2024-25 SECOND HALF : F*CKING ARSENAL (AGAIN)
Running away with the league has become commonplace on one side of Manchester, with the league just about in the bag (barring a massive collapse) the team has been focused on winning the Champions League again. Bruno Fernandes continues his campaign to keep the Ballon d’Or in Manchester, albeit back in his hands, as the team faces almost token resistance on a weekly basis.
MATCH(ES) OF THE SECOND HALF
Premier League (A) ; Arsenal 3 - United 2
Speaking of token resistance, United may have been lulled into a false sense of security early in March. A 5-1 win over Leicester in the Carabao Cup final and a 8-0 Emirates Cup win against Sheffield Wednesday, combined with a massive lead in the league, saw a well rested United make their way to the Emirates to play a hungry Arsenal side. The Gunner were sitting behind Spurs for 3rd and a tight race for that final Champions League slot meant that Unai Emery desperately needed points against the worst possible opponent. On paper this looked like a lost cause, an injury to Kieran Tierney meant Lucas Hernández was playing LWB in a 5-3-2 that hoped to clog up the middle while blunting United wide. Emery was going to need to find a way to piece together a defense against the league’s most powerful offense, luckily for him Byron Caicedo was more than willing to help him out.
Emery signalled his intent immediately and Krzysztof Piatek was just the player to help him pull it off. With United occupied wide, and Caicedo being pressed into defensive duties more than he would like to, it exposed Pochettino’s back line to some Route One tactics. Piatek would take up residence a little wide of the LCB (Dayot Upamecano) and behind King Holland on the wing, giving him ample room to receive long balls and try to beat Upamecano. Some bad defending, with Holland front and center, allowed Piatek to score from inside the goal area just 9’ into the game. That’s when the internal drama started, with Caicedo giving Holland an earful despite putting forth almost no effort to defend. An Ousmane Dembélé cross from the end line would bang around in the box before finding Caicedo lounging on the back post for an easy goal, pulling United level 1-1. Despite the issues wide, especially on the left as Caicedo’s poor defending put extra pressure on Holland, Florentino Luís would feed Mason Greenwood in close at 28’ to pull ahead and seemingly kill Arsenal’s chances at staying in 4th. That would change in stoppage time before the half when Shoya Nakajima would make a wonderful diagonal run, cutting under Jean-Clair Todibo and just behind the overtaxed Holland for a clear shot from the right corner of the goal area. The ball would find the far post and deflect in to pull Arsenal level 2-2 and leave David De Gea looking upset as he walked off the pitch.
Maybe the team didn’t care, or maybe Pochettino wasn’t interested in changing his approach, but Arsenal were able to keep doing what they were trying to do. Piatek was making Upamecano work hard all first half and at 56’ it finally paid off, Antony would boot the ball up the middle to Piatek from inside Arsenal’s half and the Polish striker would get the crease he needed to slot one in with Upamecano running behind him. Up 3-2 at 56’ against this United team wasn’t safe by any measure, but the combination of poor defending and the issues on the left side meant that United just didn’t have their usual push on offense. A few instances of finger pointing and a sideline chat with Pochettino made the Caicedo-Holland saga nearly as visible as the presumptive league Champions melting down. Time expired and Arsenal’s 3-2 win ended United’s chances at an invincible season, but the story quickly became Caicedo kicking a water bottle carrier into the stands followed by an ill-advised interview after the game.
“When we don’t do our jobs, when King [Holland] doesn’t do his job, we are *expletive*, and I can’t be expected to make up for it.”
Inside sources report that Pochettino was significantly more upset about that outburst than the result. Ever since Ole Gunnar Solskjaer took over the club has been very good about controlling what comes out of the team, that interview was not part of that message and the club was likely to punish Caicedo on some level.
Champions League (N) : Juventus 1 - Manchester United 3
Another season, another trip to the Champions League final. Maurizio Sarri had finally brought Juventus back to the final, but they did it as handy underdogs. United beat Barcelona 6-1 in the first leg of the Quarter Final and that was the last time they had conceded in the Champions League. An 8-1 aggregate win over Barcelona and 5-0 over Bayern Munich to reach the final made Juventus’ grind to the final look like a trip through hell. Sarri would drag his squad through three straight rounds where away goals or penalties would be needed. Penalties against Arsenal after trading 1-0 road wins, an ugly 3-3 aggregate win over Atlético Madrid, and a dull 1-1 series against Real Madrid would see Juventus win by holding the visitors to a 0-0 draw in the final leg. To make things even worse for the Turin side the game would be held at Old Trafford with the Ghost of Champions League Finals past hanging over their heads. The last time Juventus were here in a final they faced AC Milan in 2002-03 and lost 3-2 on penalties. It didn’t help that ever since the 1995-96 win over Ajax Juventus was 0-5 in Champions League finals.
