Manchester United's last hope for silverware this season went up in flames, as Arsenal defeated the Red Devils. United certainly had their chances this game, but failed to convert enough of them to win or even force a replay. United's demise boiled down to critical individual errors in defense that made it far too easy for the Gunners to score.
Manager Louis Van Gaal chose to play a 4-5-1 formation again, selecting David De Gea, Antonio Valencia, Chris Smalling, Marcos Rojo, Luke Shaw, Daley Blind, Ashley Young, Marouane Fellaini, Ander Herrera, Ángel Di María, and Wayne Rooney. Jonny Evans was unavailable for selection as he served the first game of his six game suspension for spitting at Papiss Cisse in the Newcastle match at midweek.
There was a good amount of nerves in both teams at the start of the game, as they reacquainted themselves with each other after the 4-month period following their last match. United won that meeting 2-1 at the Emirates.
There was even play early in the match with Arsenal looking particularly dangerous on the counter attack. Arsenal were the first to open the scoring, after some skillful, quick dribbling, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain found Nacho Monreal open on net. The left back did well and beat De Gea at the near post. Ángel Di María was caught either ball watching or being lazy, as he easily could have taken a few steps back to defend the open goal scorer. United 0, Arsenal 1.
With so much time, there was plenty opportunity for United to respond, and respond they would. Di Maria did well to make up for his lapse in defense. He whipped a cross in from 25 yards out with incredible pace and found Wayne Rooney, whose header blew by the Arsenal goalkeeper. United 1, Arsenal 1.
Ángel Di María looked every bit the attacking threat that garnered a $100 million transfer fee. On two separate runs in the first half, he got behind his fullback for dangerous through balls to be played and nearly put away one of the chances.
At halftime, Louis Van Gaal made some changes to his side, substituting Michael Carrick for Ander Herrera and Phil Jones for Luke Shaw. With Jones' inclusion, Marcos Rojo moved from center back to left back. After Carrick's entrance to the game, United played with a much more compact midfield.
United seemed to be settling down and gaining confidence, when disaster struck. Antonio Valencia mishit a back pass to the goalie, leaving it short within the path of Danny Welbeck. Welbeck dribbled De Gea and stroked the ball into the wide-open net. United 1, Arsenal 2.
David De Gea was world class yet again with big stops to keep United's goal deficit at one. He made a key save on a Santi Cazorla volley, diving quickly to his left and clawing the ball back into play with his left hand. Later, he made a fingertip save in the last minutes to keep United in the hunt.
Ángel Di María received a yellow card for a perceived dive. Feeling his integrity was being questioned and incensed by the call, he then made matters even worse by grabbing the referee, receiving a second yellow card, and being sent off.
Even a man down, United still brought the attack to Arsenal, holding a good majority of possession. They used their hold of the ball to play long passes to Fellaini to pin back Arsenal and create scoring chances. The tactic has been criticized, but was effective in advancing the ball into attacking positions and pressuring the Arsenal defense. Despite the increased pressure and the five minutes of extra time, United were unable to score and cause a replay.
United fell short on Monday, unable to reproduce their traditional late game heroics. Thus, Louis Van Gaal still has the same questions to answer about his choice of formation, player selection, Ángel Di María, and Radamel Falcao. Yet again, United were down a goal and he chose to not bring on Falcao, instead bringing on Adnan Januzaj. Di María played much better in attacking positions, but completely neglected his defensive duties, especially on the first Arsenal goal. Van Gaal's halftime substitutions also stand out in the loss. United will have to overcome this defeat quickly as they play a key fixture next Sunday at home against Tottenham Spurs. At this point in the season, each match is extremely important to United's top four hopes, and this match begins an uncanny stretch of tough competitions including Chelsea and Manchester City. The match will be aired at 12pm ET on NBCSN.