Stories from the PL: Slumbering Giants Brawl
By Samhith Shankar, UG24
With football in England taking a brief hiatus as the country mourns the death of long-term monarch Queen Elizabeth II, fans of the sport can take a breath and take stock of the opening few weeks of the Premier League season, with the dust settling and bringing into stark relief the many narrative through-lines which will define this season of competitive domestic football. Teams at the top hungrily eye the Premier League trophy, currently held on to jealously by the blue side of Manchester, while teams closer to the bottom try to tread water, grasping at whatever points come up for offer at the beginning of a season which will be long, grim, and at times completely devoid of hope.
The final weekend of football before the royal mourning-enforced break saw two of the biggest, most well-supported clubs lock horns, as the Gunners of Arsenal, having spent much of the opening month at the very pinnacle of the table, prepared to visit the lair of the Red Devils of Manchester United, who had spent part of it at the very bottom. Points, pride, and bragging rights were at stake…
The Story so far…
Perhaps the quintessential Premier League rivalry, Manchester United vs Arsenal is a game of football that seldom disappoints. Blood runs thick through the freshly cut grass at Old Trafford, and the shadow of the widely-considered two greatest managers of the Premier League era looms large over the players and fans. Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger dominated the early years of the Premier League, winning 11 titles (United claiming eight, Arsenal 3) of the first 12 seasons.
Subsequently, both teams faced a significant reversal of fortunes; United haven’t won the title since 2013, and Arsenal since 2004. In fact, they have rarely even contested for the title in the last decade, falling to the periphery and forced to compete for scraps in the Europa League, Europe’s second-tier continental competition — a dangerous purgatory no club wants to find themselves stuck in for too long.
Nonetheless, the persisting bitterness between the clubs is unmistakable and acts as a consistent sub-plot for the game itself, with players engaging in physical tackles and fans voicing their hostility with deafening chants echoing through Manchester United’s stadium. For both teams, this fixture still means so much — and for both sets of supporters, fewer games mean much more.
Both these clubs are in the midst of a rebuild - they are building young squads to compete for the biggest trophies in the future. The match-up between Erik Ten Hag’s project at Manchester United and Mikel Arteta’s at Arsenal promised to be a competitive and insightful game, and it did not disappoint.
Manchester United had a horrific start to the season, losing to Brighton (1-2) and Brentford (4-0) - teams that a club of their prestige should always beat. It was Brighton’s first win at Old Trafford in their history, and the first time Brentford beat them since 1938. Both teams are well-drilled and shrewdly exploited United’s weaknesses. They pressed* high up the pitch and took advantage of the United defenders’ inability to progress the ball to win back possession near the opposition goal.
The confidence and optimism in their fanbase was at an all-time low; the appointment of manager Erik Ten Hag was supposed to revitalise the team after a lacklustre season, but the terrible start to the campaign had dulled expectations. The club had also not signed any marquee players yet, with the transfer window set to end in 2 weeks. To make matters worse, their next opponents were Liverpool, who handed them a pair of humiliating defeats (0-5 at Old Trafford and 4-0 at Anfield) last season, and most fans and experts predicted another embarrassing loss.
Much to everyone’s surprise, United pulled off a shocking victory in an entertaining game of football, at least for the United fans. They astutely recognized Liverpool’s high defensive line and missing profiles in midfield as weaknesses. Their pacey forwards took advantage of gaping holes in Liverpool’s defence to score goals on the counter-attack — a medium of attack which had been United’s bread and butter over the last few seasons.
In the next two weeks, United signed Casemiro, a much-needed central midfield reinforcement, and Antony as a right-sided forward. These players, along with two scrappy but important 1-0 wins over Southampton and Leicester City, reinvigorated the fanbase and the team, who have much to prove against a solid Arsenal side.
