WHEELER: Arsenal defeat is just a bump in the road for United
CHRIS WHEELER: The title always felt beyond Erik ten Hag but a trophy would be tangible proof of the progress he is making… Mikel Arteta won the FA Cup in his first season at Arsenal and United appear to be on a similar path
- Eddie Nketiah’s late winner gave Arsenal a dramatic 3-2 win against Man United
- United also conceded in injury time in midweek, drawing 1-1 with Crystal Palace
- Although positivity has dipped, this week was just a bump in the road for United
Two late goals, three points dropped, one bubble burst. It was quite a sobering week for Manchester United in the wake of their momentous win in the Old Trafford derby.
Four days after conceding an injury-time equaliser to Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park, United lost to Eddie Nketiah’s 90th-minute winner in a belting game at the Emirates on Sunday.
The mood of optimism that peaked when United roared back to beat Manchester City a week earlier has certainly dipped as a result of the setbacks in north and south London.
Erik ten Hag is still doing a superb job at Man United despite their unfortunate week of results
Erik ten Hag has been cautious discussing a title challenge, and he will feel that those reservations were justified. United lie 11 points behind Arsenal having played a game more. Given that the Gunners only dropped seven points in the first half of the season, it is asking a lot of United now.
Top-four was the primary target for Ten Hag, and in that sense nothing has changed. The Dutchman will switch his focus to three successive domestic cup ties, starting with the first leg of the Carabao Cup semi-final at Nottingham Forest on Wednesday night.
The title always felt beyond Ten Hag so soon after taking over at Old Trafford, but a trophy would be tangible proof of the progress he is making. United also face a Europa League playoff with Barcelona next month, so there is no shortage of opportunity.
Eddie Nketiah’s late winner for Arsenal came after Crystal Palace’s last-gasp draw in midweek
Mikel Arteta lifted the FA Cup in his first season in charge at the Emirates, and although he has endured some turbulent moments since then, United appear to be on a similar path to Arsenal as they work their way back to the pinnacle of English football.
There was certainly a hint of nostalgia in the air on Sunday. No two clubs are the same, of course, but there are similarities in the way Arteta has transformed Arsenal and the manner in which Ten Hag is going about his task at United.
Both would fall into the category of progressive coaches, even though Ten Hag is 12 years older and significantly calmer on the touchline.
Arteta has embarked on a massive overhaul of Arsenal’s squad which involved getting rid of sulky stars like Mesut Ozil and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and building a younger, more vibrant squad.
Free-scoring forward Marcus Rashford has rediscovered his form under the new head coach
In their place, he has brought in proven winners like Gabriel Jesus and Oleksandr Zinchenko from his old club Manchester City, and Martin Odegaard who has emerged as a charismatic captain for this Arsenal team.
Anyone who has watched the All or Nothing Amazon documentary on Arsenal can see how the players have bought into Arteta’s methods.
Ushering in a new era under Ten Hag, United have washed their hands of high maintenance individuals such as Cristiano Ronaldo and Paul Pogba which has helped to mend a divided dressing-room.
Like Arteta, it has enabled the manager to stamp his authority on the squad and bring in players he knows well. In Ten Hag’s case, he has returned to Holland to sign Lisandro Martinez, Antony and Tyrell Malacia, while also recruiting Christian Eriksen and the totemic Casemiro.
Arsenal boss Mikel Arteta (pictured with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang) won the FA Cup in 2020
He, too, has a strictly defined philosophy that the players must follow, and one which will take a while to implement. It’s easy to forget that Arteta is into his fourth year at Arsenal now.
‘We have to notice today that we still have a way to go to be on top level,’ said Ten Hag in the aftermath of Sunday’s disappointment.
Casemiro’s absence through suspension certainly gave Arsenal an advantage. Ten Hag resisted the temptation to play a second defensive midfielder, as he had done in the Manchester derby, and kept Eriksen in a deeper role with Bruno Fernandes at No.10.
The Spaniard has since found the perfect formula at the Emirates, mounting a title challenge
The Dane hasn’t been at his best in recent weeks and Antony still has a long way to go to convince fans that he is worth £82million. The jury is still out on loan striker Wout Weghorst after two largely uneventful appearances.
But after an overwhelmingly positive first half of the season, it would be unfair to pick holes in Ten Hag or his players for dropping points in back-to-back games following nine straight wins.
This feels like a bump in the road on a journey that still looks to be heading in the right direction. Just ask Arteta.
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