Manchester United vs. Arsenal: Youngsters impress in 2-1 loss

   A few years ago, there would have been a lot at stake in a Premier League match between Arsenal and Manchester United. On Sunday, there was no such tension in the air because the Red Devils had secured a Top 4 finish while the Gunners had already dropped out of the Top 4 race a few weeks ago. In fact, both clubs have set their sights on different competitions: Mourinho wants to win the FA Cup whereas Wenger is still chasing his first European trophy.

Manchester United vs. ArsenalPhoto credit: http://www.arsenal.com

Wenger made 8 changes to the side that drew 1-1 with Atletico Madrid on Thursday with only Ospina, Bellerin and Xhaka retaining their starting spots. The manager obviously wanted to give a break to some key players before the second leg in Madrid. You can’t blame Wenger for such a pragmatic approach. Last season, Mourinho also heavily rotated in a game against Arsenal that was sandwiched between the two legs of a Europa League tie.

At kickoff, the Gunners looked like a makeshift team with 3 academy players (Mavropanos, Maitland-Niles and Nelson), 4 benchwarmers (Ospina, Chambers, Kolasinac and Iwobi) and 4 regular starters (Bellerin, Xhaka, Mkhitaryan and Aubameyang). The heavy rotation helps explain why they struggled to create chances. Xhaka led Arsenal players with just 2 key passes while Bellerin, Maitland-Niles, Mkhitaryan, Nelson and Aubameyang had 1 key pass each.

Up front, Aubameyang got very little service. His only scoring chance came in the 36th minute when he met a cross from Bellerin for a tame header straight at De Gea. Iwobi was supposed to pull the strings in the No. 10 role but he showed again a lack of end product with 0 shot, 0 key pass, and 0 cross. The Nigeria international can be very frustrating to watch. He can produce one great performance and then look completely anonymous in the next five games. Iwobi will be turning 22 in a couple of days. It’s time for him to show more consistency and maturity in his game.

Vulnerable on crosses

Starting on the left wing, Nelson played with more confidence than against Southampton. The academy starlet had 2 goal attempts and made 1 key pass. In the 15th, Nelson cut inside only to hit a tame effort that didn’t trouble De Gea. And in the 44th, he headed wide a cross from Aubameyang. Nelson is more clinical with the U23 team but there’s no shame for a youngster to lack a bit of composure at the top level. There’s obviously less time and less space in the Premier League. I believe Nelson needs more exposure to such games in order to adjust to the pace and physicality of the Premier League. Wenger yanked Nelson off in the 64th to send on Welbeck, who tested De Gea with a long-range strike in the 69th.

Arsenal’s consolation goal came from Mkhitaryan, who was making his return from a knee injury. Mkhitaryan didn’t look 100 percent fit but he managed to beat De Gea with a low drive in the 51st. Xhaka capitalized on some poor communication between Matic and Herrera to win the ball back and feed Mkhitaryan, who fired through the legs of Lindelof. Mkhitaryan was less fortunate with his other goal attempts: he missed the target in the 20th and curled a shot wide in the 55th.

The Red Devils didn’t look impressive on Sunday but they exposed Arsenal’s vulnerability on crosses. Pogba led a counterattack in the 16th and picked out Lukaku, who made a cross for Sanchez. The Chile forward struck the post with his header but the rebound fell into the path of Pogba, who tapped in to open the scoring. Xhaka made the first mistake on that play by diving in, Bellerin made the second by not marking Sanchez, and Maitland-Niles made the third by not tracking Pogba’s run inside the box. Young nearly doubled the lead in the 41st with a cross-shot that hit the woodwork.

Mavropanos’ Premier League debut

Spotting Arsenal’s weakness on crosses, Mourinho replaced Lingard in the 64th with Fellaini, who played as a second striker and proved an aerial threat inside the box. The first warning came in the 88th when Bellerin failed to stop a cross from Martial. Fellaini got ahead of Mavropanos only to head the ball onto the post. Three minutes later, Fellaini outjumped Xhaka to head a cross from Young into the top corner. Arsenal’s defensive organization was poor on that play. The nearest Gunner was 20 yards away from Young.

Xhaka was involved in both United goals. Maybe no Gunner could have done anything to prevent Fellaini from scoring in stoppage time, but Xhaka’s decision-making on the opener was poor. Xhaka also gifted the Red Devils a scoring chance in the fourth minute with a sloppy pass to Chambers. And he was booked in the 24th for pulling back Lingard.

In his Premier League debut, Mavropanos had a decent game. He looked comfortable on the ball and showed good composure. Mavropanos had 0 turnover and a passing accuracy of 91.9% compared to 3 turnovers and a passing accuracy of 75% for Chambers, according to whoscored.com. His only moment of madness was a risky pass in a congested midfield that was intercepted in the 36th.

The staff definitely has some food for thought this summer. Should they sell Chambers to get some cash that will be used in the transfer market? The club has spent 4 years trying to develop Chambers only to see his obvious limitations. Mavropanos has more potential than Chambers. It would make more sense for the staff to invest their time in the Greek defender.

That defeat was a useful rehearsal before the Madrid game. You can bet that Costa will play in the second leg. And the former Chelsea striker is a bigger threat in the air than Gameiro. If the Gunners fail to stop dangerous crosses again, Costa and Griezmann could do a lot of damage. Mkhitaryan’s return from injury also gives Wenger more options for his starting lineup. Ramsey, Xhaka, Ozil and Lacazette will probably start on Thursday, which means that Mkhitaryan, Wilshere and Welbeck should compete for the two remaining spots behind the striker.

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