LONDON (AFP) – Ole Gunnar Solskjaer blamed Manchester United’s lack of ruthlessness as the Norwegian suffered his first domestic defeat as caretaker manager in a 2-0 loss at Arsenal on Sunday night.
Granit Xhaka’s early strike and Pierre Emerick-Aubameyang’s penalty 21 minutes from time saw Gunners leapfrog United into the Premier League top four.
Unai Emery’s men also close to within just a point of third-placed Tottenham and now hold the upper hand in the race for Champions League qualification.
Arsenal do not face any of the top six in their remaining eight league games, whilst United host title-chasing Manchester City and Chelsea in the coming weeks on top of their Champions League and FA Cup commitments.
“You have to be disappointed with the result, but the performance was a good one,” said Solskjaer.
“The first goal always dictates how the game goes. We created chances, big chances, hit the woodwork twice, (Bernd) Leno played well.
“In terms of what you can control, we shouldn’t be too disappointed.”
European trips to France for both sides in midweek produced contrasting results as United shocked free-spending Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) 3-1 to progress to the quarter-finals of the Champions League.
The Gunners on the other hand went down 3-1 to Rennes to give themselves a mountain to climb in Thursday’s second leg to reach the last eight of the Europa League.
Emery made five changes from that side and was rewarded with a vital victory.
“We are going to play difficult matches and being consistent is very important,” said Emery.
“At the moment I think we are playing consistently, but we need to be calm and patient.”
After a bright start, Arsenal were nearly hit with a punch when with United’s first attack, Romelu Lukaku turned Luke Shaw’s cross onto the crossbar for the first of a series of wasted chances for the Belgian striker.
However, at the other end it was the normally flawless David de Gea who was at fault for the opener as the Spaniard failed to read the swerve on Xhaka’s long-range strike 12 minutes in.
Solskjaer, though, rejected suggestions ongoing contract talks over a new deal for the United goalkeeper has effected his concentration.
“David’s really focussed and concentrated, he’s too professional to let his mind wander,” insisted Solskjaer.
United seemed to feel the after-effects of their heroics in Paris early on, but soon clicked into gear to look more like the side that had suffered just one defeat in Solskjaer’s first 17 games in charge.
Fred’s curling effort from outside the box clipped the post before Lukaku tried to round Bernd Leno, but the Arsenal goalkeeper stood up well to block.
The German stopper had an unconvincing start to life as Arsenal number one, but has looked ever more assured in recent weeks and made another huge save to deny Lukaku once more from close range six minutes into the second-half.
United were utterly dominant for the first 20 minutes of the second period, but to Solskjaer’s frustration conceded a penalty when Alexandre Lacazette charged into the area and hit the floor under minimal contact from Fred.
“I don’t think there is enough contact to warrant the penalty,” said Solskjaer, while even Emery categorised the award as “soft”.
Aubameyang missed a last-minute penalty to win the north London derby against Tottenham last weekend, but made no mistake to leave the visitors a mountain to climb.
“I knew it would be tough, but I was really confident,” said the Gabon international.
Solskjaer’s time at United as a player and over the past three months as boss has been littered with late drama, none more so than at PSG last Wednesday.
That was a Champions League night that will live long in the memory, but there was no turnaround this time to leave the Red Devils with plenty of work to do just to qualify for the competition next season.