Manchester United 1-0 Arsenal
United produced their best performance of the season to make an important statement in the Premiership and, more significantly, secure a well-deserved three points against top of the table Arsenal, who failed to score in the league for the first time since March. Although the victory margin was slim, this was a thoroughly deserved win for the Reds, founded on hard work, discipline and no little quality, not the least of which was shown by Robin Van Persie who, this time, had no qualms about celebrating a crucial goal against his old club.
United took the initiative from the first minute and kept it throughout the first half. Phil Jones was again a pivotal figure in central midfield, picking off rare forays from Arsenal into the United half and denying Santi Cazorla and Ozil the time to create anything of note. United’s pressing and work-rate was excellent throughout the side, with Valencia and Smalling teaming up impressively on the right, Kagawa and Evra mirroring that on the right and Wayne Rooney once again coming back to supply an extra figure in midfield when the situation demanded it.
Not that it was needed very often in the first 45 minutes. More frequently, Rooney was to be found alongside Van Persie up front, their movement and positional sense a constant handful for the Arsenal defence and it was no surprise when the two combined to create the United goal, one of Rooney’s better corners finding the head of Van Persie, who’d timed his run into the box to perfection. After the goal, United’s first half dominance was interrupted only by two nasty-looking head injuries, the first involving Szczeny, after a clash with Phil Jones for which the United player received a ludicrous yellow card, the second a more serious one that forced Vidic off the pitch.
The injury necessitated a United change in the second half. Cleverley came on and Jones stepped back to replace the captain in central defence, his quality showing through in another part of the field as, along with Johnny Evans, he snuffed out more regular advancements from Arsenal into the home penalty area. Despite that, it was United who carved out the clearer chances. The best came when Rooney should have done better when he scuffed his shot wide of the post on the hour mark and when Chris Smalling failed to connect fully with a perfectly placed Van Persie free kick from the left with ten minutes to go.
In stoppage time, Arsenal produced their best chance of the game when a ball fizzed across the United box and substitute Bendtner was inches away from connecting. Had he done so, Arsenal would presumably have claimed the plaudits and that crucial quality of aspiring champions by nicking a point from a game from which they deserved nothing. As it was, United rightly walked away with the three points and moved within five of their opponents. With city, Chelsea and Spurs all dropping points this weekend, it means United are now right among the chasing pack and in a position, hopefully, to begin to mount a serious defence of our championship. Perhaps for the first time of the season, we’re beginning to look capable of it.