season’s FA Cup.
The two clubs have a huge history in the competition. The Gunners are currently the record holders in the competition having won it 13 times, while United march hot on their heels with 12. However, with both teams currently fighting hard to try and finish among the top four in the Premier League, the question of importance of the FA Cup for them in this moment is probably a valid one.
Yet, neither were going to give up the opportunity for a trophy on the shelf lightly.
Arsenal manager Unai Emery has been dealt a huge blow with Hector Bellerin becoming the third player (after Danny Welbeck and Rob Holding) to be ruled out for the rest of the season. The fullback suffered an ACL injury in their league win over Chelsea last week. Apart from the named trio, Henrikh Mkhitaryan was unable to face his former club as he still hadn’t recovered from a broken metatarsal.
Petr Cech stood between the posts, with Sokratis Papastathopoulos and Laurent Koscielny directly in front. Sead Kolašinac covered the left defensive flank, Ainsley Maitland-Niles the right. Granit Xhaka and Lucas Torreira acted as the double pivot, with Aaron Ramsey slightly more offensive. Alexandre Lacazette led the forward line, with Alex Iwobi on the left and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang on the right.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, who replaced Jose Mourinho in the Manchester United dugout last month, is currently conducting a resurrection of the team, the same team that looked completely dejected and dispirited prior to the Portuguese’s dismissal. Solskjaer was unable to count on defender Marcos Rojo and midfielder Marouane Fellaini due to injury, and he decided to rest his star goalkeeper David De Gea. Centre-back Chris Smalling was back after a foot problem, and Luke Shaw had recovered from illness that forced him to miss the win over Brighton and Hove Albion last week. Alexis Sanchez was available to play against his former club having recovered from a hamstring issue.
Sergio Romero was in goal. Victor Lindelof partnered Eric Bailly in the middle of defence, with Ashley Young on the right and Luke Shaw on the left. Nemanja Matić sat deepest in midfield, with Ander Herrera and Paul Pogba playing more advanced. Romelu Lukaku made a rare start and an even rarer one on the right flank, as Alexis Sanchez and Jesse Lingard alternated on the left and through the middle.
The First Half
Both sides entered the game with moderate caution. No hasty moves, no pointless energy wasting. Both were first and foremost solid at the back. Both showed clear signs of intent to hurt the opposition if an opportunity arose; and yet, despite several entries into the box at both ends early on, there were no real chances.
There were, however, problems for Unai Emery after 17 minutes as Sokratis landed awkwardly following a duel with Lingard in the middle of the park and limped off the pitch helped by the medical staff. He tried to get back on but his brave attempt lasted less than 60 seconds. Shkodran Mustafi came on.
In the 24th minute, both teams had their first proper chances. Arsenal first as Xhaka gave the ball to Lacazette on the edge of the box and the Frenchman cleverly sent Iwobi through. Iwobi took a shot but it wasn’t good enough to trouble Romero from a relatively tight angle. United hit back straight away through Lingard who broke down the right and sent the ball across the six-yard box. Lukaku at the near post and Pogba through the middle both failed to reach it, and Maitland-Niles smartly chipped it over Sanchez who was waiting for a tap-in on the far post.
But having thwarted him that time, the young Arsenal player gave Sanchez the perfect opportunity to open the scoring just after the half-hour mark. Lukaku acted as an unlikely playmaker and sent the Chilean through, and as the rest of the home team’s defence stepped out to produce an offside trap, Maitland-Niles stayed behind, broke the line and played Sanchez onside. Sanchez easily went around Cech and put it in the net.
As the home team went forward in numbers trying to hit back immediately, United broke through their offside trap again just two minutes later. Lukaku turned provider once more as Koscielny stepped out late and the Belgian escaped down the right wing and squared it at just the right moment for the incoming Lingard, who coolly slotted into the bottom corner from around 12 yards.
However, Arsenal weren’t going to lay down and take a beating like that without a response. Having been put through by Iwobi on the left two minutes before the break, Ramsey escaped Herrera and put it through the legs of Bailly to send it across the six yards, and United players found themselves outnumbered right in front of their own goal. It was Aubameyang on the far post who eventually tapped it in.
The Gunners created another chance late on in the half and presented an opportunity for Maitland-Niles to shoot from ten yards, but the youngster hit it straight at Romero. United’s defence seemed completely in shambles at that point and Arsenal threatened a few times more, and the visitors were lucky to still have the lead at halftime.
The Second Half
It took Arsenal less than a minute to come very close to equalizing. Torreira produced a fantastic long pass to switch the play from left to right and found Aubameyang on the wing. The Gabonese unintentionally played Maitland-Niles in as the youngster ran across his pullback and put it straight on the head of Ramsey on the near post. Ramsey’s header went into the very top corner but Romero produced a superb save.
