Post Match Review
Arsenal seize own top 4 destiny, drop Manchester United
Arsenal are back in the top four! This will easily be the biggest takeaway from a simply stunning performance on Sunday at the Emirates Stadium, one which saw the Gunners dispatch Manchester United 2-0, handing manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer his first Premier League defeat in the process. While it has often fallen well short of the promise in the recent past, the Emirates was well and truly a fortress on Sunday, with the players feeding off of the electric atmosphere in the stands to earn their most important three points of the season. The furrowed brow and pained expression of Thursday’s unfortunate defeat to Rennes gave way to an ebullient Emery, as his players executed his tactics to near perfection. Tottenham will now be forced to look in the rear view mirror at a surging Arsenal team they felt they had dispatched long ago, and Arsenal are looking as fresh as ever heading into the final eight matches of their Premier League campaign.
Unai shows his bravery
Given the recent success Arsenal have had in matches where they have taken a proactive approach, opting for a back four more often in defence, the decision for Unai Emery to revert to a back three against Manchester United might not have been met with much enthusiasm. However, the extra defender merely added a sturdier foundation for Emery to build perhaps one of his most aggressive starting XIs to date, with Mesut Ozil and Aaron Ramsey getting a rare start together while both Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette made the cut to form a two-pronged attack from the front. In essence, this lineup was a statement of intent from the Basque head coach, and it told the story of a manager putting faith in his best players to topple a resurgent United.
The Gunners started fast in the opening stages of the match, with Mesut Ozil’s free role at the number 10 causing so many problems for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer in the early going that the United boss was forced to realign his shape from a classic 4-4-2 into something more akin to the 3-4-1-2 Emery went with from the off. The double pivot of Granit Xhaka and Aaron Ramsey, so often favoured last year under Arsene Wenger, was simply immense. Xhaka once again functioned as the lynchpin of Arsenal’s build up play while Ramsey’s more exuberant style and clear motivation to succeed in his final match against Manchester United in an Arsenal shirt was the perfect foil. The pair was able to largely neutralise Paul Pogba and the rest of the visitor’s midfield throughout the match, allowing Arsenal to control proceedings throughout.
Emery quite simply nailed his tactics on Sunday, leaving Solskjaer scratching his head and scrambling for solutions that never came. The sheer quality of the Red Devils meant that they were able to break through the Arsenal defence on occasion, finding several opportunities to bag a goal for themselves, but the Gunners held their mettle and staved off all challenges en route to their fourth clean sheet of the season, and perhaps the most important one yet. The unity and motivation Emery has extracted from his players in the home stretch of the season must be commended, and it was quite clear who the fitter team was on Sunday as Arsenal ran the visitors ragged. Coming off of the low of last Thursday’s shocking defeat to Rennes in the Europa League, Emery’s frequent refrain of positivity in the lead up to this match clearly rubbed off on his players, and it is now up to the coaches and players to maintain this focus for the rest of the season.
Leno hits new heights
Bernd Leno’s shaky start to the season, with errors reminiscent of his struggles in the final years with Bayer Leverkusen, had some writing off his summer purchase before the holidays had even arrived. However, since 2018 gave way for 2019, the German stopper has scarcely put a foot wrong in the Arsenal goal. His recent performances have gotten many talking, but perhaps none were better than his match on Sunday. Leno was immense against United, putting his body on the line to make key stops throughout, while showing excellent awareness on several occasions to come out of his goal to cut off danger before it developed.
The German finished with 4 saves on the day, including two heartstopping moments where he denied an in-form Romelu Lukaku from finding the scoresheet. His improvement in dealing with crosses has been increasingly evident in the second half of the season, and he has only fur5er cemented his status as the clear number one goalkeeper at the club. With big name signings Alisson Becker and Kepa Arrizabalaga both having solid seasons at their respective clubs, Leno has perhaps not received the credit he has deserved in his first season at Arsenal. However, with the £25m man coming good on the prodigious talent he showed in his early years at Leverkusen, he has represented an excellent value for the Gunners, costing less than half of what Liverpool paid for Alisson (£65m) and Chelsea paid for Kepa (£71m). With Petr Cech retiring after the season, expect Leno to inherit the number 1 shirt he deserves to start next season.
Refuse to lose
The Arsenal players showed plenty of individual skill in their 2-0 victory on Sunday, but perhaps the most impressive aspect of their play with the determination and grit they showed in holding on to the clean sheet in victory. Aaron Ramsey shook off the notion that he is unfit to play in a deeper role under Emery with his seven tackles and persistent effort when out of possession, while Granit Xhaka displayed the steely resolve and fighting spirit that have increasingly become hallmarks of his play this season. Alexandre Lacazette could be seen chasing down United players from behind deep into the second half, never once giving quarter or relenting in the face of mounting pressure from United to pull back into the match. Even Aubameyang showed signs of effort and focus in defence, using his incredible pace to harass defenders into rushed an inaccurate passes.
