Goals in the first half from Bruno Fernandes and Jadon Sancho gave Manchester United a 2-0 victory over Premier League rivals Arsenal on Saturday night at the MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey.
Setting a record attendance at the 82,500-seater stadium, fans from near and far flocked to see two big clubs face off as Erik ten Hag edged the battle over Mikel Arteta in convincing style.
Fernandes and Sancho struck in quick succession after some fortuitous errors from both Aaron Ramsdale and Gabriel, with the Gunners failing to lay much of a glove on the Red Devils as United claimed a third win from three in pre-season so far, and the first of the tour of the United States.
Former Tottenham man Christian Eriksen rubbed salt into Arsenal’s wounds after he scored his side’s fifth penalty kick of an exhibition shootout played at the end of the game, meaning United also won on spot kicks. Although an unusual gesture from organisers given that the game had been decided after ninety minutes, the penalties gave American supporters a live viewing spectacle that they are not usually entitled too, overseas.
How it went down
A strong, first team Arsenal lineup edged possession in the opening five minutes over a mismatched Man United setup with Tom Heaton in goal, Kobbie Mainoo in midfield and Sancho playing once again as a striker; however, Antony had the first chance of the game after it was pulled back from the left wing, but the Brazilian scuffed his effort and dragged it wide with prominent dirt patches across the turf making the ball bobble.
Mason Mount combined well with Fernandes and Sancho after ten minutes in a slick passing sequence starting from around the halfway line, although it eventually ended when Alejandro Garnacho- sporting his usual no.49 shirt amidst speculation of a change in squad number- had his shot blocked.
In between the sticks for United, Heaton produced a terrific double save from two close-range Gabriel Martinelli efforts after the winger had been teed up well by Bukayo Saka from the right. Arteta’s men did not get much closer than that on the day.Embed from Getty Images
New club captain Fernandes gave his team the lead right on the half-hour mark. The Portugal international pounced after Declan Rice had been dragged out of position in midfield, unleashing a powerful strike from the right, outside of the box, with Ramsdale failing to keep it out of the bottom corner despite getting a good hand to it. Critics might rightfully argue that the goalkeeper should not have been beaten after seeing replays.Embed from Getty Images
Just seven minutes later, Sancho doubled the lead after Gabriel failed to clear a ball coming down on the last line of the defence, under hardly any pressure. Sancho raced away in behind towards the right of the area before firing it into the roof of the net emphatically as the Arsenal centre-back was left blushing.
The last action of the half came in the 43rd minute when Lisandro Martinez made a bold tackle on Saka in the final third that left the winger in a heap on the floor. Martin Odegaard raced straight in to contest with the Argentine defender, who was soon booked for his not-so-friendly gesture.Embed from Getty Images
After the interval, Ten Hag opted to change his entire outfield lineup in stark contrast to Arteta, who just replaced Takehiro Tomiyasu for Kieran Tierney at left-back.
Arsenal looked keen to respond early on in the second half when Odegaard picked out Eddie Nketiah from a free-kick after seven minutes, but the latter could only drag his effort wide from the post after taking aim from the left of the area.
The Arsenal boss made changes on the hour mark with Gabriel Jesus, Ben White and Thomas Partey all coming on in place of Martinelli, Jurrien Timber- formerly of Ten Hag’s Ajax and a transfer target for Man United last summer- and Rice, respectively. Amad Diallo was also replaced by Facundo Pellestri for the leaders after the Ivorian winger had picked up a niggle five minutes earlier.
Marcus Rashford really should have put the game out of sight in the 64th minute when he failed to latch onto Diogo Dalot’s miscued strike from the right, leaving himself and fans alike with their heads in their hands.
Another raft of Arsenal changes came after seventy minutes as Arteta looked to gain momentum in the later stages of the game, but the momentum from the next attack was quashed when Harry Maguire clattered through the back of Gunners skipper Odegaard, earning a yellow card in the process.
Surprisingly, it was not to be the last cautioning of the match, with Jesus booked for a blatant, cynical trip on youngster Omari Forson after possession had been won back from him.
