Arsene Wenger challenged Arsenal to respond in this week’s crucial fixtures after watching his team waste a glorious opportunity to close the gap at the top of the Premier League in Sunday’s 3-2 loss at Manchester United.
Arsenal, seeking their first league title in 12 years, were bidding to stay within two points of surprise leaders Leicester City ahead of a home fixture against Swansea on Wednesday and a crucial visit to Tottenham looming on Saturday.
But the loss at Old Trafford, against an under-strength United side that enjoyed another stunning two-goal display from teenage forward Marcus Rashford, has left serious question marks over Arsenal’s ability to capture the title.
“We have lost three points,” said Wenger. “You have to show you are up for the fight and give absolutely everything in our next game. Things can change quickly, but only if you keep going, keep believing.
“We are in a fight where we can show we have great character, great mentality and respond on Wednesday (against Swansea). That’s what we have to do.
“Let’s not go overboard. They had still a few millions on the pitch from (David) de Gea to the midfield. They spent a lot on (Memphis) Depay, he is not a player from the academy.
“The player who was surprising for me talent-wise was Rashford, the timing and intelligence of his movement was great. He could be a very positive surprise for Man United.
“We struggled to be dangerous because they defended very well and I will analyse the game again to see why. But of course there is time to pull the points back. It is still possible but the answer will have to come quick and strong.”
– Rashford rocks Gunners –
Rashford scored twice, within the space of three first-half minutes, for Louis van Gaal’s side following his two-goal display in the midweek Europa League victory over Denmark’s FC Midtjylland.
Former United forward Danny Welbeck, starting a league game for the first time in 11 months, pulled a goal back before the interval but Ander Herrera’s 64th-minute shot was deflected in by Laurent Koscielny and Mesut Ozil’s goal, five minutes later, was not enough to rescue a point.
“No of course not,” said van Gaal when asked if he expected such an impact from the 18-year-old Rashford. “I could imagine the first game he did that because he is a striker coming in to score goals and the first match is always good. The second match he has to do what the manager is willing him to do and he did it fantastically. His performance was better than the first match.
“He did everything I asked of him. He scored two again, four goals in two matches, and that’s an average that is unusual! When you have the chance, you have to perform and do the things we’re asking and I’ve always said, it’s not a matter of age, it’s a matter of quality and he showed it.”
Rashford was just one of five United players to make their debuts in a week which saw United beat Shrewsbury in the FA Cup, Midtjylland and then Arsenal.
“It is the culture of Manchester United, that is why they take me as a manager and now it is of course crazy all the injuries we have, today 12 injured players,” said van Gaal.
“So now it is a little bit overdone, I think, but you see youngsters always give spirit to the team. I have a lot of experience with that and that is also a very important aspect of my philosophy.”
Impressive as the other debutants – defenders Joe Riley and Tim Fosu-Mensah and midfielders Regan Poole and James Weir – may have been, Rashford is the player who has guaranteed a place in United folklore.
“It’s just crazy,” said Rashford. “It was a shock playing in midweek because (Anthony) Martial was meant to be starting and that benefitted me because I wasn’t thinking about the game too much.
“But this is crazy, I can’t explain it, when you’re out there – the rush of blood, everything. Having players like Michael Carrick helping us with their experience, we can only go forward.”
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