A terrifying five minute spell saw Arsenal lose two key players to injury and give up an own goal, overturning Arsenal's match long dominance of the run of play and handing Manchester United a shock 2-1 win at the Emirates.
Manchester United and Louis Van Gaal made things complicated for themselves right off the bat, putting out an unusual and not very well balanced lineup to face a very strong and dangerous Arsenal lineup. Thanks to injuries, United only had one central defender in their back three who was a full pro before this year, with Chris Smalling flanked by youngsters Patrick McNair and Tyler Blackett.
Arsenal took advantage of that makeshift defense early and often, using Danny Welbeck and Alexis Sanchez to test how well that group would hold up. The answer? Not well. Arsenal had the better early chances by far, most notably a poor kick from David De Gea that gifted the ball to Jack Wilshere in front of goal. It took a fine save from point blank range by De Gea to deny Wilshere, and De Gea had to be on his horse again several minutes later when Sanchez tried to get around him, but De Gea was able to turn him just far enough from goal that he couldn't get a shot on frame.
Things got worse for Manchester before even 15 minutes had gone by when Luke Shaw pulled up lame. Shaw had been trying to work through a hamstring injury that's been bothering him, but eventually it became too much for him and he couldn't go on. That forced Ashley young in to the lineup, something no United fan could have been looking forward to given the form he's been in this season.
It was Arsenal who almost took a blow next, when several minutes later Wilshere clashed with Marouane Fellaini. Wilshere seemed to be frustrated after being whistled for fouling Fellaini, and after barking at the referee appeared to try to headbutt Fellaini. Given the height difference between the two, though, Wilshere just kind of bumped Fellaini's chest and Mike Dean was too busy laughing under his breath to send Wilshere off.
The rest of the half bogged down in to mediocrity, though there was one moment of minor comedy when Chris Smalling completely whiffed on a try at a volley. The second half started strongly in Arsenal's favor, with Sanchez, Welbeck, and Wilshere terrorizing Manchester's back line. It took another good save from De Gea and a bunch of blocked shots for United to hold ARsenal off, but it also wasn't long before the entire face of the match changed.
On one of Wilshere's drives in to the box, he got clattered from behind by Fellaini and went down holding his ankle. Wilshere tried to gut things out and stay in the match, but it wasn't two minutes before he just sat down and couldn't go on. Santi Cazorla is of course a good substitute to be able to bring in, but things weren't done getting worse for Arsenal.
During a rare dangerous United attack, Arsenal goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny went up to try to punch a ball clear of Marouane Feillaini. The trouble was, fullback Kieran Gibbs was between them, and the two went tumbling to the ground. The ball deflected away in to the path of Antonio Valencia, who hammered in a cross... that then deflected off a slow-to-get-up Gibbs and in to the back of the Arsenal net.
Szczesny had managed to get up to try to defend his goal against the continuing attack, but he crumpled to the ground almost as soon as the ball hit the netting. He was clutching his side, and on replays it looked as though his ribs had taken the worst of the blow between him and Gibbs. Arsene Wenger was forced to take his keeper off, making this perhaps the worst five minutes of football Arsenal have experienced in years.
Arsenal pushed forward desperately for an equalizer, but De Gea was on top of his game today, and that combined with desperate defending was enough to keep them at bay, albeit barely. Even when Olivier Giroud was thrown on in desperation at the end, Arsenal just couldn't unlock the United defense.
As if Arsenal's performance wasn't bad enough, that desperation, one midfielder formation cost Arsenal in the waning minutes. After the umpteenth attack in a row fizzled out in the final third, Manchester United launched another counter attack... and because of that all-attack formation, there was only one man back to try to stop Wayne Rooney's run on to a long ball over the top. Rooney got past him, and then it was 2-0 Manchester.
Talk about insult to injury.
Arsenal managed to claw one back during a long eight minutes of stoppage time, when Arsenal caught United's defense a bit stretched out and Giroud was able to capitalize with a lovely finish on his return from a long injury. United were able to lock things down and hold out from there, though, and Arsenal left frustrated, a frustration that almost exploded late on when Giroud confronted Di Maria down by the corner flag, a disagreement that left Di Maria on the ground and Giroud in the book.
While United deserve credit for going in to the Emirates and stealing a win with a brave performance, this match is far more about what Wenger and Arsenal did poorly than what United did well. Arsenal did not look at all like a team that should be challenging for the top four, and this club will have to answer a lot of questions in the coming weeks if they're going to get back on track.
Arsenal: Szczesny (Martinez 58'); Chambers, Mertesacker, Monreal, Gibbs; Arteta, Ramsey (Giroud 76'), Wilshere (Cazorla 54'); Sanchez, Welbeck, Oxlade-Chamberlain
Goal: Giroud (90'+4)
Manchester United: De Gea; McNair, Smalling, Blackett; Valecia, Carrick, Fellaini, Shaw (Young 15', Fletcher 88'); Rooney, Van Persie (Wilson 74'), Di Maria
Goals: Gibbs (OG 56'), Rooney (84')
Three Things we learned
1. Manchester United need to get healthy, fast - Manchester United's injury crisis may be a cause for mirth for neutral supporters, but with a patchwork defense and a barely functioning midfield they're lucky to be as high up the table as they are. They turn the ball over far too easily and too often to be as good as they claim to be, and while their strike force is very talented, they can't do much to use that talent if no one can get them the ball reliably. If United can't get key players like Phil Jones, Daley Blind, Marcos Rojo, and Rafael back soon, or worse, if more important players get hurt, this season will get ugly for the Red Devils.
2. Arsenal haven't figured out how to be good in the final third - Outside of Alexis Sanchez and his usual moments of brilliance, this Arsenal squad still doesn't seem to have figured out how to work with one another in the final third. Too often attacks were blunted by one player or another trying to do everything on his own, when a supporting run was left open and would have given the Gunners a goal. Wenger needs to sort that out in order to get Arsenal back in to the top four, because as good as he is, Sanchez can't carry this team all by himself. Also, while not strictly related to the final third, playing with more than one midfielder in the final minutes is a good way to prevent giving up goals on the counter while trying to equalize yourself. Just saying, Arsene.
3. Bad injuries at a bad time - Losing central squad figures like Jack Wilshere and Wojciech Szczesny is bad enough, but the timing couldn't be any worse for Arsenal. They have a vital Champions League match against Borussia Dortmund this week, and trying to beat the German side without those two will be a tough, tough task. Of course, Dortmund also saw their star attacker Marco Reus get stretchered off today, so perhaps the injury "luck" will keep things even between the two. Either way, this is going to be a much tougher run for Arsenal if those two miss any significant time.