United thwarted once again

It seemed to hang in the air for an eternity. It was just before stoppage time in the second half of the match between Manchester United and Arsenal, a match which United had dominated in front of their home fans. Now, however, all that good work was to be undone in a single moment, a moment which came from nowhere to shock United to the core. It was done in slow motion, one which all who were watching could see, but do absolutely nothing to stop. It was the ultimate shock to the system for United fans everywhere.

Before that, United had been defying expectations and giving Arsenal all sorts of problems. United manager Jose Mourinho came into the game with an under-performing team languishing well outside the top four, while Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal were playing some of their best football in a long time. One might have expected that Arsenal, full of attacking flair and class, would have taken the game to their opponents, but United did not allow them any space to move in the early stages and soon had a firm foothold in the match.

The Gunners eventually worked into the match, and Alexis Sanchez should have done better when presented with a header on the edge of the six-yard box, but United were still on top as they started to close in. It all began with controversy, when Antonio Valencia went down in the box after an attempt by Nacho Monreal to impede him. Referee Andre Marriner emphatically signalled play-on, leaving Mourinho furious on the touchline and the home fans incredulous.

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Frustration: Jose Mourinho protests after Manchester United were denied a penalty.

The incident brought the best out of United, and they set about getting their noses in front before the break. It was Juan Mata who came agonisingly close, getting on the end of a good ball from Paul Pogba, beating Shkodran Mustafi and forcing a fingertip save from goalkeeper Petr Cech. Cech was called into action again minutes later, when some skilful build-up by Pogba, Ander Herrera and Anthony Martial gave the latter a chance in a strong position. Cech was there, and the ball was tipped over the bar.

United continued to dominate, but they did not look like finding the back of the net despite trying very hard to do so. Then it came. It was Pogba who started it, finding Herrera as he made his way to the by-line to whip in a cross. The cross came to Mata at the top of the box, catching Arsenal out as they moved towards their own goal, and Cech did not stand a chance as the ball was drilled into the bottom corner, well out of his reach.

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Heartbreak: Olivier Giroud (left) scores Arsenal’s only goal as everyone else watches on.

It was desperation time for Arsenal as the game continued, but the Gunners could not even get themselves a shot, let alone a goal. United, while sitting back a little further, still looked more dangerous, while Arsenal’s playmakers just looked lost. They were moving forward, but they seemed to have no bite when it came down to it.

Then they levelled. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain had the ball, with Marcus Rashford looking to ensure he got no further. He failed, as Oxlade-Chamberlain used his pace to get past and find space for a cross, which looped devilishly towards the back post, as Olivier Giroud closed in. Phil Jones fell over in a desperate attempt to get the ball, and the big Frenchman had no-one to compete with as he rose above all others to ram it home. It was all done.

In the aftermath, refereeing decisions will be examined and re-examined, as with moments where it could have been so different. In the end, however, it is another missed opportunity for United, who can hardly afford any more slip-ups if this campaign is to carry any success, both at home and abroad.

Manchester – Old Trafford
Manchester United 1 (Mata 68)
Arsenal 1 (Giroud 89)
Referee: Andre Marriner

Manchester United (4-2-3-1): de Gea – Valencia, Jones, Rojo, Darmian (Blind 64); Carrick, Herrera; Mata (Schneiderlin 85), Pogba, Martial (Rooney 63); Rashford.
Arsenal (4-2-3-1): Cech – Jenkinson (Oxlade-Chamberlain 84), Mustafi, Koscielny, Monreal; Elneny (Giroud 73), Coquelin (Xhaka 80); Walcott, Ozil, Ramsey; Sanchez.

Top 5
1. Juan Mata (Manchester United)
Mata was in top form, working his way into pockets of space and causing massive problems for Arsenal with his awareness and skill. He scored United’s only goal after finding space in the box, and generally put in a very strong performance.
2. Ander Herrera (Manchester United)
Herrera was a solid midfield presence throughout, but it was his ability to get forward which caused big problems for Arsenal. His pace and skill allowed him to combine well with Pogba and others, and he provided the assist for Mata’s goal with a tricky ball to the top of the box.
3. Petr Cech (Arsenal)
Cech was in top form in Arsenal’s goal, making a number of key saves and getting into good positions to continually thwart United. His save to deny Mata late in the first half was particularly solid, and he was the main reason that Arsenal were able to escape with a draw away from home.
4. Paul Pogba (Manchester United)
Pogba was in excellent form playing in attacking midfield, using his incredible skill on the ball to set up his teammates and unlock Arsenal’s defence. His control was impeccable, and he was unlucky not to find the back of the net when he ventured into the box.
5. Antonio Valencia (Manchester United)
Valencia allowed United to function with the fluency they had, pushing forward from right back to give Mata freedom to roam wherever he saw fit. Valencia was one of the best in his own right as well, using his pace to open up holes in the defence when he pushed up field.

United hit back with crushing victory

Manchester United needed to win. The Red Devils were under intense media scrutiny, and all eyes were turned towards Old Trafford as they came up against reigning champions Leicester City. Losses to Manchester City and Feyenoord were followed up by a spiritless defeat at Watford, and the critics were lining up. They simply needed to respond.

The game started fairly evenly, with both sides jostling for possession and looking to find a way through. There was the odd chance here and there, but neither side realistically looked like breaking the deadlock. After a while, nerves looked to be showing for United, who could well have conceded after some defensive errors. Leicester looked to be slightly ahead, but it was not to last.

