Important lessons learned from Manchester United’s 3-1 victory over Arsenal


Now that the weekend is over all the Manchester United fans have had time to digest and celebrate the Emirates FA Cup fourth-round victory against Premier League rivals Arsenal. With United drawing against Chelsea, at Stamford Bridge in the fifth round of the FA Cup, I found it prudent to look back at the game and discuss the main lessons learned from the match that the club should take heed of going forward.

Ashley Young is no longer good enough

Although United walked away from the game victorious it wasn’t so apparent that it would end that way. More specifically every time Arsenal made a break down their left flank United were exposed in a big way. I’m sure most fans who watched the game will tell you that they had a bad feeling every single time. The man to blame for the increased stress levels in fans was none other than Ashley Young, the winger converted into a full back, who United signed from Aston Villa all the way back in June 2011.

Being 33, which for most football players is about the time they move to lower league opposition or abroad to play in a much easier and less demanding league, he is old for a player whose game relies on running up and down the pitch constantly. Barring Cristiano Ronaldo there is no player who could keep up the same pace and intensity that the Premier League demands of its players and teams.

If he was a central defender or defensive midfielder this slowing down of pace wouldn’t be so much of a hindrance but part of his job is running from end to end on the attack and then back again once the ball is lost, and he simply doesn’t have the pace required anymore and is often left trailing his opponents and leaving the right flank severely exposed and with Paris Saint-Germain coming up does the club really want to expose that side so much?

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This isn’t the only problem with Young though as even when he is back to face the oncoming attack his reluctance to put in a tackle was detrimental to the team, and this is something Arsenal took full advantage of. They clearly identified United’s right side as the weak spot as 46% of their attacks came down United’s right flank, and in almost equal measure 45% of United’s attacks went down the left flank, which shows that both teams know that either offensively or defensively that side is the weakest.

And if the right side can’t be relied upon for attacking or defending then it’s time to replace Ashley Young in the starting lineup as there should be no weak side in a team the size of Manchester United. One option is Diogo Dalot, a summer purchase from Porto. When he has played it has been easy to see why he is so highly rated and his work ethic and ability are a joy to behold.

Whipping in a cross with accuracy, rather than Ashley Young’s failed attempts, is something that the club needs and if it means they can attack from both sides with success then it is most definitely worth putting him in the starting lineup with more regularity. With a few fixtures coming up that should be relatively easy then it would be nice to see Dalot given a chance to prove himself and make the spot on the right his own for the foreseeable future.

Romelu Lukaku works best in a support role

This might be quite controversial, especially considering United spent £75 million on him so that he could be the main striker at the club, but he would work best if he was there to support the attack instead of being the focus of it. One of the discussions about Lukaku during his first season at the club was his bad first touch, with rival fans often mocking him and some United fans also deriding him for what were heavy touches leading to the ball being lost and the attack ending.

During the 2017/18 season, Paul Pogba would have had many more assists had it not been for the miscontrol that Lukaku showed. It’s not just last season either as in the current season he has been seen to miscontrol more than his fair share of passes and lose the ball. One of the more comedic moments came during the 2-2 draw with Southampton in early December where not only did he miscontrol the ball but he ended up falling over and requiring medical treatment, which thankfully for the fans didn’t result in anything serious.

Another of the issues that have let him down this season is his finishing. During the 3-0 loss against Tottenham Hotspur at the beginning of the season Lukaku managed to round Hugo Lloris and have a chance to score what is seen as the easiest of all chances and an opportunity all strikers dream about, an open goal. Unfortunately for the fans and for the man himself, he managed to hit the ball wide, a chance the team were left to rue as it was 0-0 at the time and if he had scored then the game might have played out very differently.

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The miss at Tottenham wasn’t the only chance he has wasted either as there have been plenty of goalscoring opportunities that most strikers, barring Alvaro Morata, would have put away and with each one you could hear an audible groan around the world as every fan said the words that no striker wants to hear, ‘my Gran could have scored that.’ One last issue with Lukaku’s game is that he plays as a central striker but constantly drifts to the far right, he is then left with the unenviable task of cutting back into the box to make his way past the defence in order to score, an ability that he doesn’t quite have.

There has been one bright spot that has appeared when he drifted out wide that seems to have gone largely unnoticed and that is his ability to pick out a pass. As a striker, he knows exactly where to play the ball in order for another player to latch on in order to be in a good goalscoring position, and it has served him well on a few occasions. Against Arsenal in the FA Cup, it was even more evident as he pulled off two very good assists that left most fans in shock.

With Rashford on fire since his reinstatement to the starting lineup, in the central position, if Lukaku is to be a regular starter than it is best to place him on the right in a support role and allow him to drift centrally when he sees openings. If he is willing to play in that position and continues the way he played against Arsenal then he could very well end up the missing piece on the right that Manchester United have been missing all along.

Alexis Sanchez should be a bit-part player

It’s no secret that Sanchez hasn’t really impressed since his move from Arsenal to United, in a swap deal that saw Henrikh Mkhitaryan go the other way, a year ago when many believed Manchester City would be his destination. Being involved in 14 goals in 33 games with five goals and nine assists you would be excused for believing that it was a rather good return. However, as stated before stats don’t tell the full story.

Cutting a frustrated figure in most of the matches he has played viewers will have seen a man who tried too much and gained too little as he was responsible for a lot of attacks failing and he lost the ball far too much for a player who was supposed to be as skilled as he was. Having only played in three matches since Solskjaer took over he has not yet played a full 90 minutes, and although this could be attributed to his being out with injury for 13 days during January it is likely more to do with the man in charge wanting a more settled lineup and going with Rashford, Martial and Lingard as his front three instead, three players who give more mobility than Sanchez does.

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Alexis Sanchez is 30 years old and just as with Ashley Young, his pace seems to have dropped off, which is detrimental to the role he is supposed to be playing in the team. Even more shockingly he was rumoured to have been beaten in sprint tests by none other than Juan Mata, one of the slowest members of the squad. Now onto the positive, in his 3 appearances under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer he has managed to get two assists and one goal, the goal coming against his former club, much to the chagrin of their booing supporters.

This shows that he still has something to offer the club and can play a part as he is still quite sharp. But due to his age and loss of pace, he should be a bit player at most. With young and hungry players who can offer a lot more, he should get used to warming the bench and only playing in certain circumstances, if he were to be given starting minutes against lower clubs and brought on as a sub regularly with 15-20 minutes to go, when we are winning, then that is where he could be most effective.

These are the three main lessons learned from the FA Cup victory against Arsenal and if the club learns from these lessons then they will be in a very strong position come the start of the 2019/20 season and can even finish strong in the current campaign.

Written by Craig Holland-Greenfield

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