In an impressive night of football, Arsenal outclassed Manchester United to win 2-0 at the Emirates.
The Gunners picked up their first win under Mikel Arteta in high style as they blew away their old rivals in the first-half and outlasted them in the second. What did we learn?
1. The Arteta (Half-)Effect
Manchester United and Arsenal came into this game both somewhat broken sides, but watching the game itself you would have never known it. One side looked really well structured and understood their role and were thus able to play in a clear and concise pattern. The other looked like a drunken shambling mess of a side where not one player could have been said to have excelled (Fred was alright).
That is down to one man: Mikel Arteta. Arsenal recruiting their former player from Manchester City’s coaching staff was a big risk, but what we’ve seen so far, and in particular this afternoon, show that it was a risk worth taking. Arteta has clearly learnd a lot working with Pep Guardiola and one can see the Catalan’s fingerprints all over the way Arsenal are playing now.
Every outfield Arsenal player that started the game against Manchester United made at least one successful tackle.
A complete team effort. 💪 pic.twitter.com/3CqyKloaB7
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) January 1, 2020
But the credit must go to Arteta, because in such a short space of time he has gotten so many misfits looking well-adjusted and started Arsenal back on the path to greatness. It’s clear that as long as Arteta is supported with competent work in the transfer market, it’s clear that he will be able to build something of substance in North London.
Obviously there is a long way to go, because as good as Arsenal were in the first-half they faded badly in the second. This is down to fitness levels and a lack of time for Arteta to fully implement his vision, but the spark to set the Gunners armoury alight and bring about a quite glorious new dawn at the Emirates Stadium is quite clearly there.
2. Arsenal fix their full-backs (and United don’t)
Both Arsenal and Manchester United came into this game with malfunctioning full-backs. Arsenal’s are all great going forward but struggle immensely in defence, whilst United have one magnificent defender, one good prospect and then a mishmash of nonsense.
But watching this game, Arsenal used their full-backs fabulously whilst United’s were just atrocious. The impact of Mikel Arteta was immensely obvious as Arsenal brought Ainsley Maitland-Niles narrow during build-up, having him act as an auxiliary midfielder. This allows him to play a position he wants to whilst also helping prevent opponent’s transition. He can (and did) occasionally burst forward, but for the most part he aided build-up and left Nicolas Pépé to engage 1v1 in attack.
Meanwhile on the left, with Maitland-Niles keeping defensive balance Sead Kolasinac was free to raid forward and raid he did. The Bosnian was rampaging well into the United half repeatedly and only repeated interventions from Aaron Wan-Bissaka and the presence of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang held him back. Kolasinac created Arsenal’s opener and could have produced so much more.
Manchester United have a similar problem with Aaron Wan-Bissaka not being a gifted attacker but being a supreme defender. They could pair this by having him remain in defence to kill opponent transitions and set their young prospect Brandon Williams free to raid forward and influence the game in attack.
Instead they started Luke Shaw, a player who hasn’t developed at all in the five years since his debut season as an 18-year-old at Southampton and who spent the majority of today’s game getting turned inside out by Nicolas Pépé, and played both full-backs in symmetrical roles. Given how much Arsenal’s full-back play defined the game, United’s failure to do the same is part of why the result ended up being what it was – and this kind of failure will continue until United do sort things out at full-back.
3. Pépé Lives!
Nicolas Pépé hasn’t featured much for Arsenal since Mikel Arteta took charge, with many speculating as to why and even wondering why Arsenal signed him in the first place. Well the Ivorian got the start against Manchester United and set about disproving all of those viewpoints about him.
Pépé was just sensational against Manchester United, running at The Red Devils every time he was on the ball. His movement was sharper, his ideas so clear. He scored the opening goal with a composed finish and that was perhaps the least impressive part of his performance as he destroyed Luke Shaw over and over again with his clever movement. The move where he struck the post was Robben-esque. This kid is going to be mega un
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4. United need creators
Manchester United are a shockingly uncreative side. Their wins against Newcastle and Burnley aside, Man Utd have routinely struggled against teams that defend deep and haven’t won three games in a row since Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s sixth game in charge (the Norwegian won his opening six games). They can handle big teams easy enough because the quality of their opponents dictate their style, but when teams give them the ball they don’t know what to do with it.
Arsenal gave them the ball second-half and true enough they didn’t know what to do with it. They dominated the ball but couldn’t break an exhausted Arsenal down. The lack of a creative voice in the final third is notable. Marcus Rashford and Mason Greenwood played wide but both men are goalscorers whose creativity isn’t expansive, and Dan James is creative but one-dimensionally, on the break. And whilst Fred played well in the middle Nemanja Matic was horrific and United are crying out for a creative no. 10 who they can route attacks through.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer said United will only move in January if the “right” player becomes available. Well on the evidence of this game the right no. 10 (and no. 6) could be literally anyone. They are desperate.
5. David Luiz is a warrior
In perhaps the biggest surprise of the night, Arsenal put in an incredible rearguard action to defend a 2-0 lead won by scintillating attacking play. When the Gunners started hot, even when they scored, people weren’t that surprised. They did just that to Chelsea a couple of days ago only to lose their way in the second half and get torn apart by two late goals.
So even though Arsenal ended the first period two up, most fans expected The Red Devils to turn it around. And true enough The Red Devils dominated the second-half and created way more pressure. In fact they played the vast majority of it in Arsenal’s half. And yet Arsenal never really looked like conceding, Bernd Leno had to make saves but rarely anything amazing.
And why? Because David Luiz played with the kind of class and command that he hasn’t done since in a back three at Chelsea. The Brazilian was a beast at the back. He made four clearances, no one managed more, but what was more impressive was the way he organised his team-mates; bellowing orders and moving them where they should be. And then there was the way he would constantly rouse the home crowd.
This was the performance of a leader. “When physically you are not there, you have to put your heart,” he said after the match, epitomising the rugged determination that burns at his core. Rarely has a player been as misunderstood as David Luiz, and sure he can occasionally make mistakes but when placed in a well-oiled system and under the guidance of a truly intelligent coach he shines. All the smiling and joking in the world cannot disguise the fact that this is the kind of warrior you want on your side.