What we saw last night felt like another step closer to Arteta’s “end product”, despite being only three games deep into his tenure. The kind of response he’s received from these players, even at this early stage, really is palpable. There was intensity, desire, organisation and effort, and we’ve seen each of these in every game we’ve played under him. It may not have quite come together against Chelsea but taking one win from these two fixtures is still quite an achievement, particularly given the manner we approached each of them. It’s also one thing losing to Chelsea in such a manner, but the prospect of consecutive home defeats wasn’t an idea I wanted to linger on and it was important to get an early win to allay any premature judgement about his appointment.
In spite of our continued insistence on breaking the worst kind of records – we were on our worst home run in 60 years – we were at least unbeaten in matches at the Emirates on New Years Day heading into the fixture. That didn’t exactly fill me with belief, which also wasn’t helped by the purple patches the likes of Rashford and Martial have been enjoying lately but in reality, Leno was rarely forced into any meaningful saves.
It may be early days, and I really don’t want to let my imagination run wild – we said similar things in the early days of Emery, but last night was really enjoyable and full of interesting individual and collective positives to sink your teeth into.
Arteta’s messianic-like ability to resurrect players is the first thing I’d like to address because the turnaround he’s achieved in such a short time-frame is nothing short of impressive.
I, as well as many others, had all but written off Sokratis. He’s a player who I thought was beyond salvaging; even though he looked like a shrewd, stop-gap signing last season with plenty of good performances under his belt. What we’ve largely seen from him this season genuinely made me question if he was a professional footballer and not some bedraggled yokel unwillingly dragged out of the pub to help out. David Luiz has also been a source of ridicule this season, a player seemingly well past his best whose qualities had been reduced to the once-a-season worldie free kick and the occasional 50 yard pass. His performance against Chelsea, and his Man of The Match-winning performance last night would say otherwise, with United’s attack being almost entirely stifled. Besides a few audacious efforts from range, I’m hard pressed in remembering if Leno even had to make a meaningful save, such was the defensive strength. The news of Calum Chambers’ ACL injury (and 9 month prognosis on the sidelines) had me grimacing at the prospect of a return to the wrong-side-of-30 defensive pairing we saw last night but it turns out shape, positioning and actually having a functional midfield in front of you might just be a recipe for a good defence. It also turns out defending properly makes it easier to win football matches.
Xhaka is another player who deserves a great deal of credit after his performance last night. It was far more reminiscent of International Xhaka than Emery’s Xhaka and it’s now clear to see that a double-pivot with Torreira gives us the most balance. The latter impressed for a 3rd game in a row, and I hope to Christ that’s another step in ensuring he stays at the club after some worrying rumours circulating about a possible return to Italy. Emery was disinclined to use him, for some unfathomable reason, but thankfully Arteta can see what’s in front of him. This emerging partnership is something that has been so dearly missing this season, with a lack of consistency in our starting lineup an impasse for any kind of consistency.
Özil is another who seems to have taken to Arteta’s Arsenal like a moth to a flame. He was influential against Chelsea but his influence waned after Jorginho’s introduction. Last night saw him roll back the years with a domineering performance that was closer to what many expected to see on a regular basis after his last bumper contract renewal. He covered more ground than any other Arsenal player, and was the most he’s clocked in more than 2 years. Not one for running just for the sake of it, he also managed 10 ball recoveries, which was the most of any player on the pitch. While I think we were good for a few more goals last night (and I’d have dearly loved to put United to the sword – overdue since the 8-2 and yet to be avenged), the front 3 with Özil combined well again last night and when Lacazette remembers how to shoot, they’re going to do some damage. That being said, Lacazette’s work rate and hold-up play more than made up for another rocky night for him in front of goal. Despite Aubameyang’s best efforts to provide for his pal, it wasn’t to be.
While we’re on the subject, I thought it was another inspired performance from Aubameyang, who seemed to be trying to redefine his own meticulous standards of work rate. The obvious similarities between him and our most notable No. 14 (sorry, Theo) – the pace, the goals, the flair (on and off the pitch) – begin to diverge when we’re without the ball. Although Henry contributed the odd, lunging “strikers” tackle, he would rarely be seen filling in at fullback, something Aubameyang’s been seen doing on several occasions this season when the likes of Saka and Kolasinac make those surging runs forward. He relentlessly harried the United backline as well, and forced more than a few errors out of them with his pace and tenacity. Had he been greedier, the scoreline may not have been so kind but his selfless attitude is commendable and last night felt like a captain’s performance. There are other leaders in this squad – David Luiz and Granit Xhaka are obvious names in this discussion – so to see them all having an influence is great to see.
