Poor defending dooms Manchester United as Arsenal move on to FA Cup semis

Arsenal marched past Manchester United and into the FA Cup semifinals at Old Trafford Monday night, with former Red Devil Danny Welbeck scoring the critical goal to send the holders into the semifinals. Arsenal now will play either Bradford City or Reading in the semifinals, and will set an appearance record in so doing, with 28 all-time stretching back to 1906. Bradford and Reading went to a replay after a scoreless draw on Saturday afternoon.

The pick of the round even before a ball was kicked Monday night, the game lived up to its billing as a fast-paced if rough encounter that had plenty of drama. Certainly, referee Michael Oliver was kept busy, dishing out nine cards, including a red, and Manchester United will now draw a fine from the FA for racking up seven of them on the night. United was also booked twice for diving, and will not be pleased that star Angel Di Maria was sent off after he confronted the referee; the Argentine grabbed the official’s shirt and was immediately told to leave the premises.

That did not diminish what had been an enthralling first half, full of endeavor. But it will leave a sour taste in many people’s mouths after a second half that seemed far dirtier than it needed to be from United, especially considering the talent they have on offer. And, considering Arsenal’s grim record — this is just the second win in 16 games across all competitions against United — the performance was a bit shocking.  

Arsenal got on the board first, and perhaps a bit against the run of play. Manchester United had not looked entirely solid in the back, but given space to come forward, they had pressed their advantage in the first half. That opened up a ton of space on the near flank and Arsenal pounced into it. With space opening up in front of Mesut Ozil, a chance seemed to flash for the Gunners. Apparently spurning it, Ozil squared to Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who then dragged three defenders with him as he raced towards the near sideline. That drew Chris Smalling out of position, and Nacho Monreal stepped into the space. Oxlade-Chamberlain simply chipped the ball over the pack, Monreal took a lash with his left foot, and David De Gea was beat.

But Manchester United did not wait long to draw level. Pouring down the field, Angel Di Maria saw Wayne Rooney with a yard of space against Laurent Koscielny and whipped in an inch-perfect cross. Rooney made no mistake, rising high above the defender to blow the ball past Wojciech Szczesny.

Ander Herrera and Luke Shaw were sacrificed at the half for Phil Jones and Michael Carrick as Louis van Gaal tried to freshen up his side, and for a time, the tactic worked, with United compressing the field and denying Arsenal the space to pass into. But things came apart in one moment on a bizarre play. On a harmless outlet from Szczesny, Antonio Valencia made a dreadful decision, passing the ball back to De Gea recklessly. Danny Welbeck pounced on it, tipped the ball through De Gea’s legs at the edge of the area, and rounded him to score with ease.

De Gea was then called upon to make a huge save on a volley from Santi Cazorla, who volleyed a shot on goal after Alexis had been slipped in behind the line.

Things went from bad to worse for United in the 76th minute when Angel Di Maria dove under slight attention from Aaron Ramsey right in front of referee Michael Oliver. He then grabbed hold of the referee’s shirt, and was shown a red card, reducing United’s ranks for the final 15 minutes. Adnan Januzaj would also receive a caution for the same offense, rounding Nacho Monreal and then theatrically flinging himself to the turf.

After the match van Gaal addressed Di Maria’s sending off:


"In Spain [Di Maria] knows that he doesn’t touch the referee, but that is also in his emotion. I’ve already spoken with him, he knows my opinion but also I have to see on the video. I think he’s touched the referee and that’s forbidden in every country, so he has no excuses," said van Gaal.

There were still some nervy late moments for Arsenal, particularly with Marouane Fellaini banging his way around the penalty area. De Gea would be called once again to stop Alexis’ low shot on an acute angle, but with that chance the game was over and won for the visitors.

Credit should be given to Arsenal for showing some guts after some poor performances in big games. But real questions will be asked of United, who look a team that simply doesn’t play the "United way." Instead, fouling early and often, and rarely looking confident, they crashed out of this tournament thanks to their own, self-inflicted failings. In a sense, Arsenal didn’t win this one as much as United lost it, and one wonders what might have happened if United had simply showed up and played.

Overall, Wenger was more tempered in his reaction to Arsenal’s win, looking ahead to their next test.

"Last year we played a tricky game at Wembley in the semifinal and we expect that again. Tonight I thought we played well and deserved to win the game. We had to start without apprehension and play at a a high pace and we did that well. … We live in the real world and want to compete in every competition. This result can give us good morale for the Premier League and the game in Monaco."