A period of quick play followed as Arsenal aimed to get on level terms as quickly as possible and United looked to put another cushion between them. Arsenal’s attacks looked more promising, but as United hit on a counterattack in the 54th minute, Koscielny made a mistake and was forced to take Pogba down at 20 yards, getting himself into referee Craig Pawson’s book. It was a position very suitable for a left-footed shot, but the one Lukaku took went sky-high.
Two minutes later, more trouble for Emery. Koscielny stayed on the ground and needed medical assistance following a clash with Lukaku where he received a foot to the head from the Belgian, and with Mustafi having come on for Sokratis in the first half, the Arsenal manager was forced to make an improvised substitution. He took out Iwobi as well, and sent on Matteo Guendouzi and Mesut Ozil. Xhaka fell back to the centre of defence.
It was a long stoppage, but both teams continued where they left off and the game hadn’t lost any pace. In the 68th minute, Young used his arm to thwart a clever pass from Guendouzi and found himself booked.
With 20 minutes to go, Solskjaer judged his front line needed some fresh legs, and Sanchez and Lukaku made way for Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford. Martial went left, Lingard right, and Rashford played through the middle.
Two minutes later, Lacazette worked nicely around Lindelof and blasted a shot on target, but Romero was well positioned.
Manchester United had a good chance to settle the game 12 minutes from time as Lingard carried the ball to the edge of the box and sent Rashford through, but the young striker was not only beaten by Cech but caught offside as well.
As it entered its final stage, the game became a bit sloppy. There were quite a few passes needlessly given away and some nervy moments at both ends, and it looked as if the finish could go either way. It would be United, however, to grasp their moment.
With eight minutes remaining, Pogba led a counterattack and took the advantage of the opposition defence retreating before his onset to take a shot from 20 yards. Cech could do no more than parry it straight into the path of Martial who simply put it into the gaping net.
There was a controversial moment straight afterwards as Kolašinac and Rashford got into a pointless tussle on the touchline, and both received a yellow card for their efforts.
Solskjaer moved to reinforce his defence late on and introduced Phil Jones for Lingard three minutes before the game entered a 10-minute stoppage time.
Arsenal tried to attack, but United were now playing with a proper back-five wall ahead of Romero and looking to employ Rashford with long passes. After one such occasion they successfully moved into the opposition half and Guendouzi picked up a yellow card for a late tackle on Pogba.
Arsenal’s level of play at this point was occasionally pitiful as they misplaced even the easiest of passes, and they looked devoid of any ideas on how they can hurt the opposition. Only Lacazette kept some fighting spirit to the end, but he couldn’t inspire his teammates into any kind of reaction and it was hard to tell which set of players welcomed the final whistle more.
This game didn’t really prove anything new. The job that Emery has started at Arsenal is very far from finished, while Solskjaer inherited a good squad from Mourinho despite it looking very different since the managerial change. However, it would be unfair to dispute the tactical innovation the Norwegian has brought in with him. Using Lukaku on the right flank was a touch of genius, as the Belgian constantly took advantage of Kolašinac’s marauding up the pitch and repeatedly got behind the Bosnian, thus forcing a centre-back wide to provide cover and opening the space in the middle.
On the other hand, Arsenal scored their goal as easily as if they were playing against a lower-league opponent, and had they been able to keep that level throughout the game, it’s quite reasonable to assume the story would have had a different ending; at least a more exciting one.
Be that as it may, Manchester United deservedly go through to the next round, while Arsenal are left to focus on the Premier League and the Europa League. With their squad too often depleted with injuries, from their perspective, it may be better so.
ARSENAL: Cech 7, Koscielny 7 (64′ Guendouzi 7.5), Sokratis N/A (20′ Mustafi 6), Maitland-Niles 7, Kolašinac 7, Torreira 7.5, Xhaka 7, Ramsey 7.5, Iwobi 7 (64’Ozil 6), Aubameyang 6, Lacazette 7.5.
MANCHESTER UNITED: Romero 7.5, Bailly 6.5, Lindelof 7, Young 7.5, Shaw 7.5, Matić 7, Herrera 7, Pogba 8, Lukaku 8 (72′ Rashford 6.5), Sanchez 7.5 (72′ Martial 7) , Lingard 7.5 (88′ Jones N/A).
GOALS: Sanchez 31′, Lingard 33′, Aubameyang 42′, Martial 83′.
YELLOW CARDS: Koscielny 54′, Young 68′, Lingard 76′, Kolašinac 86′, Rashford 86′, Guendouzi 90.
REFEREE: Craig Pawson.
DATE & VENUE: January 25, 2019, the Emirates Stadium, London.
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