“Overrated” was all Sarri had to say about Pochettino in a pre-game interview, he decline to elaborate on that statement but his intent was clear.
Sarri would come out with his 4-3-1-2 midfield diamond with a very solid left side of his back line. Matthijs de Ligt, a regular of United transfer rumors, and ex-United LB Jorge would form a formidable team to deal with Dembélé and Álvaro Odriozola. There would be a bit of an issue with United’s central defense, with Todibo ruled out thanks to a concussion David Strange would get the start. Mason Greenwood would get the start after missing (3) weeks with a calf strain, though Luís Nazário was so good in his place that missing him wouldn’t have been all that much of a problem. As it turned out, Sarri’s midfield diamond didn’t do much to help as United’s attack flowed out wide and Juventus spent the game on their back foot. They lasted 16’ before conceding on a great goal that may have only been topped by the surgical pass that created it. From the far right corner of the box Danny Ginger would send a hard cross diagonally to the far corner of the goal area for Jadon Sancho to knock in. The pass threaded (5) Juventus defenders and left Wojciech Szczesny almost helpless to stop Sancho.
The first half dragged on with Juventus looking desperate to stay in the game and the second half looked to be more of the same until Sarri showed that he’d review the Arsenal game tape. Abusing the inexperience Strange, Bryan Cristante booted a ball from their own half to a streaking Paco Alcácer who would just barely squeeze between Strange and Odriozola before scoring at 48’ to put the game level at 1-1. It was right about then that Juventus started to collapse and the relentless United offense took over. All those shots United were taking started making Szczesny work harder and at 66’ they started going in starting with an Odriozola shot to go up 2-1. At 81’ Greenwood would dart in front of Cristian Romero and poke the ball in from point blank range to give United a 3-1 lead and seal their 4th straight title.
Bad memories at Old Trafford
WALKING AWAY WITH IT
Outside of the loss to Arsenal, which broke a (163) game unbeaten run across all competitions, United has a pretty easy time on their way to their 5th straight Premier League and 4th straight Champions League title. When that loss came they were still (14) points clear of Spurs in 2nd with two and a half months left to play, a series of firm beatings to close out the year left no doubt on this one. A 2-1 win over Chelsea on April 12th handed them the trophy with (6) games left while the rest of the league melted away, at that point United were (19) clear of Manchester City in 2nd while Spurs had a late-season collapse after managing to stay (10) points away for quite a while.
Bruno Fernandes did his best to stand out among the crowd at United, but being this dominant means a total team performance. You won’t hear Mason Greenwood grumbling, though his biggest fans will be more than happy to tell you about it, Fernandes became a master of drawing penalties this year and managed to leave a number of defenders looking upset. His (35) goals across all competitions was puffed up a bit by those penalties, with Greenwood’s (27) finishing second on the squad and in the Premier League. Fernandes used those penalties to win the league scoring title by (9) with (28), if Greenwood was the one taking them they might have swapped positions. Penalties aside, Fernandes led the Premier League in rating (8.59), assists (20), and PoM awards (8). It was a big year for United, (10) players had double digit goals and (10) had double digit assists with (4) players (Fernandes, Greenwood, Dembélé, and Danny Ginger) doing both. Jean-Clair Todibo took over from Upamecano as the highest scoring defender with (16), all of them on corners.
Pochettino had to deal with some mildly serious injuries this time around, though the team clearly dealt with them well. Eva Carneiro got a ton of mileage out of United’s preferred specialists in February after Andrès Landman (rib) and Jadon Sancho (lower arm) both suffered broken bones. Landman lost (4) weeks while Sancho was held out a full (5) to avoid re-injuring the arm. Álvaro Odriozola and Greenwood both suffered calf strains in April, but Greenwood would be ruled out for (3) weeks with his injury while Pochettino took caution to get him ready for the Champions League final. May saw Ousmane Kanté (pulled ankle ligaments) and Todibo (concussion) be ruled out for the rest of the season, both would be watching the Champions League final from the stands.