Manchester United 3-2 Arsenal: Emile Smith Rowe’s controversial opener rocked the hosts but they fought back valiantly as Ralf Rangnick watched from the stands
If you are already bored of the interminable debate over whether Cristiano Ronaldo is a help or a hindrance to Manchester United, bad news, this is just the beginning. It is not going away any time soon, partly because he is not going away any time soon either. Just as Old Trafford prepares to enter the gegenpressing era and even more attention is paid to what he does off the ball, he keeps winning matches with what he does on it.
That might ignore some of the particular nuances in the arguments over Ronaldo’s role in this team, on both sides of the warring houses, and it certainly does not tell the full story of this ding-dong, madcap 3-2 win over Mikel Arteta’s Arsenal in what was Michael Carrick’s final game as caretaker and probably his final night as a United employee, but it is a debate that is set to run and run. And ultimately, only one person’s opinion matters.
Can Ronaldo work in Ralf Rangnick’s ultra-intense gegenpressing system? United’s interim manager will have to judge that on what he sees, and what he witnessed from his seat in the directors’ box is what Old Trafford regulars have watched all season long: a United performance pockmarked by evenly distributed moments of brilliance and ineptitude, but a game ultimately won by Ronaldo’s goals.
A fixture that was once English football’s standard-bearer has become a little frayed around the edges in recent years but what this meeting of two modern rivals lacked in quality, it made up for in entertainment. Arsenal were the better team at points, decidedly second-best at others. The same was true of United. Either could have won it on the balance of play. The team with Ronaldo finishing their chances did.
The two goals to make a difference between victory and defeat were not spectacular – a tap-in and a penalty, in fact – but the numbers behind them are. These were his 800th and 801st in career for club and country. There are many questions over the move to bring him back but he keeps answering them by often being the one to make the ultimate difference.
Even before kick-off, and on the eve of a bold new beginning for one of these clubs, this game struggled to escape its storied past. The travelling Arsenal supporters enjoyed a chorus of “We won the league in Manchester,” harking back to a time when Smith Rowe was barely out of his Pampers.
Around the same time, part of the Stretford End unfurled a banner reading ‘STANDARDS’ underneath images of Eric Cantona, Roy Keane and Bryan Robson. But then such is the heady cocktail of angst and nostalgia at United these days, there was also a tribute to the club legend who was held ultimately responsible for those standards slipping of late.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was hailed with a banner of his own draped across the Stretford End on this first Old Trafford outing since his departure, proving as if it was ever in any real doubt that his legend will rightly endure. And the tributes did not end there, either, as United fell behind in the calamitous fashion that defined the Norwegian’s final days.
This was the worst goal that United have conceded in, say, two weeks, the ninth in a row in the league at Old Trafford without a response at the other end in fact, a first in the Premier League era. It came when, while attempting to defend an Arsenal corner, the much-maligned Fred trod on De Gea’s ankle, leaving his goalkeeper down hurt on the ground.
As United failed to properly clear their lines and De Gea stayed down, Smith Rowe laced the ball from the edge of the area into an unguarded net. Referee Martin Atkinson had not blown his whistle before the ball crossed the line. The television replays confirmed that, as De Gea had been brought down by his own teammate, Atkinson had no reason to. The goal would stand.
United, led by De Gea, argued their case to no avail. Rangnick probably wondered quite what he had got himself into, not only then but for the majority of a first-half where the players he must mould and morph into top-four contenders looked like anything but. Even at their worst under Solskjaer, though, this team proved they can pull a goal out of nothing.
Much has been said and written about Rangnick’s principles and his belief that a team is at their most dangerous immediately after recovering possession. There were eight seconds between Harry Maguire’s interception of a stray Ben White clearance and Bruno Fernandes’ finish past Aaron Ramsdale to equalise, with some sublime Jadon Sancho footwork and a neat back-heeled assist from Fred in between.
United emerged for the second half with more purpose and Ronaldo, who had spent much of the first half shooting from inopportune positions, began to improve in his decision-making. He had already gone close shortly after the restart when, two minutes later, he found space inside the six-yard box to convert Marcus Rashford’s low cross for his 800th career goal.
Arsenal were level almost immediately, with Gabriel Martinelli founds in acres of space out on the right, with enough time on his hands to set Martin Odegaard up for a low, drilled shot that narrowly avoiding hitting his team-mate Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and creeped inside the far post, just out of De Gea’s desperate reach.
In one of the night’s recurring themes though, Odegaard went from hero to zero, conceding a penalty with a reckless challenge on the equally up-and-down Fred. Fernandes had assumed spot-kick duties up until now this season but not anymore. Ronaldo took the ball, placed it down and struck true and hard down the middle of Ramsdale’s goal. Ronaldo would not be denied. He rarely is, Ralf.