It was Daley Blind who provided the spark. United won a corner, and the Dutchman looped the ball into the box. It was, in a word, perfect. The out-swinging corner hit Chris Smalling on the edge of the six-yard box, and the header flew towards the bottom corner, in a place where Ron-Robert Zieler couldn’t reach it.

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Near miss: Zlatan Ibrahimovic (centre) misses the target with a volley.

After the goal, United took the game by the scruff of the neck in an emphatic manner. The chances came in quick and fast. Marcus Rashford was played through after Jesse Lingard’s pressure opened Leicester up on the break, but the shot was well wide. A minute later, Rashford had another chance as Paul Pogba’s header allowed him to try an overhead kick. He missed. Zlatan Ibrahimovic, normally so clinical in front of goal, made a rare mistake with a volley after Pogba’s beautiful chip over the top.

Pogba was pulling the strings all over the park, moving into more advanced positions and letting his skills do the talking. He had been under more pressure than anyone after a string of poor efforts following his world record move, and he needed to change something. On this day, everything went right. He barely made a mistake as he sprayed the ball around the park, and his deft chips over the defence opened Leicester up time and again.

Pogba was again at the heart of the second goal, which came less than ten minutes before the break and triggered an incredible surge which rendered the second half unnecessary. Juan Mata was the catalyst, finding Pogba on the edge of the box with surgical precision. Pogba then made one of the passes on the game, chipping the man in front of him off a step and finding Jesse Lingard, who brought the ball to ground under some pressure. Mata kept running through, and his first time finish was unstoppable as it flew past Zieler into the back of the net.

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Goal: Paul Pogba (second from right) heads in Manchester United’s fourth goal.

United weren’t finished yet. This time, they caught Leicester out with a corner, leaving Rashford with one of the easiest chances he will ever get. Blind seemed to be in no hurry to play in the corner, and Leicester bought it hook, line and sinker. Mata caught his two markers napping as he received it on the near post, and he played it past Zieler to find Rashford directly in front inside the six-yard box. If he had missed, it would have been a miracle.

United continued to attack, and soon they had won another corner. Blind’s delivery was, once again, perfect, and this time he picked out Pogba as the Frenchman made his way into the box. Pogba was minded by Christian Fuchs, and the diminutive left back didn’t have a shot against the size and strength of the most expensive player in the world. Pogba drove the header into the bottom corner, leaving United with an unassailable advantage.

Three goals in the space of five minutes had left Leicester without any hope, and all illusions that Claudio Ranieri would try for a result (if it was even possible to get one) were shattered when he removed Riyad Mahrez and Jamie Vardy at half time. Leicester were shell-shocked, but United saw no reason to push the matter any further, and they played without any real intensity. They didn’t need to.

Leicester pulled one back on the hour, with Demarai Gray netting his first career Premier League goal with a strike of incredible quality. The young winger took on Jesse Lingard outside the area before drilling it into the top corner from range. David de Gea had no chance as the ball bent away from him, but it didn’t matter. It was the best goal of the game, but it was to have no bearing on the result.

United were content to take the air out of the game, and Leicester just wanted it to end. They had suffered enough embarrassment for one day. The win was emphatic, and it signalled a return to form for United after a fortnight of disappointments. Whether it will last only time will tell, but no-one would have beaten United on this day. They were purring, and could simply do no wrong. They needed to win. They did.

Manchester – Old Trafford
Manchester United 4 (Smalling 22, Mata 37, Rashford 40, Pogba 42)
Leicester City 1 (Gray 60)
Referee: Mike Dean

Manchester United (4-2-3-1): de Gea – Valencia, Bailly, Smalling, Blind; Herrera, Pogba; Lingard (Carrick 78), Mata (Young 87), Rashford (Rooney 83); Ibrahimovic.
Leicester City (4-4-2): Zieler – Simpson, Morgan, Huth, Fuchs; Mahrez (King 46), Amartey, Drinkwater, Albrighton (Schlupp 62); Vardy (Gray 46), Slimani.

Top 5
1. Paul Pogba (Manchester United)
Pogba was in control from the start, pushing up into dangerous positions and creating chances aplenty with his wonderful skill. His increased licence to roam worked wonders, and he barely made a mistake as he sprayed the ball around in attack. He was the commander for United, and he made life incredibly difficult for Leicester.
2. Ander Herrera (Manchester United)
Herrera was the yin to Pogba’s yang, collecting the ball deep in midfield and feeding it to his partner in central midfield. He was excellent throughout, and his ability to win the ball back created numerous chances for his teammates. He formed a brilliant combination with Pogba, and will look to keep that up in weeks to come.
3. Juan Mata (Manchester United)
Mata was everywhere in attack, moving from left to right as he saw fit. He worked his way into plenty of dangerous positions, and scored an excellent goal after combining well with Pogba and Lingard. He had plenty of energy as he moved around the pitch, and will take plenty of confidence from his performance.
4. Daley Blind (Manchester United)
Blind was excellent throughout, setting up three goals with his devastatingly accurate corner kicks. He pulled the strings from left back, hitting long passes down the line and finding Pogba in the middle when he needed to, and he can take confidence from an excellent performance.
5. Demarai Gray (Leicester City)
Gray was a shining light in an otherwise forgettable afternoon for Leicester, and he scored their only goal with an excellent strike from range. He came on at half-time and gave a spark that was lacking in the opening period, and he caused problems for United with his pace and liveliness.