Manchester United youngsters assert dominance over Arsenal
MANCHESTER, England -- A day at Old Trafford of spectacular rises and remarkable falls. Regarding the latter, it's hard to say whether an awful Arsenal's massive drop-off in this match was more conspicuous than Manchester United manager Louis van Gaal's comical dive when making a point to fourth official Mike Dean. But there can be no doubt about the most eye-catching ascent. Marcus Rashford provided two sweeping goals and a crucial assist, to make it four strikes in just two games for the club, and that at just 18 years of age.
He won this game and potentially changed the dynamic and perception of the two sides. All of a sudden, things look so bright around a young United. A woeful Arsenal, by contrast, didn't look like they were challenging for a title.
There are many damning questions to be asked of Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger from this game, but perhaps the most immediate is this: For a side that are supposed to be on the brink of bringing home a first league title in over a decade, where exactly was the urgent late siege? Where was the pressure?
Any Arsenal will to win the game was bizarrely invisible, which is all the more inexplicable when you consider the makeshift nature of the United defence. Even leaving aside young players like Guillermo Varela and 18-year-old substitute Timothy Fosu-Mensah in the full-back positions, Van Gaal had to field a central defensive partnership of midfielders in Daley Blind and Michael Carrick. The latter has rarely looked comfortable in that area, as Van Gaal admitted when he said "that's always a risk". Here, however, against the notional champions-elect, the midfielder was calmly heading away bad crosses.
That was how the match ended, but what about its start? From early on, there did seem a sense of arrogance about Arsenal; that they felt they only had to turn up to win against a remarkably under-strength United forced to field three academy products in the starting line-up because of so many injuries. It was instead the Old Trafford kids who were impressively assertive.
Varela, Lingard, Rashford and the much-improved Memphis Depay were the players injecting all the life into this occasion. That in itself is an amazing thing to say, considering one of the teams should have been energised by the prospect of getting a big win here to potentially go on and win the title. Instead, Arsenal were so flat, and were levelled by Rashford's two storming goals in a stunning three minutes. The fact that Varela and Lingard did so well for both only added to the sense of life.
This defeat obviously doesn't kill Arsenal's title challenge, but it does create huge doubts -- perhaps most importantly -- in the team themselves. There were two particularly galling aspects to this defeat for Wenger, beyond the fact that they wasted such an opportunity. They also wasted all the momentum from the last league game, that sensational win over Leicester City.
Again, just as you wouldn't have guessed this woefully flat Arsenal side were in a title race, you wouldn't have guessed they were coming off the back of what should have been a momentum-driving last-minute winner against the league leaders. It also means the league table has reverted to what it was before that match versus the Foxes two weeks prior: Arsenal are again five points behind the Leicester.
The fact that that situation changed back so quickly did mean that Wenger was right on one thing, even if he got so much else wrong on the day: When was asked what effect this would have on the title race, the Arsenal boss replied, "Nobody knows."
It is that kind of season, to be fair, that more major errors are being committed by the contenders than most normal title races would allow. Things can swing again very quickly, and Wenger stressed the need to get a win against Swansea City on Wednesday. "We have to show we can fight and bounce back on Wednesday night and not feel sorry for ourselves."
The wonder, however, is how Wenger really feels about this performance and what it means for his team. The whole game just reflected so badly on them, from their response to adversity, to the errors made in defence, to the dispiriting limpness up front.
In a tetchy news conference afterwards, Wenger tried to rationalise it all and not show any anger. He even attempted to put a different spin on the context of the game, saying that United "still had a few millions on the pitch."
But one could sense something different. The Arsenal manager is usually polite in his dealings with the media, unless he is seething about something. That is when he tends to channel his anger by turning any piercing questions back on journalists. He did exactly that here, when asked whether he would have wanted more from Arsenal.
"It is very difficult for me to go into an individual assessment," he said. "I leave that you. You are big and strong and intelligent enough."
Arsenal's attack no longer looked like it had big players, or particularly strong-minded ones. Mesut Ozil, Alexis Sanchez and Aaron Ramsey did so little. They were gifted two goals by the United defence: one for Danny Welbeck just before half-time, one for Ozil just after Ander Herrera's deflected effort to make it 3-1. Yet they couldn't build on either.
Wenger did at least show some grace in defeat, praising Rashford. "The timing and intelligence of his movement was great," the Arsenal boss said. "He could be a very positive surprise for Man United."
In truth, the whole game was a surprise. There were genuine fears beforehand that United's young players could have a difficult afternoon. Instead, they were the ones who made it so difficult for Arsenal. Lingard was at the centre of so much, Rashford finished and Varela was dominant. The right-back could have got himself in real trouble when he was booked for rugby-tackling Sanchez early on, but there was no fear in his game. He only grew in confidence, getting up the line often for so many cutting attacks. His header back for Lingard's cross for the second goal was excellent and it is the greatest compliment of all that he gave Arsenal far more trouble than Sanchez gave him.
The much-criticised Depay, meanwhile, had one of his best displays for United, seemingly growing in authority precisely because the circumstances dictated he had to show responsibility. It was admirable. It did feel as if all the young players were able to play without the mental restraints that have held back United in the last few months, and it was telling that Van Gaal's name was chanted again by supporters.
The Dutchman did make a pointed reference to the wider situation regarding youth. "It is the culture of Manchester United, and that that is why they take me as a manager, I think."
After a season when we've seen so much of the worst of Van Gaal, this was the best of him: young players expressing themselves in a winning side.
It wasn't all about the young players though. Goalkeeper David De Gea was mostly brilliant, other than for the Welbeck goal, and the entire midfield of Juan Mata, Morgan Schneiderlin and Herrera pressed so well, nullifying Arsenal. By the end, Depay and Mata were humiliating Arsenal with tricks. It could have been worse than that. Wenger's side were gifted two goals, did nothing and a bigger United win would have been much more fitting.
The close scoreline brought a few almost false nerves, as well as Van Gaal's theatrical dive when he felt Arsenal were unfairly trying to win free-kicks in dangerous positions. The Gunners weren't doing much else that was dangerous anyway.
"I was emotional," Van Gaal said, also revealing he apologised to fourth official Mike Dean.
Wenger was also asked about that "dive."
"Look, you will have to ask him the question. I don't want to comment because you will say I am a bitter loser. I am, in fact."
On the day, United were just better winners. It remains to be seen if Arsenal can still end up as the best team in the country. Right now, it seems unlikely.
Miguel Delaney is a London-based correspondent for ESPN FC and also writes for the Irish Examiner and others. Follow him on Twitter @MiguelDelaney.