An injury time header from Maroune Fellaini ensured that Arsene Wenger’s final game against Manchester United ended in defeat.
With one eye on the upcoming Europa League semi-final against Atletico Madrid, Wenger named a youthful team for his last game against United. Jose Mourinho responded with arguably his strongest lineup.
The Red Devils took the lead in the 16th minute, as former Gunner Alexis Sanchez’s header was blocked onto the post, with Paul Pogba on hand to poke home the rebound. Arsenal responded well, and in the second half, Wenger’s side got their equaliser through Henrikh Mkhitaryan, the former United man.
As the game appeared to be drifting towards a draw, United stepped up the intensity. First, Marcus Rashford put the ball in the net from an offside position, before Fellaini looped a header past Ospina, leaving Wenger with one more bitter memory at the Theatre of Dreams.
Here are five things we learned from the game:
Wenger made the right call
It may have detracted from the overall quality and intensity of the game, but Wenger made the right call by resting most of his starters. Only Hector Bellerin, Granit Xhaka, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and David Ospina can be expected to play a part in Madrid on Thursday, and though Wenger would have loved to leave Old Trafford with one last win, he has his priorities straight.
If Arsenal want to stay in touch with the rest of the top sides in England, winning the Europa League is a must. It will give them Champions League football once more, allow them to attract better players in the summer, and will give Wenger the chance to sign off on a high. The youngsters did not play poorly here, but from the moment the team sheets were released, it was clear where Wenger’s attention was focused. It will have been well worth it if they managed to overcome Atletico.
United will be sweating over Lukaku’s fitness
Lukaku had to be substituted off after Konstantinos Mavropanos caught his ankle during a challenge five minutes into the second half. The big striker’s fitness will be a real concern for Mourinho’s side, with the FA Cup final against Chelsea on the horizon.
Lukaku was heavily involved in United’s opening goal, floating in a lovely cross for Sanchez. It was another key involvement for a player who has become one of Mourinho’s trusted on-field generals. Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial are electrifying attackers, but neither provide the sheer physicality of Lukaku, and tend to work better in tandem with the Belgian. United will be hoping this injury setback is not serious.
Mkhitaryan makes history
On his return on Old Trafford, Henrikh Mkhitaryan won out in the battle of the January transfer signings. The Armenian showed flashes of his silky best, skipping past challenges with deft touches and sharp turns. He outshone the player that replaced him at Old Trafford, Alexis Sanchez, and though his goal celebration was muted, it must have felt fantastic to get one over his old club.
Driving at the United defence on the hour mark, Mkhitaryan cut inside, and shot through Victor Lindelof’s legs from the edge of the box. David de Gea was unsighted, and could only watch as the ball bobbled into the corner. With that goal, Mkhitaryan became the first player to score for and against United in the same season. If he keeps this kind of performance level going, Arsenal will have a potent weapon as a part of their forward line.
Xhaka blows hot and cold
Granit Xhaka has been an odd signing for Arsenal. Touted as a solution to the lack of steel in midfield, he has been shoddy in his own half. This was on display again for United’s first goal, recklessly diving into an attempted tackle as Pogba strode towards the Arsenal box. The Frenchman saw this, casually sidestepped, and laid the ball off to Lukaku. Xhaka was left sprawling, and Arsenal could not recover.
In the second half, though, Xhaka redeemed himself. Ander Herrera and Nemanja Matic both hesitated on a loose ball, and the Swiss midfielder pounced, playing in Mkhitaryan who scored. This epitomised Xhaka’s season, one where no one is sure if he’s going to play well or not. Xhaka’s inconsistency feeds into Arsenal’s issues in the middle of the park, and represents one of the many problems the Gunners need to fix over the summer.
Consistent inconsistency for United
The stunning turnaround against Manchester City was followed up by a tepid loss to West Brom. The commanding performance against the best team Spurs could put out at Wembley was followed by a curiously slow performance against Arsenal’s reserves. It has been the story of the season for United.
They seem like a team that is capable of so much more, yet they appear to often be playing within themselves. It often takes the concession of a goal to spark them to life, and to their credit, they did snatch a last-gasp winner. But this season will end with a feeling of what-if for United, as they constantly appear to take two steps forward and one step back.