Mikel Arteta and his players launched 2020 by rocking The Emirates to its foundations with a brilliant evening of intense football. Arsenal kept a clean sheet, locked United out of the game for 90 minutes, and scored two brilliant goals to gift us a vitally important 3 points.
The game was so good, I don’t actually know where to start, but the line-up would be handy. We really weren’t in good shape with our starting 11. Kola had to be drafted back lacking fitness, we started Pepe who has been under a lot of criticism, and we had to roll with a group of players that have slugged it out hard over the past 3 games. One thing was for sure, there wasn’t much conservatism, Arteta went for it.
It didn’t make a difference, most considered the Chelsea game a great performance with a poor result. The football was at the right level of intensity, and so it continued. The main difference in this game was United didn’t have the same quality in midfield, so it was a little easier for Arsenal to control the game. I was interested to see how Kola would operate, we know he often leaves the defence exposed with his runs, last night, Granit Xhaka would regularly drop into the left-back role to cover him defensively, or to drop him to give him freedom offensively / allow him time to pick out passes.
Our first goal came from his run. He had a one-two with Auba, pushed into the box, his low cross squirmed out of a melee of 6 United players falling to Pepe who swept home. The lid blew off the stadium, everyone in the ground is so desperate for Pepe to be a thing, that was a great start to the night for him.
The half was dominated by great Arsenal chances. Pepe found Auba at the back post, his bicycle kick was skewed over. Torreira danced through the United defence to squeeze a shot just wide. Lacazette outmuscled Maguire and uncharacteristically pushed his shot wide from 6 yards. The closest came after we’d forced De Gea into an error, Pepe picked up the loose ball on the edge of the area and rattled the post.
We did make the pressure count. Pepe rattled a corner at the front post, Lacazette wasn’t tracked, he nodded the ball on, Sokratis bullied his way to the ball and roofed it.
The pace in the game did start to dip a fraction on 40 minutes again, but I still felt we were in control. My worry was that United had planned for us to start strong and fade, with the hope of picking us off in the second half. We did drop physically in the second half, but it felt like we had more of a plan to absorb the pressure. We sat a little more deep, forcing United to try and play football, and we attempted to pick them off on the counter.
What I loved to see was the compactness of the defence. We were nice and narrow, there was aways two midfielders protecting the back four, and we were aggressive. The players wanted the result, and they wanted the clean sheet.
We had some chances in the second half, Mesut Ozil played a defence-splitting pass that was stunning over to Auba who couldn’t link up well enough with Lacazette. We closed the game out well, limiting United to long shots and diving for penalties. Saka, Nelson and MG gave us some more energy late on to see the game out.
It ended 2-0. The fans stayed behind the congratulate the players who’d gathered in the centre spot with the manager. A brilliant show of unity. The last 18 months have been forgotten, a new decade, a new coach, and a new benchmark for how we play the beautiful game.
So what did we learn?
Arteta has lived up to the coaching hype even after 2 weeks. I don’t think there’s any doubt that he was more than the cone boy at Manchester City now. He’s taken players that most fans had totally written off and turned them into beasts. The squad is a long way from Liverpool’s, no doubt, but too many people let Emery off the hook by stating the players we have at the club couldn’t be moved forward.
David Luiz was an absolute monster, he looked a £50m centre back out there last night. He was everywhere, strong in the challenge, he was coaching the kids, he was actually celebrating good passes between players during the game with fist bumps. He was immense versus Chelsea, even better last night.
Granit Xhaka was right up there with man of the match plaudits. His game was impeccable. He was measured, thoughtful, and disciplined all night. For a man that had one foot out the exit door, he sure didn’t play like it, a total professional.
Mesut Ozil has rightly rubbed a lot of fans the wrong way, but here we are, game 3, and he’s still putting in a dirty shift at the office. He worked like a dog, he ran further than any Arsenal player, and he made a huge difference. He made a 10 ball recoveries, which shows he’s paying attention and engaged. That’s all we ask for, it’s great to see him back enjoying a type of football many said he couldn’t play.
Lacazette didn’t land a goal, but he put in a workman like shift upfront. Auba, considering he’s looking to move, looked very much into the game. Nicolas Pepe showed us a glimpse of his talent. He had an incredibly productive day and banged out a shift. It was a pleasure to watch him.
There was so much debate about how long it’d take a good coach to give a club an identity when Emery was here, but look where we are now, 3 games in and we’re an aggressive possession-based football team that loves to attack. It’s not perfect, but we’re well on our way to unlocking a lethal front line of talented players. The Arsenal way we thought we lost is here, and we didn’t need to spend £400m to get there.
Defence is always about the collective. For too long we’ve focused on it being about individual greatness because there’s never been a collective system. That’s all changed now. Arteta looks to have focused on creating a solid foundation more than anything. Everyone had clear roles and responsibilities, the positioning is absolutely clear, and the whole team works to get the ball back.
The pressing is unbelievable. I can’t believe what I’m seeing. Everyone aggressively hunting the ball down in packs. Lucas Torriera was a machine last night, the guy was literally everywhere. Why? Because he has a system that allows him to be that player.
I’ve not been as much as I used to over the past few years, but I’ve been to big games and felt the misery. That atmosphere last night was something else. The players created a reason for the fans to care. They were brutal, intense and they wanted to win. We reacted to it. We sang all game, stayed until the end, and made The Emirates the sort of place you’d want to sit in on a cold night in January. We finally have something to believe in, and it’s exciting.
I didn’t expect a win, so we’re ahead of schedule in my head. Now we have a bit of breathing space. Unfit players can get some energy back in their legs, injured players can return to stock the bench, and Arteta and his coaching staff can continue to develop their ideas. The next two months are about laying the foundations for an attack on the Europa League, but interestingly, if we can find some form in the Premier League, we might be able to have a crack at the top 4. We’re 9 points off Chelsea who are desperately inconsistent, we’re within 4 points of United, and 3 points of Spurs. I’d rather not be in Europa, but Champions League would give us a tremendous financial opportunity this summer. All very exciting.
The road ahead will be bumpy, there is lots to do, but we can rest assured the club has made a stunning decision to hire Mikel Arteta. Next season is going to be special, but first, let’s see where this one takes us.