Alexis Sanchez turns away after scoring Arsenal's third goal against Manchester United at the Emirates.
Catherine Ivill - AMA/Getty Images
Alexis Sanchez’s two goals inspired Arsenal to a thrilling 3-0 win against Manchester United – their first win against their rivals for four years and biggest since 1998.
There is a strange predictability to the Gunners’ unpredictability. No side, perhaps, is so good at following up a dismal result with a superb performance but, still, after the misery of Tuesday’s defeat to Olympiacos, this was a remarkable turnaround. Manchester United, league leaders going in to the weekend, were eviscerated, blown away by three goals in the first 20 minutes.
The sense had been that United were beginning to find the right balance, even if Louis van Gaal had expressed concern on Wednesday about how readily his side had squandered possession in the final minutes of the Champions League victory. Those worries were borne out here, as United were made to look leaden-footed by the sheer vim of Arsenal, their passing mannered, their players sluggish.
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Arsenal’s problem, for a long time, has been less their ability than their application. Their squad may lack depth in certain areas, but their first eleven is formidable if perhaps one-dimensional. What has held them back in recent years has been a lack of edge, an inability to salvage something from games that are going badly and a capacity to surrender positions that ought to be unassailable – a weird mix of complacency and inferiority. Against United, though, they got the early goal, relaxed and, for a while, the goals just kept coming.
Alexis Sanchez, after a slow start to the season, has hit form in startling fashion, following up his hat-trick at Leicester and his goal against Olympiacos with a further two. A brilliant afternoon for him was marred only by what appeared to be a groin injury forcing him off with nine minutes remaining. Sanchez’s combination with Theo Walcott and Mesut Ozil was devastating. So often Ozil can seem a passenger in games of this magnitude, but not here: within seven minutes, he had set up one goal and scored another, the central hub in a whirl of passes.
Both those early strikes were the result of Arsenal pressing, capitalizing on some surprising ponderousness from United. First, after six minutes, Aaron Ramsey slid a pass through for Ozil, whose cross was turned in at the near post by Sanchez. Then, within a minute, Ozil had played in Walcott, who paused, assessed his options and pulled the ball back for Ozil to steer into the bottom corner.
Then, on 20 minutes, came a throw deep in Arsenal territory, the ball worked forward to Walcott who switched it left for Sanchez. He danced infield and lashed a shot into the top corner, an incongruously brutal end to a move of some delicacy. It could easily have been four, Aaron Ramsey miscuing from close range after being picked out by Sanchez and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain hitting the bar in the final minute.
Arsene Wenger had been in tetchy mood all week, irritated by the questions over why he had left out Petr Cech for David Ospina on Tuesday. He ended the day second in the table, above United on goal difference, with Louis van Gaal facing criticism over an issue of selection. In Michael Carrick, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Morgan Schneiderlin, he has three of the best screening midfielders in the league. It’s usually a case of perming two from three but what was mystifying here was that he omitted Schneiderlin, the most naturally defensive and the quickest of the three. Carrick and Schweinsteiger were overrun, unable to deal with Arsenal’s pace and movement.
Van Gaal had to make changes at half-time and he did, bringing on Antonio Valencia and Marouane Fellaini for Matteo Darmian and Memphis Depay, switching to a 4-3-3 with Rooney on the left. Arsenal offered less threat in the second half, but there was little sense of menace from United either. There was one chance midway through the second half that Cech – who had made an excellent save from Anthony Martial towards the end of the first half – blocked at the feet of Schweinsteiger. Given Arsenal’s fragility perhaps even then there was a possibility of a turnaround had that gone in but the chance went and United’s hopes with it.
Cech, more generally, with his deft handling of crosses, projected an aura of authority, which of course only served to underline the oddity of Ospina’s selection ahead of him on Tuesday. It will take some time for Arsenal to get that Olympiacos defeat out of their system but this, at last, was the sort of performance that made Arsenal look potential title challengers.
United, meanwhile, suffered the sort of defensive meltdown that had been predicted for them all season. The only consolation, perhaps, is that every team with title aspirations have their flaws.