LONDON — Manchester United, a team that even in the post-Sir Alex Ferguson era used to come to this ground and find a way to win in spite of themselves, depart the Emirates Stadium today wondering how on earth they had been on the receiving end of a 3-1 defeat at the hands of Arsenal.
Manchester United were some way from faultless, particularly in their baffling early attempts to protect their left flank, but for the first time in a while they showed signs of implementing the sort of ideas that Ralf Rangnick had arrived with a mandate to implement. In moments, Cristiano Ronaldo, Jadon Sancho and Bruno Fernandes became the snapping dervishes in the press that modern forwards are supposed to be.
“Whenever we pressed Arsenal today we were causing problems for them but we just didn’t do it often enough,” said Rangnick. “We should do it more often with more intensity, with more players involved. If all the players sprint against the ball it has a higher effect than it has today.”
These were hardly the carefully constructed pressing traps of a Jurgen Klopp side, rather more the front four simply going man to man with Arsenal’s defense when they looked to play out from the back. Burst through that line and you were unlikely to face further waves of pressure, indeed when a quick change of direction took Ben White beyond his man early in the second half he seemed baffled to see huge tracts of land ahead of him.
But the front four did at least look like they knew what they were doing. For the first time since mid-February Ronaldo won a tackle in a Premier League match, chasing opponents into the defensive third. Jadon Sancho recovered possession on 10 occasions, the most he has managed in a Premier League match since returning to England.
United had plugged one gap but in doing so chasms appeared elsewhere on the pitch. Martin Odegaard was able to deliver a man of the match performance and doom Alex Telles to a hellish first half because there was no one to stop him doubling up with Bukayo Saka down the right channel. Mohamed Elneny is hardly the most mobile of midfielders but in the second half he breezed past Nemanja Matic on at least one occasion.
Still there is something to be said for the panic that Arsenal faced in seeing such stellar attacking talent getting into their grills. Gabriel and Nuno Tavares seemed gripped in fear, convinced that if they lost the ball it would be a short trip to a goal conceded.
It was in those moments of pressing intensity that United might have won this game, and yet they could not make it last. Instead a combination of VAR decisions that did not favor them, an altogether less impressive defensive display behind the front four and one moment of magic by Granit Xhaka leave the Red Devils seem destined for a season in which they will not achieve their bare minimum target of Champions League qualification.
It is, he conceded, “not very realistic to dream and speak about top four”. That leaves the question of how he will keep his players motivated. For some the watching eye of Erik ten Hag from afar might prompt an upswing in performance yet there are plenty of others with nothing left to prove to anyone at Old Trafford; they will be gone by the time the incoming manager takes charge.
Matic numbers among them and was too easily blown by. Telles did not play like a left back determined to give Ten Hag a headache and Luke Shaw a rival. The same could be said of Diogo Dalot on the opposite flank. Too many United heads dropped as soon as Xhaka had thumped Arsenal back into a two goal lead.
At that time Jesse Lingard entered the fray, offering precious little as he winds down his United career. Speaking ahead of the game, former United midfielder Paul Scholes claimed that Lingard had described the dressing room atmosphere to him as “a disaster”. That Rangnick could not even bring himself to argue that he was presiding over a happy squad spoke volumes. Instead one could infer from his comments that some players had called it a day more than a month ago when their last hope of silverware went up in smoke.
“The defeat against Atletico [Madrid] in the Champions League destroyed a lot of hopes and emotions of the players, which I can understand,” Rangnick said. “That very moment caused some negative reaction within the group.”
When Scholes’ comments were put to him, he said: “I don’t know, you have to ask Jesse Lingard. After games like today, or the game at Liverpool, or Everton, there is massive disappointment in the locker room for sure. This is normal, it would be rather a problem if that was different.
“I think the whole group get on reasonable with each other. I’m not daring to say they get on well with each other. I don’t see that there’s an issue with regard to the atmosphere in the locker room.”
He added that “quite obviously it’s hard to keep the energy level high,” insisting it was a “question of pride and honor” that his side ended the season in a strong fashion with precious little to play for. Perhaps Rangnick can use that time to bed in more of the pressing football that Ten Hag will expect his players to be conversant with when he takes the helm. There is something to be said for setting those building blocks for next season.
It is clear, however, that there are those in the squad for whom that is insufficient motivating force.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism