I don’t think I can even start this entry without first acknowledging how often the average football fan is wrong. On this occasion I have to hold my hands up and reconsider my opinion of a player I’ve slated and underestimated for most of his Arsenal career, in Mohamed Elneny. While I didn’t publicly voice my concerns when I saw the starting lineup, my doubts make me more than guilty.
There’s an interesting, almost inexplicable dynamic in football when it comes to a player’s standards and their ability to improve. Sometimes it’s positional, like when Wenger had the good sense to turn Henry back into a forward and sometimes it’s down to the occasion, like Sir Alex Ferguson’s use of Ji Sung Park in big games because he always knew he’d rise to that occasion. Above all though, is the role of partnerships.
Adams and Bould, Vieira and Petit, Campbell and Touré, Vieira and Petit, Koscielny and Mertesacker, Coquelin and Cazorla. The road to success will always owe more to the sum of its parts than the individual, and sometimes it takes time to find a complementary combination. In some cases, one side of the partnership serves as an enabler, which was no more apparent than with Coquelin – someone to do the dirty work and keep the rest simple to allow Cazorla to flourish. What Elneny did yesterday was even more impressive though, because to me, he was never anything more than an another enabler. After failing to make even 15 league appearances and a loan spell in a division far inferior to the Premier League, he suddenly finds himself starting against United at Old Trafford against the likes of Bruno Fernandes and Paul Pogba.
It wasn’t just a case of him playing the same old, tidy passes from side to side, while shifting the risk and responsibility to more creative players. It was a player rising to the occasion and playing with the same mobility, drive and progression as his midfield counterpart and I saw aspects of his play that I didn’t even know were there. There were glimpses against Sheffield when he was instrumental in breaking the deadlock, and it was the first time I thought I could see development in a player many thought they had already figured out.
My criticisms were always centered around his limitations but I’d never really appreciated the impact his counterparts could have in limiting his bounding energy. It also lends support to the intangible benefits of signing genuine, world-class players; it’s impossible to glean much from the limited insights we have in training and behind the scenes work at the club, but I’m sure training with a player like Thomas Partey is going to be an eye-opener. It’s human nature to want to feel accepted and if that means training like a madman to bridge that gap, so be it. It also goes some ways in explaining another player’s eviction from the squad and would point to a real desire from Arteta to breed a certain culture within the squad.
It’s also worth mentioning that one performance isn’t enough to declare Elneny-Partey as our midfield overlords until the end of time, and had we not come away with a win, my tone probably wouldn’t have changed much and I’d still be ruing our creativity.. but we didn’t, so I’m not.
As first halves go – minus the lack of goals – that’s about as good as it gets.
Taking the game to United, making early statements with committed challenges, immediate tempo – essentially starting as we meant to go on. It would be easy to draw comparisons to Leicester, because the level of dominance was the same but that’s also a testament to the belief in what Arteta continues to ask of them.
There was enough deviation from our approach to the Leicester game to be pleased about, with Aubameyang finding more opportunities in the middle and less emphasis on a war of attrition of aerial crosses. The chances we did create were – one way or another – far more clear-cut than the Leicester game, and on another day, we could have gone into half-time 4-0 up. Lacazette denied by a toe, Bellerin’s cross is about 70 mph slower, Willian makes less contact or Lindelöf’s arse doesn’t edge Aubameyang’s effort the wrong side of the post.
On paper, there wasn’t a great deal different in our setup to explain this but there was more life in every area of the pitch, thanks in part to a highly-mobile midfield flanked by pacey and ambitious wingbacks. Lacazette was a reliable outboard to focus our attacks around while serving as the first line of defence and was second in ball recoveries (I think I remember reading?) after Partey.
It was only natural to see some kickback in the second half, and even with our two centre-backs in the book, there was little in the way of “weathering the storm” and besides a near-miss from Harry Maguire, it was all pretty routine stuff at the back. I’m running out of ways to sing Gabriel’s praises already; he’s 22, in his first season in England and he’s playing like a prime Koscielny, which I really don’t use lightly. Tight when he needs to be, stays on his feet sensibly and has a very clean style of tackling when he does need to – and that’s on top of the aerial dominance. I’m still trying to figure out how we managed to get him for £26m but there we go.
The deadlock and decider came not long after this period of pressure and unsurprisingly came to fruition thanks to United’s suspect left-hand side, having had little luck getting the better of Wan Bissaka (which is also unsurprising because in my book, he’s the best defender in the league in a 1-on-1 situation). I’m not sure what Luke Shaw’s up to and Pogba, much like the rest of the game, was second-best, this time to Bellerin’s darting run. I saw some talk of it being “soft” but if Mike Dean’s giving a penalty to Arsenal, it’s an irrefutable stick-on. The penalty itself was put away with conviction and put to bed the idiotic suggestions that he was suffering a “goal drought” (5 games without might be a lot by his standards but seriously…
It’s fair to say things got a little bit dicey in the closing stages. I was waiting for the inevitable Mike Dean score-settling riposte, whether it was a red card or penalty but it never came. If anything, Gabriel was lucky to stay on the pitch when he made this challenge 5 minutes after the goal but I still eagerly await the day that man retires because he puts me on edge.
It devolved into a classic case of “game management”, something which the likes of Partey are all too familiar with, especially with such a scoreline and he looked in his element alongside Elneny. With Lacazette’s departure, there was an even greater burden on those two but they rose to the challenge and Elneny would have happily played another half on top judging by his rabid pressing in the dying stages. I don’t have an issue with piling on the defenders either, because for 80 minutes, we’d taken the game to United and fell victim to the same tactics against Leicester.
Arteta’s reaction at the final whistle said it all, and I’m sure the prospect of 3 losses on the bounce weighed on his mind but there’s something really admirable in sticking to your principles. There were obvious adjustments but unlike United, there’s a genuine identity to how we play and I’m still very much on-board with “the process”. I really, really dislike United and 14 years was far too long to wait. It’s also another Big Six scalp and has gone well beyond the realms of a fluke in Arteta’s growing credibility.
After the game, Arteta said:
“I just tried to generate belief and I just demanded to be who we are, in any ground”
It’s like Eau de Wenger.. WITH PRAGMATISM. Music to my ears.