Welcome to the madhouse, Ralf. If the new Manchester United interim manager was not fully aware of the scale of the challenge he faced, or how erratic his new team looked, it was highlighted in front of him during the course of the ‘a messy match.
Ralf Rangnick had buckled up before kick-off in the director’s box, his work permit having arrived earlier in the day, although too late for him to participate in the match preparation, and he could be delighted with how United found a way to win.
Obviously, it was Cristiano Ronaldo who made the difference. Back in Michael Carrick’s starting lineup, he scored twice, of which the second from the penalty spot proved to be the winner. But that only partially told the story of a United performance rocked by defensive swings and insecurities.
Where Arsenal. They had been presented with a goal early when Emile Smith Rowe passed a touchdown David de Gea, but they found a way to throw him away. Their was also a display riddled with error, as well as a lack of cruelty, shaking their recent progress.
The top three clubs in the division seem to be on another level and so we have these two, who have already played the game of the season, reduced to fighting for fourth place. It was easy to see the opportunity for either of them in that regard, but how far they’ve fallen as the past two months have been a test for United. A pre-game statistic demanded attention. United had started with five points in their previous eight games – their worst streak at such a time in Premier League history.
It’s hard to overstate how bad United were in the opening 15 minutes. They were nervous and error-ridden, offering spaces for Arsenal and, although the opening goal was tinged with strangeness, it had been marked out.
Marcus Rashford had cut inches above his own crossbar in the second minute, after a poorly defended corner and, before that, Jadon Sancho had missed an easy pass to give Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang a shot chance.
Fred couldn’t do much for most of the first half, controlling poorly and orienting poorly, and he was in the thick of the deciding goal. He lost his bearings in another Arsenal corner and stepped on De Gea, causing the goalkeeper to roll his ankle and crash to the ground as he released a punch.
Arsenal passed the ball to Smith Rowe, who passed De Gea from the edge of the box and United felt a whistle had to go away. For them it was wrong. Martin Atkinson blew well, but only after the ball came in and for what? Fred’s fault on his teammate? It soon became clear that the goal would be maintained.
The odd thing is that with United there, Arsenal have calmed down. Ronaldo had shot poorly on the side for 11 minutes when he had Rashford free to his right and, although United looked to grope for cohesion in the first half, they were able to get back on the front foot. And, shortly after Gabriel Martinelli pumped up his lines after cutting inside from the right – Smith Rowe was in space for the withdrawal – United found the equalizer.
Remarkably, it was about Fred’s ingenuity and vision. Ben White had made a mistake with a clearance and, when Sancho passed the ball to Fred, he did well to angle for the cut back and execute it. Fernandes’ sure side foot was his first goal for United in 16 appearances.
United started the second half with a faster pace, although they still needed De Gea to beat a Gabriel header after a corner kick. Carrick’s big selection call had been to call Ronaldo back and the forward almost scored when he took a pass from Fernandes, knocked down Thomas Partey and worked Aaron Ramsdale from a tight angle.
Then he did. From Arsenal’s perspective, the goal was scored by a terrible defense, with Nuno Tavares losing the ball to Diogo Dalot and leaving a gaping gap behind him. Dalot played a great reverse pass for Rashford and, when he crossed, White and Partey lost Ronaldo, who swept into the far corner.
United sighed in relief and quickly shut down. The space they left on their defensive left was almost indecent and Partey wasn’t going to miss the opportunity to exploit it, passing a pass to Martinelli, who cut a low cross. Martin Ødegaard arrived unchallenged and while the finish wasn’t completely clean he was perfectly placed in the far corner.
Atkinson had an erratic night and it was a mystery how he didn’t spot Ødegaard’s fault on Fred in real time. The Arsenal player came in behind his opponent’s back, having nothing on the ball, after Fred rushed into the box, but it wasn’t long before VAR gave the referee a metaphorical slap on the shoulder. Ronaldo beat Ramsdale.