On Sunday night at Old Trafford, Sir Alex Ferguson glanced at his watch impatiently in stoppage time as Manchester United fought tooth and nail to hold on to their slender 1-0 lead against Arsenal. At the final whistle, the Scot was among the first to leap off his seat in celebration as the hosts secured three vital points – some things never change.
However, ‘change’ has been a common theme around United this season with Ferguson raising his hands in applause, not from his familiar dugout, but up in the director’s box instead while David Moyes soaked in his first ‘big’ win as the club’s new manager down on the touchline.
To Arsenal’s disappointment, the managerial change at The Theatre of Dreams did them no favours as their fortunes at the imposing venue remained the same. The Gunners have lost 9 of their last 10 visits to the red half of Manchester in all competitions, salvaging just the one draw four years ago. In the build-up to the game though, you wouldn’t have known it as spirits were pretty high inside the Arsenal camp.
Their £42.5 million summer signing Mesut Ozil summed up the confidence within the squad when he stated, “We are going to Old Trafford to have fun - and that is why we are going to win.”
United weren't there to have fun though, they meant business and set about their duties right from the kick-off. Arsenal had all the form, flair and confidence coming into this game but United simply needed to win it more and it certainly showed.
The home team started on the front foot and in the first half, looked like the only side capable of scoring and they did too, almost predictably through Robin van Persie. The Dutchman scored his third goal in as many games against his former club when he guided in a Wayne Rooney corner with a glancing header at the near post in the 27th minute.
Van Persie's header proved to be the winner
In reply, Arsenal’s pass-masters in midfield barely put a move together and while they will be adjudged to have suffered an off-day, Phil Jones in particular among several others should be commended for their excellent work in breaking down the visitors’ build-up play time and again. The English international’s performance on the night typified that of United’s overall display – hard working, energetic, focused and fiercely determined.
Ferguson was notorious for his unpredictable line-ups in big games and Moyes served up a couple of surprises as well. Firstly, Jones’ start in midfield was an inspired choice but Adnan Januzaj’s exclusion in favour of Shinji Kagawa on the left flank was a decision that raised a few eyebrows.
The Japanese put in one of his finer performances in a United shirt though and although he hasn’t quite developed the kind of understanding with Rooney as Van Persie has, there were ominous signs that the former Borussia Dortmund man could eventually learn to operate efficiently in that wide role. His work-rate matched that of most of his teammates as he offered Patrice Evra plenty of cover in defense.
Jones and co. worked profusely to stifle Arsenal
Despite the superstar-status Rooney enjoys, the England striker proved what an industrious worker he can be yet again. He’s seemingly at the peak of his physical fitness and he made it count, managing to be the second striker and third central midfielder almost simultaneously.
In the second half, an injured Nemanja Vidic had to be replaced by Tom Cleverley while Jones dropped into central defense but United maintained their energy and weathered the onslaught from an improved Arsenal side in the second period. The defense held firm as Chris Smalling was surprisingly exceptional at right-back while Jones was equally solid at the heart of the defense.
Even David De Gea was up to the task as he emphatically punched crosses clear on a couple of occasions, the second of which was responsible for Vidic’s absence after the break. It may have taken a few last-ditch tackles and brave blocks to keep Arsenal at bay towards the end but United couldn’t be denied a win on the night for sheer effort if nothing else.
Arsenal's pass-masters kept quiet
In truth, the encounter lacked the kind of quality that it promised but United’s intensity throughout compensated for the absence of any real creative spark and for those who can appreciate doggedness and bite in a football game, it still proved a worthy spectacle.
With results elsewhere going United’s way, the win sees them leapfrog Manchester City, Tottenham Hotspur and Everton to go into 5th place in the table, just a point behind Chelsea and now only 5 adrift of Arsenal. Not bad for a team in crisis.
Arsenal will be disappointed with their display as Mikel Arteta, Santi Cazorla and even Mesut Ozil went missing in such a crucial encounter. Aaron Ramsey and Olivier Giroud tried desperately to dismantle United while Bacary Sagna was arguably one of their best players who will be aggrieved by the fact that none of his dangerous deliveries were put away by his teammates.
Crucial three points sees United surge up the table
Arsene Wenger will know that this set-back doesn’t undo all the great work his side has done this season and will remind his troops that they are in fantastic shape, certainly far better than they could have expected at this stage of the campaign. The international break comes at an opportune moment as they can use the time to bring a couple of players back from injury as well and look to recover in their upcoming fixtures.United didn’t outplay Arsenal by any means but they certainly outran them. The visitors didn’t perform on the night but Moyes’ men were clearly under strict instructions not to let them. If Arsenal want to wrestle United’s crown away from them, they’ve got to be prepared to battle because on evidence of this display and several others in seasons gone by, they won’t simply roll over and let them have it.
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