Arsenal Outclass Manchester United as Arteta Gets First Win
2019 will likely go down as a season to forget in the annals of Arsenal history, but the Gunners didn’t wait long to turn the page on their disappointing calendar year as the coasted to a 2-0 against Manchester United on New Years Day. With the victory, Arsenal still sit nine points out of fourth place and the final Champions League berth for next season, but there is real optimism in the air that the second half of the season will bring the players and fans alike far more.
Arteta Opens His Account
First there were promising signs at Bournemouth. Then, although the final score left the Gunners feeling cheated against Chelsea, there was even more improvement last weekend at the Emirates Stadium in the 2-1 loss. But it took the dawning of a new year for Arsenal to finally earn their first victory of the Mikel Arteta era, and it was well worth the wait.
The stats might tell the story of an even match, with both teams managing ten shots with four finding the target and possession was almost a dead heat at 50%, but Manchester United never matched the Gunners level throughout. The players began the match much as they did against Chelsea, jumping on every loose ball and imposing their will on proceedings, once again leading to an early goal. Unlike the London Derby, however, the Gunners managed to add to their lead in the first half and saw out the job for the duration, earning Bernd Leno a well-deserved clean sheet.
For Mikel Arteta, this first victory from the touchline (Arsenal won their first match against West Ham following his arrival as he looked on from the stands) is the first validation of a process that already has many excited for the future of the club once again. The play on the pitch has a purpose and a tempo that was lacking just two short weeks ago, and supporters can feel a palpable difference in the team.
As admirable a job as Bukayo Saka did in his deployment as an emergency left-back over the weekend against Chelsea, it was nevertheless welcome news when it emerged that Sead Kolasinac was fit enough to make a return to the matchday squad in time for Manchester United. The Bosnian was joined on his return to the starting XI by midfielder Granit Xhaka, who had missed the clash with Chelsea with an illness. The duo wasted no time in reminding supporters how much the Gunners had missed their physicality and veteran experience.
Kolasinac was his usual disruptive self down the left flank, maintaining the vital role he had carved out for himself under Unai Emery in providing attacking thrust down the wing. It was his barreling run and cutback which lead to Nicolas Pepe’s opener that put the Gunners in front before ten minutes had elapsed. He continued to cause problems for the right side of the United defence as the match progressed, combining well at times with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang to move Arsenal into the final third. Kieran Tierney is undoubtedly the future of Arsenal’s left-back position for years to come, but for his part, Kolasinac seems intent on ensuring he stays in Arteta’s plans as the Scottish defender works his way back from injury.
Granit Xhaka’s absence was brief, having only missed the Chelsea match to illness, but he was nevertheless welcomed back graciously by supporters, in spite of the rocky recent relationship between the two. The Swiss International was once again the lynchpin in the Gunner midfield, his stoic presence still proving to be the best foil to the perpetual motion of Lucas Torreira. His role in build-up, where he drops to the left of the centrebacks to stagger the lines and create more passing angles to play through the opponent, appears to be a key to the way Mikel Arteta wants this team to play. One only hope that for the good of the club itself, his combative days with fans are well and truly behind him.
A Creative Work in Progress
Given the struggles the Arsenal attack has had for much of the season to generate consistent scoring opportunities, it might be easy to assume that Unai Emery and later Freddie Ljungberg would want to get as many creative players in the team as possible. However, equally alarming problems in defence has frequently lead the Arsenal Head Coaches this season before Arteta to make compromises with their team selection in a bid to strike a balance within the side.
As a result of this, arguably the two most creative players in the team, Mesut Ozil and Nicolas Pépé, have shared the pitch infrequently throughout the season. However, that changed on Wednesday and both were handed a start by Arteta in a hugely important match against a top-six foe. In truth, it often looked a bit of a struggle, with Pépé seeming to hold on to the ball too long at times, forcing the German to check his run. At other times, the young winger didn’t seem to be on the same wavelength as his World Cup champion teammate, with more than one scoring opportunity going by the wayside in their miscommunication.