Pellestri blazed over a rare second-half chance for his side in the final minutes before Scott McTominay deflected Emile Smith Rowe’s header wide to ensure United a clean sheet to top off a fine defensive display from Ten Hag’s players.Embed from Getty Images
Casemiro, Dalot, Rashford, Victor Lindelof and Eriksen all put their penalties away in the exhibition shoot-out, with Fabio Viera skying his on Arsenal’s third penalty to give United the advantage to go on to win 5-3.
Final Score: Arsenal 0-2 Manchester United (Fernandes 30’, Sancho 37’)
Player ratings and lineups
First half: Tom Heaton (7), Aaron Wan-Bissaka (6), Raphael Varane (6), Lisandro Martinez (6), Luke Shaw (6), Kobbie Mainoo (7), Mason Mount (7), Bruno Fernandes (7), Antony (6), Alejandro Garnacho (6), Jadon Sancho (7).
Second half: Tom Heaton (6), Diogo Dalot (6), Harry Maguire (6), Victor Lindelof (7), Brandon Williams (6), Casemiro (7), Scott McTominay (6), Christian Eriksen (6), Amad Diallo 59’ (6), Omari Forson (6), Marcus Rashford (6).
Second half substitute: Facundo Pellistri 59’ (6)
Man of the matchEmbed from Getty Images
Once again, Mainoo caught the attention of Reds fans with a cool, calm and composed performance, this time in front of around 80,000 people against last years’ Premier League runners-up.
The English midfielder carries himself with composure beyond his years, looking tidy in possession and tenacious when he needs to be. Whilst not showing a whole host fancy footwork to take players on, the way he keeps things simple, effective and ticking along is an impressive trait that is getting picked up on more and more.
That is not to say he has not got flamboyant strings to his bow, however, with the 18-year-old having shown fine ability to wriggle out of tight situations with skill and technique in recent times, as well as the ability to pick a pass and switch the play.
It is evident that the Stockport-born man is a talent, and it has come to no surprise that manager Ten Hag sees him as the special youth player to break through in 2023/24 and be part of the first team.
The bigger pictureEmbed from Getty Images
Man United have arrived in pre-season with style. Having sunk Leeds United 2-0, beat Lyon 1-0 and having now overcome Arsenal by a 2-0 scoreline, Ten Hag’s team have now played three, won three, scored five and conceded none. Of course, it has to be stressed that pre-season is what it says on the tin; it is not the real thing, and it would be silly to get carried away over three friendly games, but that is not to say fans cannot take confidence from these convincing performances going forward.
The victory over Arsenal, whilst not meaning anything in the grand scheme of things, certainly showed a statement of intent to match and hopefully better the North London outfit next season. After a win where United never looked disgruntled by a toothless Arsenal side, it would be fair to say that United have the mental edge approaching the clash at the Emirates Stadium on matchday four of the upcoming Premier League campaign.
The rest of pre-season is about trying to build fitness, experiment with the squad, build chemistry and carry on winning to put the club in best stead for when United welcome Wolverhampton Wanderers on the opening league matchday at Old Trafford on Monday 14th August, which is now fast approaching.
With Mount having been embedded into the squad and Andre Onana now linked up and training with his new teammates, the onus is back on Richard Arnold, John Murtough and the rest of the transfer negotiating team to provide Ten Hag with the tools he needs to succeed.
The general consensus amongst the fanbase is that a striker has to be the priority, evidenced by Sancho operating as an unorthodox number nine in recent games.
Alongside that, a centre-back to add depth and a back-up holding midfielder for Casemiro is felt to be a must-have come August 31st when the transfer window closes. As has been widely reported in the media, these deals for a defender and midfielder would depend on player sales and whether or not funds can be generated, though.
What is next?
Man United next face Wrexham on Wednesday 26th July at the Snapdragon Stadium in San Diego, California. That one kicks off at 03:30 (BST) and it is expected that the squad will predominantly- if not fully- be made up of youth team players.
That is because the following day, at 01:30 (BST) on Thursday 27th July, United are taking on Real Madrid at the NRG Stadium in Houston, Texas. The first team squad are to play in that one. It will be telling to see who Ten Hag selects for each squad in the context of younger players aspiring to break through.