Ainsley’s also really starting to develop some consistency in his play; the end product is still a work in progress but for a player who identifies as more of a holding midfielder, he seems to have all the attributes of a solid fullback and I’d be interested to know if he’s beginning to change his tune.
On the opposite side, Kolasinac returned from injury with another bullish performance and I’m sure there were more than a few United players who were glad to see the back of him when he was forced off after 69 minutes. Hugely influential in the first goal with his deflected cutback finding the mark, the positivity he displayed in his runs throughout were causing United all kinds of problems. He’s one of he few players I’d argue actually improved under Emery this season (though I’m not sure who to attribute credit to for that), as he’s become far more reliable in defence while making more intelligent ventures into the opposition half. As it stands, Tierney will have his work cut out to usurp him based on his current form (provided his injury isn’t serious).
The four changes to the team we saw against Chelsea were all brought in for different reasons; one returning from injury, another deputising for an injured starter, one returning for reasons we don’t fully yet understand (though both Xhaka and Arteta now seem to be suggesting that he is here to stay) and the last being given an opportunity to make a point. It wasn’t a vintage performance, and he may have only lasted an hour, but Nicolas Pépé made the same kind of statement as he did after curling in two direct free kicks when he bailed us out against Vitória. The numbers speak for themselves:
If that wasn’t enough, he also left Luke Shaw and a few others scrabbling around on the floor like the peasants they are, which is always fun to watch. He’s a player who telegraphs their intention from a mile away – you know he wants to get onto his left foot, so it seems to obvious how to stop him, but more often than not, he got what he wanted and on another day, his other effort would have curled inside the post as well. He was also instrumental in creating the second, with a pre-assist earned from a wicked delivery. Mesut Ozil’s left foot is nothing to turn your nose up at but deliveries like Pépé’s pre-assist aren’t really something in his locker, so it doesn’t hurt to have some variety in set piece specialists. While Reiss Nelson has also impressed under Arteta, we saw plenty from Pépé last night that went some ways in reaffirming his price tag.
Arteta & The Collective
In some ways, looking back at last night makes me frustrated because even at this early stage, it’s plain to see that our players were being largely misused these last 18 months. No one was suggesting that we simply had a bad squad, and you can ask questions about the level of commitment the players applied to Emery’s vision, but that’s as much indicative of Emery’s failings as it is of the players’ disinterest. If a former player (who only left us as a player 3 years ago) is coming in – with no managerial experience whatsoever – and whipping these players into shape, commanding respect and commitment to his project, it really beggars belief when you cast your mind back.
Maybe that’s what makes Arteta special? We don’t know yet. Pep and Arsène are no fools but I don’t think anyone expected such an immediate identity to emerge. It’s natural to draw similarities to City and their tenacious press and regimented system, but replicating so many traits so quickly is quite a feat. While he may not have been the first to coin the term, Pep’s “Five Second Rule” (where you have 5 seconds to try and regain possession) was evident last night and it’s that lack of urgency that has so often been our undoing this season.
There seems to be real unity across the board too; from a pre-match team huddle on the pitch, to the group celebrations both on the pitch and among Arteta and his staff. It was just as clear in their work ethic on the pitch; I can’t remember a performance where I felt every player earned their wages as they did today. Both David Luiz and Sokratis acknowledged in their post-match interview that they weren’t quite able to maintain that intensity for 90 minutes but it’s very much a work in progress. What we saw against Chelsea, not 3 days ago, was built upon today and this time, our organisation saw the job done.
To have so many standout performers on an individual level is also something to really get behind. The defensive partnership, the Torreira-Xhaka pivot, the fantasy team front four, Özil with another 90 minutes under his belt, Pépé’s growing influence, all with a healthy smattering of youth and academy prospects… I’m genuinely excited. Up next, we have an F.A. Cup trip against Championship-leaders Leeds, which will be another kind of test and an opportunity to see some more fringe players given opportunities, and an opportunity to build some momentum.
It’s early days but an emerging pattern seems to be starting games as we mean to go on, with high intensity. The players are obviously still acclimatising to the kind of conditioning that Arteta demands but that doesn’t happen overnight.