APRIL : EUROPEAN GAUNTLET
Premier League (A) : Arsenal 2 - Manchester United 1
A solid month in the books closed out with an easy 5-0 win over Middlesbrough in the Emirates FA Cup quarter-final, and then led right into an absolutely brutal month with (9) games scheduled. Even Old Trafford wouldn’t be much help with only (3) games set to be at home. Opening that month with a trip to the Emirates would not make anything easier, and Arsenal were certainly set on making things worse after a 1-1 draw at Old Trafford.
Playing well for almost a month can sometimes make you forget your faults, but Unai Emery certainly didn’t forget United’s problems and had the players to make them pay. Almost immediately United looked lost and Arsenal, specifically Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, ate them alive. Victor Lindelöf and Harry Maguire had their hands full, constantly turning and running full speed to catch up with Aubameyang as he slipped past them on a through ball or a well placed cross. Just 15’ in he would put Arsenal up 1-0 on a corner when Sokratis Papastathopoulos headed the ball down and Aubameyang barely needed to move his foot to tap it in.
The Gunner looked like they might win this game 10-0, but at the half it was still 1-0 which felt like a win for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. A calm halftime talk and gentle pats on the back must have done the job because United came out playing much better, likely due to a more balanced approach that didn’t leave the back line as exposed. They didn’t look like losing 10-0 anymore, maybe a 1-1 draw was in the cards. While they weren’t threatening, the few chances they had came to nothing until 63’ when Marcus Rashford copied Aubameyang’s goal on a free kick. Bruno Fernandes would send a curling free kick into the box that Lindelöf would head down toward the left corner and Rashford would be quick enough to tap it in before Bernd Leno could get to it.
United literally had less than a minute to feel great about somehow getting the score to 1-1. Arsenal would use a smart series of passes to release Aubameyang close to goal for a shot that De Gea managed to block, but the other nightmare stalking the field (Alexandre Lacazette) was right there to knock it into an empty goal. There was a short period of finger pointing and complaining about offsides, but the ref waved it off and United’s day was done. Arsenal controlled the game and nobody could put anything together, they would need to pick up their game or Atlético Madrid would rip them apart.
Aubameyang was a constant nightmare.
Europa League (A) : Atlético Madrid 1(1) - Manchester United 2(2)
Fans and media were very split leading up to this game after United pounded Aston Villa 5-0 at Villa Park. Some were eager to point to the result as proof United were motivated after the loss to Arsenal and Solskjaer had tweaked their tactics to improve their ability to score. Even though the second squad played they were 6/6 on shots by the time they were up 4-0 in the first half and finished 9/8 at halftime. The doubters would point to the level of competition, and the real cynics would point to Arsenal losing 1-0 at Norwich. Either way, Diego Simeone would be his usual self leading up to the game.
“No, I don’t believe in negative football. I don’t agree with the label ‘defensive’, we play hard” bristled Simeone when asked about his penchant for physical play.
The Metropolitano de Madrid would be packed with a raucous crowd ready to send Solskjaer back to Manchester with his tail between his legs. To their credit, the home crowd didn’t quiet when things went horribly wrong just 7’ in the game. Bruno Fernandes would continue his habit of providing great free kicks into the box and Rashford would head it in at the far post for an important road goal and a 1-0 lead. Things settled in a little more predictably after that with Simeone’s 4-4-2 forming a solid defensive block as they ceded possession to United, learning from Arsenal Solskjaer took a more balanced approach and avoided overextending his team to open up opportunities for the dangerous Diego Costa.
The level of caution paid off when United blunted an Atlético attack and came back with a fast counterattack at 30’. Anthony Martial showed off his speed and took the ball from United’s half to Atlético’s third before threading a pass by his defender and releasing Rashford into an area close to the right side of the goal. Rashford showed that today he would be the hero and punched it in between the post, his defender, and Jan Oblak. It was hard to tell who was more animated, Oblak or Simeone after that one. It was looking like Solskjaer might get into the locker room up 2-0 before Thomas Lemar opened Atlético’s account at 42’. A through pass left Lemar clear as United’s back line failed an attempt to catch him offsides and he didn’t miss. The 2-1 lead hid the level of control United had in the first half, maintaining that in the second half would be key.
The second half was marked by an incident that would be familiar to anyone who follows football, Diego Costa struck at 54’ and things nearly devolved into a fight. Diego Costa would kick Jorge in a shameless attempt to slow him down, resulting in Jorge leaving with an ankle injury, and only a length scuffle with Diego Costa professing his innocence saved him from being ejected. Solskjaer was fairly upset that he escaped without even getting booked, but karma has a way of balancing things. At 61’ Saúl put a brutal tackle on Aaron Wan-Bissaka and drew the red Diego Costa should have earned, he also managed to do it just barely inside the box to put Rashford on the penalty spot for a hat-trick. Rashford would stun the crowd, and make people question Solskjaer’s judgement, missing his fourth straight penalty. He didn’t even hit the goal, sending it wide right to a loud cheer from the home crowd.
Why always me?
Simeone would swap to a 4-4-1, but the damage was done. Being up a man helped United close this game out as a huge win for the Red Devils. The only negative came from Wan-Bissaka hitting his yellow card limit, earning himself a suspension for the second leg.
