Wow, what a contrast. That was one shitty ManU team and an Arsenal team that looked prepared, focused and sharp. Nothing like the dire, putrid display of last week. We were by far the better team. Even if it took a miracle of M. Dean giving us a penalty at Old Trafford. When was the last time we got a penalty there? No clue. Don’t care. And don’t tell me that the lack of fans makes no difference. It was pretty clear cut though – not that that would have stopped Dean in the past. This was well deserved. We should have been ahead before half time. Saka, Willian and Aubameyang should all have scored. Throughout the entire game I think Leno had one save to make and one deflection that came off his head and post.
The team selection definitely had me worried. Playing Elneny against Pogba and Fernandez was worrying. But this fear was slightly offset by the reappearance of Holding rather than Mustafa. Matland-Niles must have been upset not to be playing. And to have neither regular starting midfield – Xhaka and Ceballos – not starting was equally unexpected. Areta got all these changes spot on.
Elneny was excellent today. He complimented Partey perfectly. The two of them glided through the midfield. Swift, simple one touch triangles. And, heavens above, forward passes through the lines. We were so much more dangerous than last week at home. It’s amazing how comfortable Elneny looked. Unflustered and available to receive the ball from the back three al la Xhaka. Playing that short pass out to the wingbacks after receiving the ball from the defenders. Except Elneny has a little more speed and gile. Alongside Partey, he kept the ball moving and the game flowing.
Partey was dominating. Physical and deft with touches. When he lost the ball he would recover and fight back. Going forward he has an eye for a forward pass. He trailed Pogba and dominated him both physically and tactically. Out Thomas is the real deal. He was outstanding today. The lynch-pin of this team. That touch of aggression and physicality we’ve been missing. But aligned with touch and speed. He is Torreira but with a superior touch and creative awareness.
On the wings Bellerin had as good a game as I can remember. He overlapped Willian and provided a handful of great crosses. He was physical and covered Mr. Holding, who is not exactly blessed with speed. All I ask is that he learns to get tighter to their wingers to stop more crosses coming in.
On the left Saka was electric today. Maybe more so in the first half – when he should have scored. But he pulled their right side apart. I love Rashford and Greenwood is an absolute star. But if you had to pick the best young (or old) English player on the pitch today you’d pick Saka. We was always available to receive the ball, intelligent with his distribution and creative. His link up play with Aubemeyang and Tierney was flawless. He made runs from team; attack their backline and kept them all on their toes. His only obvious blemish was that missed header. But he is surely now one of the first name on the team sheet.
Behind him Tierney was solid and reliable. Those early days of him marauding forward as a wing-back have been replaced by a solid left sided defender. He needs to work a little on his crossing. Aside from him disastrous header in the second half he help stabilize that left hand side.
Gabriel is a revelation. In his understated way he’s consistently dominated that backline. We (or some, not me) talk about our young French center-half and how he needs time and guidance. Yet Gabriel is only a few years older but looks assured and reliable. His distribution is simple and clean. Again, having Partey and Elneny in midfield helps. But there were very few of those speculative long balls today.
Prior to the penalty we had yet another period of sustain possession where we funneled the ball quickly across our lines and via our defense probing their defensive covering. There were multiple periods in the game where we patiently played it out of defense. They never put on a high press. This was one of their many mistakes and amplified Ole tactical short-comings. Long may he continue at Man U. With the talent they have at their disposal they looked surprisingly languid and spineless. It was only in the last 10 minutes that they applied any real pressure.
Leno looked just a tad unsure with some of his second half distribution often putting his defenders – Holding in particular – under unnecessary pressure. But, overall, he was barely under any pressure. He only had one save from Greenwood in the first half and that ricocheted off Tierney in the second half.
How bad was Cigarette today? Bad enough such that Willian was not our worst player. To be slightly fair – which I hate, Willan linked up well with Bellerin and worked very hard. Arteta needs to get him to move the ball quicker with less touches though. And, he should have done better than hit the bar in the first half. But Cigarette seems to be slowly being extinguished. He made one or two decent passes but too often he losses possession but being over complicated on the ball. When he moves the ball quickly he’s so much better. But today he caused too much of our inter-play to breakdown. Too often the ball would go into him, he’s either have a bad first touch, or, he would be that first man but then try and do too much with the ball.
Sometime soon Aubameyang will have to play center forward. Cigarette will score goals again. But Aubameyang will add more threat than either Cigarette or Eddie. He was involved much more today and, as expected, dispatched a flawless penalty.
Arteta redeemed himself today. That team selection, as weird and unexpected as it was, was perfect. That midfield combination freed up Partey and liberated the rest of the team. We had more attacking intent than any game since the start of the season. Against Liverpool and Man City, with our understandable inferiority complex, we just tried to hit them on the counter attack. Today, we controlled the game for substantial periods and dominated an average Man United. Last year we drew with them when we should have won. This year, with a proper manager (albeit at the expense of one accountant) we were brave enough to take the game to them and got our just rewards.
Arteta won the tactical side of the game on all fronts. By his starting team, positional adjustments and then by deploying the right substitutions are the right time. A perfect Arteta performance. As downbeat, angry and, frankly, worried, as I was with our dreary, turgid performance against Vardy and Rogers, today reminded me that I need to be patient. Of course, I am renowned for my infinite patience; one of the calmest people anyone knows. People often comment how quiet, calm and reserved I am with my emotions while watching Arsenal; a right paragon of Zen. We (and that means me) need to give Arteta time. I’ve always known that. I’ve preached incremental progress and developmental progress. I’ve lectured others on the need to support Arteta and not judge him for 2 years. We’ve already surpassed initial expectation by winning the F A Cup and qualifying for Europe with an average team. He has elevated our game, improved players and started a long, hard rebuild. And days like today remind us of the long-term upside for him and this team. It’s just that it will be a bumpy road.
Mike Dean awarded us a penalty! Whatever next. And that decision gave us all three points. It’s a miracle. A thoroughly deserved one. We were the better team. Played the better football and looked more likely to score. A day to be happy and revel in the talent of Saka, Partey, Aubemeyang and Gabriel. We even managed to withstand Mustafa coming onto the pitch for the last few minutes.
Time to sit back and wallow in the glory of three points from Old Trafford. A win (away) against a top six team (that happen to be in 18th place). And the continued growth of this team. Today we saw what quick, slick, direct and forward looking passing can yield. No sideways passing today thank you very much. Just recycling and movement. We got our Arsenal back. Of course it helps that Man United are shit.