Manchester United’s catastrophic collapse gifts Arsenal second chance in WSL title race

England No 1 Mary Earps was the only United player to emerge with credit as the visitors were thrashed by Arsenal  (Action Images via Reuters)
England No 1 Mary Earps was the only United player to emerge with credit as the visitors were thrashed by Arsenal (Action Images via Reuters)

Katie Zelem stood alone in the middle of the madness, encouraging, gesturing for a way back that had already vanished from sight. Around her, Zelem’s team-mates stood lifeless, shell-shocked. It was not even half-time but it was clear Manchester United were already done. Arsenal had barely got out of first gear yet were gifted a three-goal lead by half-time. It’s hard to remember a half of football where so much had gone wrong.

As Arsenal were handed a second chance in the Women’s Super League title race, moving to within three points of leaders Chelsea and Manchester City with eight games of the season remaining, visitors United entertained the sold-out Emirates with a defensive display that was as shambolic as it was generous. Runners-up to Chelsea in the WSL and FA Cup just eight months ago, Marc Skinner’s side looked a shadow of the team that did the double over Arsenal last season. United, in fourth, capitulated as they were cut adrift from the top three, the nature of the goals they conceded somehow getting worse as the scoreline increased.

It rather flattered Arsenal, who were second-best in the opening 10 minutes but found themselves out of sight by the break. United’s disastrous half began as Geyse dangled a leg when attempting to defend Katie McCabe’s inswinging corner, the Brazilian’s own goal meaning she has now scored as many into her own net than for United in the WSL since arriving from Barcelona last summer. It would get worse as Zelem’s clearance cannoned into the head of Cloe Lacasse, who reacted well to steer into the empty net. Then, as Gemma Evans hacked down Beth Mead in the box, Kim Little stepped up to complete the rout.

Little’s penalty put Arsenal three goals up before half-time (Action Images via Reuters)
Little’s penalty put Arsenal three goals up before half-time (Action Images via Reuters)

Already on a booking, Evans was perhaps fortunate not to be sent off as Mead’s touch took her clear and the left back’s swinging leg clattered into the Arsenal forward. Evans was removed at the break by Skinner, though she was far from the only United player to have a nightmare afternoon. Zelem and Ella Toone lacked control or resistance in midfield, Millie Turner and Maya Le Tissier a yard off the pace in defence. The in-form Nikita Parris missed a glorious chance to give United the lead from six yards, and from there was kept quiet by the excellent Lotte Wubben-Moy. To rub it in was the sight of Alessia Russo, the former United striker, warming the Arsenal bench, a second-half sub when the game was already won.

It had appeared to be a strange selection from Jonas Eidevall, though the final result told a different story. With an opportunity to cut the gap to the top of the table to just three points and in front of a sold-out Emirates, all eyes were on Arsenal and they took the opportunity presented to them following Manchester City’s win at Chelsea on Friday night. The Gunners, with away trips to Chelsea and City still to come over the run-in, find themselves back in the title race, a much-needed reprieve after costly defeats to Tottenham and West Ham in recent weeks.

Arsenal set another WSL record with a crowd of over 60,000 (Getty Images)
Arsenal set another WSL record with a crowd of over 60,000 (Getty Images)

Yet Arsenal were also fortunate in the early stages, grateful their early sloppiness went unpunished. Laia Codina, Spain’s World Cup winner, was particularly culpable in causing Arsenal’s shaky start, first playing a dangerously short back-pass to Sabrina D’Angelo before she took too long on the ball and was almost caught by Parris. Codina reacted by pulling the United forward’s shirt. It could have been a red card, it wasn’t even given as a yellow by referee Kirsty Dowle.

United therefore had reason to feel aggrieved even before wasting an opportunity to take the lead. Skinner had his head in his hands when D’Angelo spilled Zelem’s inviting free-kick and Parris poked wide, a golden chance spurned from inside the six-yard box. It was in the same area, at the other end, where Geyse’s outstretched leg diverted McCabe’s corner past Earps, via a touch from Le Tissier, then as Zelem’s clearance fell straight to Lacasse for Arsenal to double their lead. United’s players stood in shock at the catastrophic nature of their collapse: then again as Evans swiped at Mead and Little sent Earps the wrong way from the penalty spot.

United were as much of a mess defensively in the second half, as Earps stood alone against the tide to prevent further embarrassment. The England goalkeeper denied Stina Blackstenius after a woeful backpass from Hannah Blundell, before Mead struck the post with a powerful hit when United failed to clear. Earps, the only United player to emerge with credit, saved again from McCabe. It spared Skinner further humiliation and, after full-time, Earps took a long time before leaving the pitch, eventually departing after holding up her hands in apology.

By then United had a consolation. Lucia Garcia provided it in the final minute of stoppage timewhen D’Angelo failed to collect United’s cross following a short corner. If anything, it condemed United to another damning conclusion: they had barely even tested Arsenal since falling behind. Defeat had been accepted long ago.