Arsenal were deserving winners for their brighter play though this was hardly a contest that teemed high quality. It means the Gunners have a first Premier League victory at Manchester United since 2006 and Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s 100th match as manager ended with a 24th reverse and lingering questions due to disappointing form: this was Arsenal’s first three points for a month to move them to 12 and eighth position, United have only seven from six outings and are a lowly 15th.
After a minute’s silence to mark Remembrance Day and the death of Nobby Stiles on Friday, Solskjær made two changes to the XI that trounced RB Leipzig 5-0 as Donny van de Beek and the suspended Anthony Martial were stood down for Scott McTominay and Bruno Fernandes.
Arsenal’s changes were also two from last weekend’s defeat to Leicester: Mohamed Elneny and Willian came in for David Luiz and Granit Xhaka in what was a 3-4-3 to United’s 4-4-2. The latter shape was a diamond that had Mason Greenwood and Marcus Rashford in attack. A high-speed start featured Arsenal claiming the first corner.
Willian swung this in from the left and Fernandes cleared. When the ball broke to Bukayo Saka his cross was met with a call to catch by David de Gea but Harry Maguire headed away in a moment of miscommunication.
At this juncture Greenwood and Rashford flitted across the field and interchanged positions. This opened up space and so it was that McTominay drove the ball in from the right, this rebounded to Fred, but his pass found only the Arsenal defender Gabriel. The Arsenal counter was on and in quick-time Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang was rolling in Saka for him to pull the trigger though on this occasion United escaped.
The visitors had emerged as the side with greater muscle and intent. Elneny tapped possession to Willian who tapped on to Hector Bellerín who ran along the right and fired in a cross that sliced through the home defence and barely missed Aubameyang’s slide. Next, the diminutive Saka illustrated what Arsenal were about by shrugging the far bigger McTominay off him as if a straw-weight.
Then, suddenly, United pounced. Aaron Wan-Bissaka fed Rashford and his curving pass removed Arsenal’s defence: the lethal Greenwood’s shot had Bernd Leno making a first save, the German keeper using his legs.
It was, though, a rare foray for Solskjær’s team. Pogba was soon hitting the ball away when Willian tried to sneak a free-kick in at the near post from the left after Wan-Bissaka fouled the lively Saka.
Elneny in central midfield was the Gunners’ hub, initiating play, often able to run with the ball to pin United back, much to the disquiet of their bench. When Alexandre Lacazette produced an air-shot right in front of De Gea, this was the latest shaky moment in a first half dominated by Arsenal. Another was a Willian-Aubameyang one-two that had the Brazilian skimming an effort off De Gea’s crossbar. Factor in a previous Victor Lindelöf intervention that, crucially, distracted Aubameyang, and Saka later spurning a header, and United were fortunate to be level at the interval.
Solskjær decided to allow the same players a chance to rectify proceedings as the second half began and there was a snap in McTominay’s tackle on Aubameyang and in the ensuing Fernandes shot.
This claimed a corner as, later, did some slick Greenwood footwork that teed up a Wan-Bissaka attempt which was deflected out. Yet Arsenal still threatened as with a quick attack when Fred dallied, Lacazette took over, and Aubameyang curled wide of De Gea but also the post.
At the other end there was a similar near-miss when Luke Shaw floated a free-kick to the far post and Harry Maguire’s header threatened to go in or find the lurking Greenwood but ultimately did neither.
Just after the hour Fred was replaced by Nemanja Matic, the Serb entering what had become a becalmed spectacle. The idea was surely to try and exert greater control via what was now a flatter three-man midfield with Fernandes ahead.
More puzzling was what went through Pogba’s head when clipping Bellerín as the Spaniard moved away from goal. This was in the area and Mike Dean pointed to the spot, the referee having an easy decision. Aubameyang smashed the penalty in with aplomb for what proved to be the winner.
Solskjær’s next changes were Edinson Cavani for Greenwood and Van de Beek for Fernandes, Pogba somehow surviving. Perhaps he hoped the Frenchman would wake from his half-slumber but this was not to be.
Arsenal had arrived with doubts about their creativity and departed having eased them with a statement victory. Instead, despite a late rally in which Matic drove at goal and Van de Beek’s effort was hit onto the post by Elneny via Leno’s head, it is United who are left pondering where precisely their league campaign is going.