Football’s a simple game, isn’t it?
Have your defenders defend; have your holding midfielders hold; have your most creative player create…
How strange then that it has taken so long for this rudimentary prescription to be swallowed by Arsenal.
What mad chemists and quack doctors have we had attending to our club’s body for the last year and a half? How have we have wasted so much time on our death bed when it turns out our remedy was so straightforward?
Last night we beat Manchester United by out-playing, out-fighting and out-working them. When Rio Ferdinand on BT Sport said after the game that we had bullied his old team I shed a tear of joy.
In fact, but for a rush of claret to Bernd Leno’s conk, we could be sitting here with six points from our last two games and convincing wins over both Chelsea and United. Still, no use crying over spilled crosses.
At the risk of getting more ahead of myself than Doc Brown in Back to the Future, I am going to suggest that we have turned a corner.
Not that it’s all going to be perfect from here on (no doubt we will have defeats and disappointing performances ahead), but that there is a new sense of belief and purpose at The Arsenal.
The man responsible for this new dawn, Mikel Arteta, made three changes from the Chelsea game to face a resurgent United who have been on a strong run of form: Sokratis was recalled to the defence after suspension, Kolasinac returned as left back after a recent ankle injury and Pepe was preferred in attack to Nelson.
The mood on this blog and others before kick-off was not universally positive, with some fearing that a combination of United’s good run, our woeful luck with injuries and the fragile confidence of our squad all pointed to a win for the Mancs.
I was among the “glass half full” contingent, having seen enough encouraging signs in Arteta’s first two games against Bournemouth and Chelsea to at least feel hopeful.
And so it turned out. After weathering a fast United start for five minutes (including a long range Rashford shot that went straight to Leno) we quickly settled into a rhythm and looked just as composed and dynamic as we did against the Chavs.
Our defense knew its job and held its position, Lucas Torreira and Granit Xhaka performed outstandingly as double pivots in the holding midfield roles, Ozil was given licence to create and our front three ran and ran and harried and harried.
We earned our reward quickly. In the 9th minute Aubameyang received the ball from the impressive Kolasinac on the left; Kola carried on his run and got the ball back from Auba, then played a low cross into the near post area. It caught a defender’s boot and span out to Pepe who was loitering near the penalty spot. Pepe’s finish was classy (and did not get enough credit from the TV commentary team and pundits if you ask me, although Robin van Persie did say “that was a really good goal, you know”). I say this because the low cross was a little behind our expensive Ivorian ornament and it took real skill to get his body position right and to guide the shot perfectly beyond De Gea’s dive.
From there we went from strength to strength. United didn’t seem to know what was hitting them and we could easily have scored a couple more, but the chances didn’t fall our way. Even so, we were completely dominant and, more importantly, our play showed a clear continuation from Sunday’s game in terms of style, organisation and commitment.
At this point I, at least, was starting to get a worrying sense of déjà vu. Is this going to be Chelsea all over again? An outstanding half, a one-nil lead, then lose it at the death because our players are knackered?
We really needed that second goal that we never managed against Lampard’s team… and up popped Sokratis to oblige. Pepe drilled in a lethal corner to the near post; Lacazette got the flick on which prevented De Gea from gathering the ball cleanly and as it bounced off the ‘keeper United forgot to beware of Greeks putting in a shift as our big centre half volleyed into the roof of the net.
From watching on the TV the response in the stadium seemed volcanic. You realised we had not been dead this past year, just dormant.
Unsurprisingly, United came out with more commitment in the second half and carried the game to us without ever really seeming to threaten. With our two-goal cushion we were happy to sit back more but we still kept our shape.
Pepe, who’d had a good first half, faded in the second and was replaced on 62 minutes by Nelson. Kolasinac was forced to go off shortly afterwards with what looked like a recurrence of his ankle injury. Saka replaced him.
By this stage the fitness issues that became apparent in the Chelsea game were starting to show again. Arteta clearly wants his players to play a high intensity style of football with more running and effort than they were used to under Emery and they’re just not up to it at the moment.
It was evident in the struggles some players had to keep going and in the growing collection of injuries we were picking up (tired players are more likely to get crocked than fresh ones).
Improving our fitness can be added to Arteta’s long “To Do” list.
Just when Torreira was hobbling late in the game and looked likely to be taken off, Lacazette also broke down, forcing Arteta to remove the Frenchman instead (replacing him with Guendouzi). Encouragingly, Torreira had signalled the bench that he was happy to battle through.
There was one good late chance for United, but we saw out the game relatively comfortably in the end and could even have added a third if a couple of second-half breakaway attacks had been executed more efficiently.
At the final whistle, and following on from the performance against Chelsea, it really did feel like the start of a new year and new era at Arsenal.
A few things I loved:
- Luiz and Xhaka especially (but also some of the other players) shouting and organising and cajoling their team mates throughout – but always in an encouraging and supportive way.
- Torreira and Xhaka’s positional discipline.
- Luiz looking like a world class centre half for the second game running.
- Ozil being Ozil.
- Lacazette, whose finishing boots are still the subject of “Lost and Found” notices in grocery shop windows all up and down the Holloway Road, nevertheless working his socks off, playing really well with his back to goal and pressing the United defenders throughout.
- Pepe slowly emerging into an asset.
Two things I didn’t love:
- Wan-Bissaka’s outrageous dive to try and win a penalty not getting penalised with a card.
- Yet another ref who was happy to brandish cards at anyone in a red shirt while ignoring our opponents. Kolasinac was booked for his very first foul because it was deliberately intended to unsportingly break up a United attack. Seconds later Matic did exactly the same thing… no card. We have started to get used to this abuse, but I hope the club are addressing this with the PGMOL (using Untold Arsenal’s research that shows we receive more yellows per fouls than virtually any other team).
Ratings from LBG
Generally good performance. Fine save coming out and smothering. Still one or two occasions when he doesn’t seem himself convinced about short passing out from the back… and yet plays the pass and we all cringe with concern.
Maitland Niles 6
Needs too much thinking time on the ball to make a pass and is closed down. Commits too many times totally out wide and if beaten massive gap appears behind. Jockey, jockey, jockey. And stop making low percentage passes with the outside of your foot, inevitably cut out.
Solid, committed, very little wrong. Scored the all-important second.
Got to admit, near perfect. Committed. Leading by example. Where have you been Daviid?
Fine if you don’t want much intelligent defensive work. For God’s sake Kola, sure press the winger hard and fast and aggressively, BUT stop before you get to him!!
Fine marauding wing back going forward and even some successful final passes.
Another of my betes noirs who turned up, produced some solid disciplined positional shape. Usual handful of successful wide diagonals and very little of his normal sh** shovelling and back and side passes.
Torreira 9 MoTM
What a player! Committed, intelligent defending especially reading and cutting out passes. But also gritty solid tackling, refusing to be knocked off the ball. And could easily have scored with a beautiful drop of the shoulder dummy.
The nonchalant genius is finding his feet, working hard, creating panic in the opposition and looking like he will soon score himself.
Thank you for the goal, thank you for some clever passes into space and feet. Slowly believing, but I think needs to take on his fullback more. Generally happy but tired as you would expect from a 19 year old.
Work rate in defence, pure quality. Attempted to play a number of final passes to team mates when he should have been selfish and taken goals for himself.
Excellent work rate. Fantastic turn in box. Only criticism has lost his shooting boots.