Manchester United (1) 3 Arsenal (1) 2
Old Trafford Stadium, Sir Matt Busby Way, Stretford, Manchester M16 0RA
Thursday, 2nd December 2021. Kick-off time: 8.15pm
(4-4-4-1) Aaron Ramsdale; Takehiro Tomiyasu, Ben White, Gabriel Magalhães, Nuno Tavares; Gabriel Martinelli, Thomas Partey, Mohamed Elneny, Emile Smith-Rowe; Martin Ødegaard; Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.
Substitutes: Kieran Tierney, Bukayo Saka, Alexandre Lacazette, Ainsley Maitland-Niles, Rob Holding, Nicolas Pépé, Albert Sambi Lokonga, Eddie Nketiah, Arthur Okonkwo.
Scorers: Emile Smith-Rowe (13 mins), Martin Ødegaard (54 mins)
Arsenal Possession Percentage: 45%
Referee: Martin Atkinson
Assistant Referees: Lee Betts, Richard West
Fourth Official: Craig Pawson
VAR Team at Stockley Park: VAR Andre Marriner; AVAR Matthew Wilkes
Those of us who are of a certain age were deeply saddened two days ago when the passing of Ray Kennedy was announced. He will always be remembered for scoring two of the most important goals in the history of Arsenal Football Club, just over fifty years ago. The first was on 22nd April 1970, when, as a substitute, he grabbed the valuable away goal in the first leg against Anderlecht in the Fairs Cup final in an unfortunate 1-3 defeat, a goal that proved to be crucial, when seven days later in front of an emotionally charged Highbury, we lifted our first European trophy in a remarkable 3-0 victory. The second one, was of course on 3rd May 1971 against Tottenham Hotspur at White Hart Lane, when his last minute header sealed not only the First Division title (our first since 1953) but also one half of the much coveted league and cup “double”, six days before defeating Liverpool in the FA Cup final at Wembley Stadium on a magical day for everyone associated with the club. Ray scored 71 goals in 212 matches before departing for Liverpool in July 1974 for £200,000 (worth just over £2,000,000 today), and will always be remembered by Arsenal supporters of my generation who were fortunate enough to witness his skills first-hand from the terraces at the “Old Place” as a striker with the strength and heart of a lion, aligned with a steely determination, and an unshakeable will to win. Maybe his biggest battle was with Parkinson’s Disease, the one match that Ray could never win, a painful debilitating condition that he battled with for more than half of his seventy years. The last occasion on which this writer saw him, was at his testimonial match at Highbury against Liverpool on a Sunday afternoon in April 1991, when, with great courage, he walked onto the very pitch that he graced so many times, to give a wave to the many spectators who turned up to contribute to his much needed benevolent fund. Good night old friend, rest in peace, and may your memory be a blessing.
Tonight’s match at Old Trafford, as far as we are concerned, is truly a battle for the fourth position in the Premiership; a victory for us, and we will leapfrog West Ham United; the alternative is far too painful to contemplate at the moment. All we can do is turn up, make a decent fist of things and see where it takes us. In our last match, we created good chances, moved the ball around well and passed crisply too; if the wide spaces of the Old Trafford pitch is kind to us tonight, then there is no reason why we cannot take three points back to London.
We kicked off proceedings tonight, utilising our now usual 4-4-1-1formation, and almost immediately we put the put the home side under pressure, by winning three consecutive corners within the first two minutes of the start. We then entered a period of true end-to-end football, with both teams trying each other out, which is something that we have seen in our recent Premiership matches. The determination in our chaps has become evident, and just before the tenth minute, an excellent move involving Thomas Partey and Emile Smith-Rowe led to a weak shot from Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, which was easily picked up by David de Gea in the United goal. After thirteen minutes, controversy reigned, when a corner came over from the right hand side, David de Gea fell to the floor with only his defender Fred next to him; Emile Smith-Rowe volleyed the ball into the empty net from twenty yards, which was the correct thing to do; he played to the whistle, which there wasn’t one, of course. After a period of much confusion, eventually Martin Atkinson pointed to the centre circle and the goal stood, thankfully, as there was no reason to disallow it at all. This certainly fired the United players up, and the game started to get more electric with every minute that went by. The home side started to press us back into our half, but our chaps stayed firm under difficult circumstances. Harry Maguire complained about the ball, so after thirty-two minutes, when the match was on a hiatus, the ball was changed. Further pressure from the home side continued, but still we held firm and managed to play our way out of trouble, which was good to see. Eight minutes before the break, a lovely touch from Martin Ødegaard into the path of Gabriel Martinelli which saw our man shoot the ball into the side netting, narrowly missing the goal by inches. Sadly, with half-time looming, Bruno Fernandes grabbed the equaliser for the home side from close range which gave Aaron Ramsdale no chance to stop the shot. In the four minutes injury time, we had one or two good chances, including a spirited one from a corner, but we went into the break honours even.