In spite of the occasional awkwardness in their interplay, there were moments where the pair clicked and it was easy to see the potential their burgeoning connection could have on the team. As the match went on, Ozil began to adjust to the way his new teammate likes to run at defenders first before looking to move the ball on. The German began to check his runs slightly, giving Pepe the time to draw in a defender and get the ball out of his own feet.
Watching the subtle trickery and intelligent movement of Ozil next to the fearsome dynamo on the wing whose presence alone forces defenders to back off in an effort to not get burned, it is hard not to be reminded of the almost subliminal connection Ozil once shared with Alexis Sanchez before the latter sold his services to Manchester United in 2018. Most importantly, both players currently looked engaged and motivated to work under Arteta’s watchful eye, and given the former Manchester City assistant’s reputation as a coach who can get the best out of talented creative forwards, the thought of a genuine on-pitch chemistry forming between Arsenal’s highest-ever earner and its most expensive transfer signing is too tantalising to ignore.
The Good Kind of Boring
During the 18 months of perpetual struggle for results that became a hallmark of the Unai Emery era at Arsenal, fans who were trying mightily to find the positives in the performances of the team during his tenure often cited his football as being boring but with a purpose. Yes, the Arsenal attack had declined since Arsene Wenger left, but if the team was still achieving results and (for a time) conceding fewer goals, then surely that’s what was most important?
The problem with this notion, of course, was that Arsenal weren’t morphing back into the “boring, boring Arsenal” with an air-tight defence of the George Graham era; instead, they were simply not attacking anywhere near as effectively as they had, while the defence continued to struggle in many of the same ways.
At times on Wednesday, a cynic might have looked on during the middle stages of the match and wondered what was so different about Mikel Arteta’s Arsenal. The ball still spends altogether too much time being passed around the back, and the Gunners still aren’t creating scoring chances as freely as they had under Arsene Wenger. However, the manner in which Arsenal battled with United through the middle phases of the match as neither team could find the net was far different to the way they had been playing this season prior to Emery’s sacking.
Under Arteta, the team look far more comfortable out of possession than before. Settling into a comfortable 4-4-2 mid-block when United had possession, the Gunners applied steady pressure to the United midfield in build-up, while maintaining positional discipline and closing off the passing angles, often stymying United in their own end in the process. As the match reached its advanced stages, and United began to have a bit more urgency about them, Arsenal matched their intensity and held their nerve. Even with under ten minutes to play and the match well in hand, David Luiz was still shouting at his teammates, demanding they see out the clean sheet as a reward for their sterling efforts.
Under Emery, many had the sense that the Gunners had to keep the ball from their opponents to avoid putting undue strain on the shaky backline. A match-deciding error seemed barely a shaky pass or a fumbled cross away. Thus far under Arteta however, there appears to be no such fear. Performances like Wednesday will only help to affirm to the players that the path they are on now is the right one, and that not only applies to when they have the ball, but also to when they do not. The early indications are that Arteta has no intentions of becoming a boring defensive team, but it will be a relief to many that this squad is capable of winning in that way if required.
January Crisis Resolved Already?
In our last Talking Points following the London Derby, it was mentioned that both Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Granit Xhaka were the subject of persistent transfer rumours, with various publications reporting that both had submitted transfer requests to the club in the last two weeks. But if Mikel Arteta’s comments following the victory over Manchester United are any indication, it appears the impending drama has been arrested before it was allowed to fester within the dressing room.
Arteta was once again asked about Xhaka following the match, and he was not shy about heaping praise on his midfielder. After reiterating how he views Xhaka as an integral part of the team, Arteta never flinched when asked whether he believed the former club captain would be staying beyond this winter, answering in the affirmative.
If Arsenal are to reach their targets this season and return to the Champions League for next season, every player in the team has to be fully committed to the cause. That Arteta can so deftly navigate the tricky situation surround Xhaka’s relationship with the fans, and Aubameyang’s brother offering an unflattering assessment of his hiring on social media, is a testament to just how capable he is in his new job, despite his lack of experience. If he finds half the success he appears to have had in selling his vision to two players many believed had already decided to leave to new prospective signings, it isn’t difficult to imagine that more will be attracted to the new, fresh project being undertaken at Arsenal.