As good as the front five was in defence, the real stars of the show were the five defenders at the back. Ainsley Maitland-Niles was practically battered off the pitch for most of the afternoon, but he showed his tenacity by always fighting back and went on to make some vital stops in the waning moments of the match. He finished with four tackles and four interceptions, and for a midfielder playing out of position at the back, he showed no signs of being overmatched. On the other flank, Kolasinac used his physically imposing frame to great effect, battling hard with any player willing to take him on while managing to eliminate some of the defensive mistakes that have seen Emery favour Nacho Monreal in recent weeks at left back.
The back three of Sokratis, Laurent Koscielny and Nacho Monreal were excellent as well. Koscielny and Sokratis in particular did extremely well to marshal the troops and all three displayed a willingness to get tight to their marks, suffocating the space and forcing hurried passes in the final third. Koscielny even battled through a nasty three inch gash on his leg that had to be stapled shut on the pitch as he received treatment. It was the exact sort of gritty courage that Arsenal need in these massive top six battles, and he demonstrated why Emery awarded him the captain’s armband at the start of the season. It was not a flawless performance from the Arsenal defence, but it was one of the most courageous performances we have seen from the group in quite some time.
Auba makes amends
After seeing his potential match-winning penalty saved by Hugo Lloris in the second half of last weekend’s North London Derby, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang cut a dejected figure on the bench, his confidence potentially frayed by the enormity of his miss. The backlash he received from some corners of the internet in the aftermath of that match was extremely harsh for a player who finds himself in the running for the Premier League Golden Boot this season, but it didn’t take long for the Gabonese striker to right his wrong.
When Alexandre Lacazette was brought down in the United penalty area in the second half, many assumed the Frenchman would be the one to stand over the spot kick with a chance to extend the narrow lead. However, much like last season when he was bereft of confidence in front of goal and Aubameyang insisted he take a penalty to get himself going again, Lacazette this time returned the favour, he immediately grabbed his teammate and friend, offering the chance to take the penalty and make amends for his previous disappointment. The moment truly highlighted the almost brotherly bond of the two strikers, and the moment will potentially provide the boost Aubameyang has needed in recent weeks to resume his scoring form from earlier in the season.
Aubameyang sized up Manchester United goalkeeper David De Gea from the spot, and shook off any doubts with the brazenly confident take. The striker kept his eyes intently focused on the Spaniard in goal, never once glancing down at the ball as he began his deliberate run up. With an audacity that flew in the face of his dipping confidence, Aubameyang struck the ball straight down the middle as De Gea flinched first, diving to his left just before the ball sailed helplessly past, where he had been standing just a second before. The relief on Aubameyang’s face was palpable as he wheeled away in celebration, being met with the warm embrace of his strike partner by the corner flag as the rest of the team piled around in their elation. It was a moment of redemption that may not be forgotten in a while, and it gave Arsenal the belief they could nab the three points away from their northern rivals.
In control of top four destiny
Sunday’s brilliant victory catapulted Arsenal back ahead of Manchester United and Chelsea, into fourth place just a point off of the hated Tottenham in third. Mauricio Pochettino’s side suffered a serious let down against Southampton on the weekend, and now appear to be in their most vulnerable position of the season. Fatigue is creeping up on Spurs’ most overused players, and now Arsenal have an opportunity not only to squeeze into the final Champions League place, but go one better and achieve their highest finish since coming second to Leicester City in their Cinderella season of 2016.
With their final match of the year against a top six foe now out of the way, Arsenal control their own destiny heading into the final eight matches of the season. While the Gunners should be able to beat every opponent left on the schedule, tough away fixtures against Wolves, Leicester City, Watford and Burnley mean they must overcome their spotty form away from the Emirates to clinch their place in the Champions League. With a two goal deficit to make up in the second leg of their round of 16 clash with Rennes in the Europa League, the Premier League may have just leapfrogged that competition as the path of least resistance to get back where they belong. However, coming off such a vital win, and with a surge of confidence brought on by taking four of six points from two teams that started the match ahead in the standings, it could be time to back Arsenal to see the job through and keep both avenues of return open. There is much hard work still to be done, but Unai Emery must be commended for the rapid way in which Arsenal seem to have reversed their fortunes after a tough start to 2019.
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