*A pressure is any action with the intention of winning the ball back
Despite a promising campaign, Arsenal endured a disappointing end to last season, losing 2 of their last 3 games and missing out on a 4th place finish by just 2 points. In remarkable contrast, Arsenal began this season with a vengeance, winning all 5 of their matches and collecting all 15 points on offer. Arsenal look a coherent and well-coached side and play an attractive and efficient style of football. Their new star striker, Gabriel Jesus, has helped the team score more goals, accumulating 3 goals and 3 assists in just 5 games.
The caveat to this early success is that they have not faced any teams in the top half of the table yet. Even so, these victories haven’t been insignificant by any means. Against Fulham, they conceded a goal before scoring 2 to win the game 2-1: last season, Arsenal picked up only 4 points from losing positions, rarely making comebacks as they did against Fulham. The game against Manchester United is the perfect opportunity to prove that Arsenal are prepared to retake their spot at the pinnacle of English football and become a formidable side that most aspire towards.
At 4:30 PM on a sunny day in Manchester at the Theatre of Dreams, Manchester United kicked off an enthralling game of Football against Arsenal. The next 90 mins were filled with controversial decisions, clamorous celebrations, and discontent as one team left the stadium empty-handed. Arsenal controlled the ball for large portions of the 90, ending the game with 60% of the possession to United’s 40%, and retained possession through clever pressing. In the 12th minute, they won the ball back near the halfway line, Bukayo Saka played a piercing pass through the United defence, and Gabriel Martinelli scored with a deft finish, as the Arsenal fans went wild in celebration. Unfortunately, the goal was disallowed due to a foul on Christian Eriksen in the build-up to the goal — a decision that divided opinion and became a significant talking point for the post-game discussions to follow.
Eriksen — a former Tottenham Hotspur player, Arsenal’s fierce North London rivals — himself went on to have an amazing game. He was somehow always in the right position to receive passes and made great decisions once on the ball. Arsenal’s high pressing style often leaves gaps in their defence, and a technician of Eriksen’s quality was often on hand to exploit this. In the 35th minute, the Dane played a long pass through the Arsenal backline, leading to a goal by new signing Antony, on his debut for the club. It was a wonderfully wholesome moment as he kissed the badge and celebrated with the fans, letting them know that despite his hefty price tag, he was there to stay.
Arsenal started the second half on a positive note, and 60 minutes in, their star-boy Bukayo Saka scored an equalizer, as goalkeeper David De Gea left his goal open. Level terms didn’t last long, as just 6 minutes later, United caught out Arsenal as academy kid Marcus Rashford scored on the counter-attack. Rashford’s Premier League debut came against the Gunners in 2016, as he announced himself on this stage with a brace that afternoon. After back surgery and a barren spell, his passion in the celebration signalled how much this goal meant to him. Arsenal’s carelessly high backline destroyed their hopes for this match - their defenders were stationed at the halfway line meaning United’s forwards had empty space to run into while attacking. Once again in the 75th minute, Eriksen and the electric-quick Rashford ran through the Arsenal defence to make it 3-1, and seal the result.
Arsenal played more passes, and created more goalscoring chances and shots than Manchester United (16:10). They were by no means terrible, but playing such a high defence against a pacey, counter-attacking side was clearly the wrong decision from manager Mikel Arteta.
Christian Eriksen was the best player on the pitch - his efficient and clever passes were key to all three United goals, and a reassuring win at home against arch-rivals. United fans celebrated into the night, letting Arsenal fans know that they had a reckoning coming for them.
What comes next?
Even after their nightmarish start to the season, United find themselves with 4 wins out of 6 games, just 3 points off the top of the Premier League table. They have also played two of the “Big 6” teams and convincingly beat them. Once again, there is hope and optimism at Manchester United, and dreams of finishing in the top 4 and qualifying for next season’s Champions League.
Arsenal fans are understandably disappointed, having lost despite a good performance away from home. United exposed chinks in their armour, and raised questions about Arsenal’s ability to perform against big clubs, which Mikel Arteta will have to come up with answers to. Arsenal may have left Old Trafford with their heads hung, but have the rest of a promising Premier League season to look forward to: they still remain top of the table and three points clear of United, but the result goes to show that this lead is anything but secure.