Manchester United tasted the first Premier League defeat of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s reign on Sunday, losing to Arsenal at the Emirates Stadium.
A strange Granit Xhaka goal and a Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang penalty gave Unai Emery’s side all three points on an evening of changeable weather.
United came into the game on the back of one of their best Champions League results of the decade.
Travelling to France to take on an ebullient PSG side who had beaten them 2-0 at Old Trafford, United won 3-1 away from home on Wednesday to progress to the quarter-finals. Marcus Rashford scored the winner from the penalty spot in injury time.
However, they had something of a hangover on Sunday as they struggled to live up to the fluidity that has so far characterised Solskjaer’s reign.
Per WhoScored, United committed 18 fouls and made two errors, one of which came from David De Gea, usually so reliable in goal. A long-range effort from Xhaka swerved in the air and wrong-footed the Spaniard but he had a clear sight of the ball and there was no deflection; to call it uncharacteristic would be something of an understatement.
United made more passes than Arsenal, had more touches and won more aerial duels but they struggled to break through the Gunners backline.
Emery’s men sat back, making more interceptions and clearances and waited for their moments.
It would be fair to say that the penalty from which Aubameyang scored was harsh; Fred barely made contact with Alexandre Lacazette in the box.
But United were challenged to get through a disciplined Gunners and they showed little ability to do so.
Arsenal’s performance is all the more impressive given that they were beaten by Rennes in the Europa League on Thursday, 24 hours removed from United’s glorious win.
Fatigue cannot be an argument, then, but it was the hosts who appeared fresher and more up for the fight; Solskjaer’s men clearly had their mental reserves depleted in France, while the Gunners picked up the motivation to get back on track.
It is unlikely that United will panic and nor should they.
They have been superb under Solskjaer thus far this season and there is little hope of this sparking anything other than a positive reaction.
They face Wolves in the FA Cup quarter-finals next time out before a Premier League game with Watford.
The Norwegian boss will be confident of winning both games but he has to accept that his men have thrown away the slim advantage they had in the race to qualify for the top four.
Arsenal are now fourth, just one point behind Tottenham Hotspur. There is time for United to bridge the gap – they are two points back – but they are now reliant on a slip.
They shall have to be ready if Emery’s men lose their footing.