Sometimes the stars align for a man, and it is starting to feel that way for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. Another game, another win, there is not a player who is failing to respond to his stewardship, or a stratagem that does not go according to plan.
It also helps a manager when both of the opposing centre-halves go off injured in either half, and he can bring players of the quality of Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial from the bench to test out a makeshift back four. See? Watch the skies. Stars aligning.
Manchester United are in the fifth round of the FA Cup, back in contention for the Champions League places, and even the European dates with Paris St Germain no longer appear daunting. Most importantly, Solskjaer is taking on some of the best coaches in Europe – Unai Emery, Mauricio Pochettino – and deservedly winning, and no way is that purely down to hosting a party with a happy atmosphere.
As at Wembley against Tottenham, this was a tactical victory as much as a spiritual one, split strikers producing Alexis Sanchez’s first Manchester United goal away from home, and a man of the match display from Romelu Lukaku, as a creator, not a goalscorer. Solskjaer is making it look easy, and his appointment increasingly irresistible the longer than run continues.
Seriously, what more can he do? There comes a point when the narrative is no longer about simply cheering the place up; when these results demand to be taken seriously as a body of work suggesting serious credentials for the job. A run of eight wins on the trot – and Burnley at home is the next match, so probably nine – might just be it.
True, it is not a bad plan B, Lukaku and Sanchez – Solskjaer’s second string forward selection exposing the myth of Manchester United’s weak squad. On the bench and given a well-earned rest, Rashford and Martial. With the possible exception of Manchester City, no other club has that level of strength in reserve, and City certainly don’t have it in their central forward line.
Yet it isn’t just the players at Solskjaer’s disposal, but the way he deploys them that has transformed Manchester United. As he did against Tottenham, Solskjaer sent his forwards wide and used Jesse Lingard as a false nine, arriving from deep.
It worked perfectly, too. Lukaku was quite brilliant on the right, creating both goals with a talent for invention few imagine he possesses; Sanchez and Lingard scored within two minutes of each other, the goals sweetly taken and full of confidence, Solskjaer’s strategy vindicated in the way his team simply took the tie away from Arsenal.
Emery’s team had a lot of possession early without threatening, although Alex Iwobi should have done more with a 24th minute shot put straight at goalkeeper Sergio Romero. A pass to the better positioned Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang would have been the wiser choice.
The loss of defender Soktaris, however, seemed to unsettle them. He landed awkwardly having jumped with Lingard, tried to carry on, but could not. With the movement of United’s front line, there is no way Arsenal could have got away with anything less than a fully fit defensive four. Shkodran Mustafi came on but, soon, United were two up.
The threat had been signalled previously when a one-two between Paul Pogba and Sanchez brought United’s first chance after 11 minutes. Petr Cech, playing what will be his final FA Cup game having announced his retirement at the end of the season, came swiftly from his line and smothered the ball at Sanchez’s feet.
United always looked the likelier to score however, and in the 31st minute they did, and in the worst way possible from the local perspective. Arsenal’s fans had been singling Sanchez out for treatment all game, so it must have been delightful to see him skip around Cech to score United’s first – and in a way that underlined the player they have lost, too.
Sanchez got the goal – but what an assist from Lukaku. There is of course more to him than the force he displays when used conventionally as a number nine, but this was exquisite by any standard. If Eden Hazard or Mesut Ozil had played such a pass we would be talking about it for weeks. Yes: that good.
It was on the reverse, from the edge of the penalty area, eye of the needle, taking two Arsenal defenders out of the game, and leaving Sanchez free, with only Cech to beat. He rounded the goalkeeper but was left with a tight angle from the right. Could he make it? With ease. Pogba was following in, just in case, but wasn’t needed. This was a peak Sanchez finish, a reminder of the days when he was the best of it here. Arsenal were rocked, and were soon two behind.
This was more of the lackadaisical Arsenal that has proved so frustrating in recent years, Luke Shaw allowed to carry the ball a significant distance through midfield, before setting Lukaku away down the right. His cut back was inch perfect, and expertly finished by Lingard. United’s bench rejoiced; Arsenal looked done.
Yet, having played much of the first-half as if engaged in a Community Shield game, the second goal sparked life in the home side and two minutes before half-time they were back in it. Iwobi played the ball in to Aaron Ramsey – Arsenal’s best player, and each time that is written, his move to Juventus seems more ludicrous – whose cross got the merest touch from Alexandre Lacazette.
He couldn’t divert it into the goal, but did keep it out of Manchester United’s clutches, finding Aubameyang at the far post for the simplest conversion.
They could have equalised, too, had Romero not made a fine fingertip save from a header by Ramsey a minute after half-time. Bad luck seems to follow certain Arsenal players around though and, Hector Bellerin having returned from injury only to be lost for the season against Chelsea, Laurent Koscielny received a nasty, wholly accidental, kick to the head from Lukaku. No blood, but lots of treatment, suggesting structural rather than superficial damage, maybe a broken jaw. Ouch.
With Granit Xhaka a battlefield promotion to centre-half, Solskjaer seized his chance to put the outcome beyond doubt. On came fresh legs, Rashford And Martial, and in the 82nd minute it was over. Pogba surged through central midfield on a long, powerful run, forcing a save from Cech, before Martial was first to the rebound for the third.
The Emirates began to empty and Manchester United started to conserve energy and minimise risk. When Sead Kolasinac clashed with Rashford, leaning his head in – both were booked – and Lingard got involved, the mood turned nasty.
There was a melee and Lingard appeared to be further angered by the reaction of the crowd – either something thrown, or something said – and had to be held back by a steward. Having already been booked, had referee Craig Pawson spotted his reaction, he could have been cautioned a second time. Minutes later, Solskljaer sensibly took him off, his final change of the night. Everything he does right now is shot through with common sense; as well as celestial blessing.