Europa League (H) : Manchester United 3(5) - Atlético Madrid 1(2)
Solskjaer could only hope United’s luck would hold today, two straight games where their opponents had players sent off would help them win in the away leg of this fixture and a 2-0 win at home to Southampton. The two away goals would provide crucial, Atlético Madrid would need to win this game by two and United haven’t lost a game all year by more than one. Atlético Madrid would certainly have the talent on hand to advance, but the odds were not in their favor.
For whatever reason, though a red card was involved, Atlético Madrid completely fell apart. Where the previous game was fairly even this was a classic parking of the bus as United controlled the ball and Simeone’s men just couldn’t do much about it. Rashford scored at 13’ and Atlético Madrid didn’t really seem bothered to do anything about it aside from kick the nearest United player in the shins.
The game dragged on with more cursing than good football and then things got really dramatic in the 77’ not long after Jesse Lingard made it 2-0. Héctor Herrera would put a terrible tackle on Scott McTominay from behind to earn a second yellow, he didn’t even wait to see the card come out and walked right off the pitch. Bruno Fernandes would score an amazing goal on the resulting free kick, curling it around the wall and glancing in off Jan Oblak’s glove. Simeone’s 4-4-1 would make a return, United would bleed out the clock and Diego Costa (of all people) would score in stoppage time to salvage the shutout. Such a solid win in the quarter final would be tempered by the news that Arsenal won and would be United’s opponent in the semi-final.
Emirates FA Cup (N) : Manchester United 1 - Bournemouth 0
The Emirates FA cup has been slowly turning United’s second squad into a cup squad, and now it seems to transition is complete. Mostly thanks to getting kicked into the turf by Atlético Madrid, the first squad would get a rest as the second squad would likely get the honor of seeing out the remainder of the FA Cup.
This would turn out to be one of the dullest fixtures of the day as United’s troubles in front of goal came up at the worst possible time. Despite their usual massive possession advantage the team looked disjointed and out of sink, barely outshooting Bournemouth while piling up yellow cards. It took (118) excruciating minutes for United to finally score, just as Bournemouth looked like they had managed to put the game on equal footing. Both teams exhausted, the ball bounced around the box off a free kick before Daniel James finally sent it toward the goal. The more exciting semi-final would be Norwich-Leicester which would see The Canaries win 3-2 to set up a Manchester United-Norwich final.
Europa League (H) : Manchester United 5(5) - Arsenal 0(0)
With Arsenal running away with the league and a 2-1 win still hanging over Solskjaer’s head, literally nobody saw this game coming. The Gunners came in solid favorites and most pegged a draw, similar to their previous visit to Old Trafford, as United’s best case scenario. Even a 3-1 win against Sheffield United and a 2-0 win against Bournemouth wouldn’t change people’s minds about this game, the Europa League was Arsenals to lose… and then suddenly it wasn’t.
Just 6’ minutes in things really started to turn sour for Emery. A scrum in front of the net ended when Rashford managed to kick the ball past Leno and start his PoM performance. Rashford would practically have the game of his life, turning the tables on Arsenal’s central defenders while Aubameyang and Lacazette had very forgettable nights. David Luiz was first to convert his frustration into a United opportunity at 15’ when he tripped Rashford in the box to give up a penalty. Over the past month this has been disastrous for Rashford, but Solskjaer has stuck with him and this time when Leno went left Rashford went right and his streak of missed penalties was finally over. David Luiz would be the subject of Rashford’s exploits again at 38’ when Lindelöf would send a long ball forward from United’s half to find a streaking Rashford a few steps beyond David Luiz. As he approached the box Rashford hesitated and managed to switch the ball behind him and the onrushing David Luiz, twisting the Brazilian around and getting the ball on the outside of him for a solid shot that thundered past Leno into the right side of the net. A hat trick before halftime seemed too much to hope for, but United were in the middle of dismantling the presumptive Premier League champions.
The second half couldn’t have been much worse for Arsenal. It took them 28’ to register a single shot in the first, and by that time United had (10). It was clear the Gunner had shut down as nearly the entire United team started to rate like they were playing a League Two side. Lingard would make it 4-0 at 59’ and things would start looking dire for Arsenal, they might be able to overturn a 3-0 deficit if they could at least add a road goal, but 4-0 seemed like they were finished. Aubameyang would limp off injured at 62’ and the body language on the field said the Gunners just wanted this to be over. Bailly would head in a corner at 74’ and the beating would finally stop as that would be the end of United’s sudden scoring outburst.
When the final whistle blew few could call this anything but a total collapse on Arsenal’s part. A whopping (8) United players rated 8.0 or higher and (4) of them were 9.0 or above. Rashford’s hat trick helped him on his way to a near perfect 9.6 and the PoM award. The scary thing is that it wasn’t that clear he would take it, with Bruno Fendnades having an incredible game in midfield. He piled up (2) chances created, (3) key passes, and an assist while Mesut Özil was almost non-existent. In the other game Olympiakos would beat Benfica 2-0, bringing themselves one step closer to a date with United in Poland.