Arsenal demolished Louis van Gaal’s Manchester United side with a first-half masterclass on Sunday afternoon.
The Gunners were 3-0 up within 20 minutes, exploiting Manchester United’s midfield and defence to strike three times early on.
Michael Carrick returned to partner Bastian Schweinsteiger in midfield, while Ashley Young was needed at left-back.
Arsenal had Santi Cazorla and Francis Coquelin in the middle of midfield behind Mesut Özil, with Aaron Ramsey on the right and Alexis Sánchez on the left. Theo Walcott started up front.
United’s failure was, essentially, that they couldn’t control any of the space. Something that Arsenal did well.
The Gunners often fail to stretch the pitch on the ball and restrict passing options off it, but they cleanly and intelligently put United under pressure from the very first whistle. Louis van Gaal’s side like to play out from the back but weren’t given any time to do so.
Winning the ball back quickly, Arsenal moved it even quicker to open and exploit spaces left by the visitors. By the time the Gunners were 2-0 up, Manchester United had attempted six passes and completed just two of them.
Arsenal gave United no space but, by passing quickly and cutting through the midfield, had plenty of their own to play in.
This was helped by Ashley Young and Matteo Darmian having days to forget. Young was at left-back and was terrorised by the duo of Aaron Ramsey and Héctor Bellerín in the opening stages, while Darmian couldn’t handle Alexis and found himself subbed off at half-time. All three goals saw Arsenal attack spaces left by United with pace and precision. It was so easy.
With Manchester United also looking to win the ball high up the field, United employed a man-marking system which saw Bastian Schweinsteiger leave midfield partner Michael Carrick completely isolated as Morgan Schneiderlin looked on from the bench.
Sir Alex Ferguson used to station Wayne Rooney on Arsenal’s deepest midfielder, preventing the Gunners from playing out. Van Gaal attempted to do the same, but it was horribly misjudged.
Rooney was on Francis Coquelin, with Schweinsteiger trying to get tight to Santi Cazorla. Problem is, Cazorla drops deeper than Coquelin with Arsenal in possession. Rooney ended up marking nobody, Schweinsteiger ended up ahead of Rooney, and Michael Carrick ended up standing in the middle of the park all alone when Alexis, Özil and Ramsey got on the ball.
The wide players didn’t help. Juan Mata and Memphis Depay never endeavoured to get behind the ball or help the defence, adding to the nightmares suffered by Darmian and Young.
Aaron Ramsey’s role drifting in from the right flank left Young confused. Carrick already had too much space to deal with when Özil alone was floating around him, but Ramsey only added to the conundrum. Bellerín provided the width down the right when Ramsey came in, helping to balance the Arsenal team.
Arsenal are used to facing a compact Manchester United, but not on Sunday. The shape of the visitors was all wrong, they pressed horribly, and they gave Arsenal countless opportunities to exploit the spaces that were left.
On the pitch, Arsenal made every right choice in the opening exchanges. The first goal was the perfect example: Özil to Bellerín, Ramsey to Özil, Özil to Alexis. The weight of two of those passes could have been better, but Arsenal were clinical in the timing of the pass and in making the right call.
The second goal was the same. Every touch was perfect, Alexis, Özil and Walcott made the perfect choices on the ball at the perfect moments before the German stroked the ball home. Arsenal were on fire and, with Manchester United starting slowly, became impossible to live with.
Overloading the right wing, the Gunners struck the decisive third goal after just 20 minutes. Theo Walcott, once again, laid the final pass and it was, once again, absolutely brilliant. The Englishman, often too greedy, showed incredible awareness for the two goals he assisted. He certainly does have a footballing brain.
Walcott also set the tone in the defensive phase. Never before have I seen him harry the opposition as he did. One scene in the second half saw United stroking the ball around at the back, only for Walcott to burst and put pressure on Valencia, De Gea and Blind as they moved the ball around. The result was a panicky United from the very first minute.
Once the lead was safe, Arsenal surrendered possession and set up in a pretty rigid 4-4-1-1 until around the hour mark. United saw more of the ball but forged very few openings.
A constant threat on the break with Walcott and Alexis, Arsenal still looked dangerous from time to time but managed the game sensibly.
The introduction of Marouane Fellaini fazed no-one, Wayne Rooney continued to look off the pace. United’s bright spark was Anthony Martial, who held the ball up well and created one chance for himself which was well saved by Petr Čech.
The goalkeeper also denied Bastian Schweinsteiger and was proactive to ease his defender’s fears whenever the ball went up in the air.
Arsenal showed they can press a team with intensity, as well as forming a solid block. There is more than one way to defend and an Arsenal team that can press is a much more threatening one.
But did we learn anything new? Arsenal have been winning away games, when sides come out to play. Arsenal have also been struggling at home, when teams set out to draw 0-0. Manchester United were always going to play, and doing that played into Arsenal’s hands.
We brilliantly exploited the flaws of Louis van Gaal’s side, but they were very obvious flaws. That’s not to put a dampener on things but to temper the mood just slightly.
The inevitable question is, ‘Why can’t we do this every week?’
To be blunt, we don’t play Manchester United every week. West Ham, West Brom and Sunderland won’t give you the chance to start that fast or leave big gaps for you to play through.
Arsenal have the quality, the mentality and the desire for a title challenge. The one we have to prove we have is the one everyone questions. Do we have the nous?