After an extremely eventful first half, the home side kicked off the second half, and almost immediately we sprang into action, and from a corner almost grabbed a second goal when a flicked header from Gabriel brought a reflex save from the United goalie. At the other end, our man Aaron Ramsdale made some fantastic saves from Cristiano Ronaldo and Marcus Rashford to keep us in the game. Unfortunately, seven minutes from the start of the second half, Cristiano Ronaldo scored the second Manchester United goal with a simple tap-in from fairly close range. A couple of minutes later, we replied in the best way possible when Gabriel Martinelli crossed a low ball from the right, and Martin Ødegaard was on hand to strike the ball beautifully into the corner of the United net to equalise the scores; cunningly, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang let the ball go through his legs in order for the ball to travel its direct path into the goal. Now we really do have a game here on our hands at Old Trafford, with extremely fast end-to-end play from both teams. Little battles all over the pitch now; Emile Smith Rowe has Diogo Dalot in his pocket, whilst Nuno Tavares and Takehiro Tomiyasu are finding both men and space out on the wings. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang ran onto a long ball from Nuno Tavares after sixty-five minutes, but his firm shot was pushed up and over the bar by the United goalie. Martin Ødegaard brought Fred down in a reckless challenge in our penalty area, the referee conulted the pitchside monitor on advice from the VAR team, and Cristiano Ronaldo scored from the spot. With twenty minutes of the match remaining, Bukayo Saka replaced Emile Smith-Rowe, and a few minutes later, Gabriel Martinelli ran over forty yards with the ball, slotted it to Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang who, rather than pass it back to him, took a shot himself which was easily saved by David de Gea. Why? Alexandre Lacazette and Eddie Nketiah replaced Martin Ødegaard and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang after seventy-nine minutes, and the changes not only rejuvenated us, but also made us change our shape slightly. Bukayo Saka was unlucky not to score when he tried to trick the United goalie with a soft shot which was caught easily, and then there came a period of close shaves from both sides, with some real heart-stopping moments. In the injury time period, we tried desperately to get that goal to redress the balance, but despite a sterling effort from some very tired legs, the scoreline stood.
Shame really, it didn’t have to end like this. We easily deserved a draw, if not more out of this battle at Old Trafford. Gabriel Martinelli was utterly superb out there tonight; utterly heroic at times, as was Emile Smith-Rowe and Aaron Ramsdale, Nuno Tavares and Takehiro Tomiyasu also. The best thing that Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang did tonight was letting the ball go through his legs for Martin Ødegaard’s goal; he should have really had another couple himself but is just not firing, and in hothouse matches such as these, all of your strikers need to be on top of their form all of the time. Nobody was booked, nobody was sent off, and at times we were just plain unlucky. Never mind, lots of good things we can take from this battle; we never gave up, we kept bouncing back despite some intolerable pressure from the United forwards, and we now know that we need a few more top class players in the next couple of transfer windows, and if that happens, who knows where we’ll be? Best foot forward, heads up, we are back in north-west England on Monday, tthis time at Everton in Liverpool. Let’s see what happens there.
Remember everyone, keep the faith, get behind the team and the manager, as this season is going to be crucial for our future success in all competitions. Stick with the winners. Our next match: Everton at Goodison Park on Monday, 6th December at 8.00pm (Premier League). Be there, if you can. Victoria Concordia Crescit.
Too Dearly Loved To Be Forgotten: Arsenal v Racing Club de Paris 1930-1962 by Steve Ingless (Rangemore Publications, ISBN 978-1-5272-0135-4) is now available on Amazon.