The hosts had a plethora of chances after José Mourinho’s side took advantage of the Gunners' slack start, going 2-0 up inside inside the opening 11 minutes, but through a combination of poor finishing and some David de Gea heroics in the United goal, Arsene Wenger’s team were left frustrated in defeat.
It was a well-executed game plan from Mourinho’s side, but it wasn’t without its flaws, as the Portuguese coach will realise heading into his team’s toughest game of the season next weekend, as they host Premier League frontrunners Manchester City at Old Trafford.
But prior to welcoming Pep Guardiola’s side across Manchester next weekend, what might United’s 54-year-old boss be pondering from the Arsenal victory?
United slick on the counter
Mourinho is well known for his defensive coaching qualities, regularly guiding his sides to clean sheets, or at least conceding low amounts of goals, in away matches of this kind against high quality opposition.
But the criticism in recent times of the manager’s tactics in such matches has been the lack of productivity at the other end of the field – much of the pre-match focus before the Arsenal game centred around United’s lack of goals in recent away games against England’s ‘big six’ sides.
Against the Gunners, however, United were actually more impressive going forward than defending their own goal. Jesse Lingard continued his fine week, grabbing a brace following his superb solo strike against Watford on Tuesday.
Before then, Antonio Valencia had opened the scoring, continuing the trend of United’s full-backs getting on the scoresheet. Ashley Young scored two against Watford and United can be encouraged to see the goals being shared around the team.
Midfield set to struggle further
Despite those positives, United still had Paul Pogba to thank for much of their good play. The Frenchman picked his moment perfectly for both Valencia’s opener and Lingard’s second goal, claiming an assist for each of those efforts.
The Frenchman’s performance, though, was marred by his second-half dismissal as he mistimed a challenge on Hector Bellerin and was shown a straight red card in the 74th minute – he could have few complaints about the decision.
Like United as a whole, though, Pogba was betting going forwards than defending the goal. That’s no criticism of the player, but now that he’s set to miss next week’s visit of Man City, his absence will be felt more than ever.
Arsenal overran United’s midfield at times and created so many chances. Neither Pogba nor his midfield partner Nemanja Matić defended particularly poorly against the Gunners, but there has been little in the Red Devils' midfield reserve this term.
Mourinho may need to reconsider his approach against City rather than simply bringing in Ander Herrera or Marouane Fellaini in Pogba’s place. If the current Premier League leaders are allowed as many chances as Arsenal were on Saturday, they will surely be more punishing of United’s defence.
Lingard making case for derby spot
It’s easy to praise a player for scoring twice but having done that, Lingard is making a case for himself to start in next week’s Manchester derby.
He isn’t the most fashionable of players, with some of his attacking counterparts in the United squad perceived to have more ability or talent. But the 24-year-old excels in certain departments, and it’s not just his work ethic which must be appealing to Mourinho at the moment.
The wideman showed excellent movement yet again for his two goals, making an exceptional off the ball diagonal run for his first before carrying the ball for some distance and then holding his run to the back post for his second.
Lingard is sometimes criticised for not making the most of his more simple chances, perhaps made worse by his tendency to score spectacular goals, but he twice got himself into positions to score and ultimately provided the finishes when he would be expected to score on those two occasions.
It was clinical finishing from Lingard, who’s now bound to be high on confidence, having scored three and assisted another in the last two games. United will see little of the ball against City next week and perhaps wont have the number of chances they did against Arsenal, so having a player in such clinical form in Lingard will be appealing to the boss.
De Gea reminds everyone of his quality
For all the mistakes of both sides in the game, with United not at their best in defence while Arsenal lacked ruthlessness at the top end of the pitch, it took no expert to recognise the huge role David de Gea played in this win.
United’s Spanish stopper was truly brilliant, putting in the kind of performance that had been much more commonplace in the reigns of David Moyes and Louis van Gaal where the Red Devils were much less of a cohesive unit and De Gea bailed his side out of trouble all too often.
Mourinho has United playing much better now, of course, but this victory proved that De Gea remains capable of providing the goalkeeping heroics to make the difference when it really matters – as if that was ever in doubt.