Manchester United progressed to the fifth round of the FA Cup with an entertaining win over Arsenal. As is becoming the norm under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, they scored a few and could have had more, looked ropey as hell in defence, and most importantly seemed to be having fun. That’s eight wins in a row. This audition is going very well.
The first half hour was encouraging for both teams, if largely chance-free. As with the game against Spurs, United were looking to play on the break: here it was Romelu Lukaku and Alexis Sanchez out on the wings, with Jesse Lingard moseying around in the middle. Arsenal, meanwhile, were trying to unpick United down their left, with Alex Iwobi up against Ashley Young.
Then, after no goals in 30 minutes, we got two in three. The first came after good work down the right from Lingard. Lukaku drifted inside and shaped to shoot, before sliding a beautiful disguised pass through Arsenal’s defensive line. Well, defensive smear. Sanchez took the ball around Cech, then clipped home from a narrow angle.
A few seconds later, it was time for some proper nostalgia: United scored that goal they always against Arsenal, carving them apart on the break. Ander Herrara strolled across the midfield from left to right, then fired it up to Lukaku on the wing. He squared for Lingard, who soft-shoe shuffled it home. Arsenal had some defenders nearby, probably.
But just when you thought that Arsenal were going to fall apart, United stepped up to remind everybody that neither of these teams can defend. As half-time approached, Iwobi slipped Ramsey in down the left, and he wriggled down to the touchline before crossing low. Lindelof couldn’t intercept, Lacazette could only deflect it onwards, but Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang was on hand to tap into an empty net.
This was the sign for United’s defence to disengage their brains and start running around, waving their hands in the air and shouting “Eek”. Arsenal spent the last few minutes of the first half camped on the edge of United’s box, passing and probing and poking. Only fortune and and flailing limbs preserved United’s lead going into the break.
More flailing limbs were required after the break as well: with less than a minute of the second half gone, Sergio Romero had to channel his inner De Gea to claw a close-range Ramsey header onto the roof of the net. Apparently United hadn’t spent half time .
Once again, the game fell into a familiar pattern: Arsenal dominating possession and trying to crack United’s defence open with quick little passing on the edge of the box; United sticking legs in where they could, just about hanging on, and then fizzing forward on the counter.
This proceeded until Lukaku accidentally kicked Laurent Koscielny in the head, at which point the game came to a standstill while Arsenal’s medical staff attempted to glue his head back together. After eight minutes of treatment he went off, Arsenal’s second defensive injury of the evening.
United’s first changes came with 20 minutes (plus considerable stoppage time) to go: Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford came on for Lukaku and Sanchez, who left with a goal and two assists between them. Whether this is a substitution that we would have seen under Jose Mourinho is left as an exercise for the reader.
Arsenal kept on applying pressure, with the well-rested Mesut Ozil adding a touch of guile, and United kept on just about managing to stick a head, or a leg, or in Ashley Young’s case an arm out just in time. (He got booked for that.) And up the other end, promising breaks kept threatening to click into place, only to founder on a missed pass here or a false decision there.
Then came United’s third goal, which oddly enough came from another break that didn’t quite go to plan. After surging into midfield, Pogba elected not to pass to Rashford, instead shooting from the edge of the box. That might have been the wrong decision. But Cech’s save bounced out to Martial’s feet, and he had the whole net to aim at. He didn’t miss.
It wouldn’t be United-Arsenal without a bit of a scrap, and Rashford and Saed Kolasinac went head to head, sparking some pushing and pulling and a lot of holdmeback, holdmeback. Jesse Lingard — on a booking, and moderately fired up — charged over to see if anybody wanted a fight, got a coin thrown at him, and was then quickly substituted for his own good.
Had the gap been just one goal, the sight of a big round 10 on the fourth official’s board might have been the cue for another spell of untrammelled panic. But with a two goal cushion, United kept their cool, and found a nice balance between eating up time and probing for a fourth. Arsenal, meanwhile, picked up a couple of bookings as the stadium emptied.
Overall, another imperfect victory of pleasing promise. The performances of Sanchez and Lukaku were particularly encouraging, and if both are able to find their way back to usefulness, then all of a sudden United have a squad again. And if it’s possible to get bored of scoring breakaway goals at the Emirates, well, we certainly haven’t got there yet.