Last time United won away, David Moyes was still feeling relatively comfortable, if slightly agitated, in the managerial hot seat. These were, it has to be said, unlikely circumstances in which to record a first victory on the road this season: the Reds were even more injury-ravaged than usual against an Arsenal side that dominated possession for much of the game. If United have rarely looked capable of keeping a clean sheet this season (something they were minutes away from doing), the appearance of Mike Dean as referee only made the chances of an unlikely victory even more remote.
But a victory it was and, although it was secured with the Reds on the back foot for rather more of the match than the United faithful would ideally like, the spirit within the side that appeared to be growing in recent months was more than evident. Rooney was outstanding, Carrick classy and composed and Smalling blissfully free of the headless chicken tendencies displayed in the city game. And if a key hallmark of any successful side is to have a top class goalkeeper, David De Gea illustrated once again that he is becoming one of the very best.
The Reds held out against an early bombardment from Arsenal largely due to the efforts of the keeper, who made a number of stunning saves, especially a close range parry from Wilshere that thwarted what had looked a certain goal. The Arsenal midfielder was in the thick of the first half action, having a penalty claim following what looked a clear foul from Shaw waved away but also being lucky to stay on the pitch after what appeared an unprovoked lunge with his head into Fellaini’s chest. United’s plight wasn’t made any easier when Shaw was forced to limp off, to be replaced by Ashley Young.
Although the Reds eased their way back into the game before half-time, Arsenal were out of the blocks quickly in the second half, Welbeck cutting in from the left to force another save from De Gea and, shortly afterwards, Fellaini giving away the ball in midfield and enabling the home side to initiate another attack that thankfully came to nothing. However, just moments after Wilshere’s match had come to a premature end when he was forced to limp off the pitch, United took the lead. Fellaini’s menacing presence in the air caused confusion in the home defence and, when Szczcesny and Gibbs collided, the ball fell to Valencia, whose shot was deflected into his own net by the recovering Arsenal defender.
Arsenal responded by attacking in numbers and De Gea was forced into further saves from Sanchez and Santi Cazorla. However, United’s inexperienced defence, which featured both McNair and Blackett alongside Smalling, soaked up most of the pressure and the Reds always carried a threat on the break. One such break saw Rooney unfairly ruled offside but, with five minutes left, Di Maria found him with a perfectly weighted ball and the United captain made no mistake, firing decisively passed Martinez, who’d come on for the injured Szczesny in the wake of the first Reds goal. Bizarrely, the second goal had come from United’s first shot on target. It had been that kind of game.
Di Maria spurned a chance to make it three in stoppage time when, released by Rooney within his own half, he left the Arsenal defenders for dead before electing to try to be clever in his finish, with the result that his deft shot fell harmlessly wide. Such profligacy may have seemed permissible in the circumstances but when Giroud went up the other end and powered a lethal shot past De Gea, it left four anxious minutes remaining for the Reds to see the game out. When De Maria gave possession away, it allowed Arsenal to mount a further attack in the closing minutes but it came to a fitting end, a magnificent block from Carrick a fitting end to his performance and a fitting way to secure a hard-won three points.