Mikel Arteta has his first win as the Arsenal manager on the back of a dominant first-half performance against Manchester United and if there is a distance to cover before the club’s past glories are recovered it is at least a start. Arsenal had kicked off in 13th place, four points above the relegation zone,
Mikel Arteta has his first win as the Arsenal manager on the back of a dominant first-half performance against Manchester United and if there is a distance to cover before the club’s past glories are recovered it is at least a start.
Arsenal had kicked off in 13th place, four points above the relegation zone, and everybody knew another home defeat would make it four in a row – admittedly not all on Arteta’s watch but equal to a club record.
Arteta has advised supporters not to look at the table, merely to judge the performances, but it does look a little less gloomy now, with Arsenal back in the top half. Moreover, the collective performance was good, built on spirit, hard work and sound game management, even if it came against a United team who were loose at the back and bankrupt in creative terms.
Arsenal might have scored more in the first-half but the goals from Nicolas Pépé and Sokratis Papastathopoulos gave them more than enough to defend. United had arrived in decent form, their confidence up and it was a chance for them to close on fourth-placed Chelsea, who had drawn at Brighton earlier in the day.
The game felt well set for United, given their preference to sting on the counterattack against teams who play on the front foot but they never got going. Even in the second half, when they had the territorial advantage, they struggled to create anything of note. Arsenal sat back, denying them the chance to break and that was pretty much that.
Arteta has made intensity a priority and Arsenal started positively just as they had done against Chelsea on Sunday. Once again, they took an early lead and it was a big moment for Pépé, the £72m record signing, who profited from close range after Sead Kolasinac’s low cross had flicked off Victor Lindelöf’s heel. United wanted an offside against Kolasinac, who had collected a pass from Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, but VAR confirmed the left-back was level.
This was once the fixture of the Premier League season but a glance at the league table before kick-off told its own story. Those clashes, in which players such as Patrick Vieira and Roy Keane were prominent, were frequently underscored by spite and there were bits of niggle in this one, the tone set when David Luiz went through Anthony Martial in the first minute. He escaped a booking but Kolasinac did not when he pulled down Daniel James in the next action. The referee, Chris Kavanagh, was a busy man, ruling on a host of borderline incidents.
United flickered at the outset before settling into a strangely passive groove, their only ploy being to play balls up the channels for their pacy attackers. It was too predictable. In the continued absence of the injured Paul Pogba and Scott McTominay, Ole Gunnar Solskjær played Fred and Nemanja Matic in central midfield and they were sluggish, to put it mildly; the former’s performance summed up by the 90th-minute free-kick that threatened the top tier of the stand. In front of them, Jesse Lingard was anonymous as the No 10.
Harry Maguire, who laboured at the back, sent a free header at Bernd Leno on 45 minutes – United’s only first-half chance – and, by then, Arsenal were 2-0 up, the second goal following horrible defending on a Pépé corner. Marcus Rashford was statuesque as Alexandre Lacazette darted in front of the near post to flick on and, although David De Gea reacted smartly to save, the ball came off Lindelöf again and Sokratis lashed home.
The goal had been advertised, with Arsenal having tightened their grip from the half-hour mark. Lacazette turned Maguire brilliantly inside the area before toe-poking wide – he had to unload the effort quickly – while Lucas Torreira shot narrowly past the post after stealing away from Fred. United’s sloppiness was reflected by a botched clearance from De Gea, which hit Lacazette and broke for Pépé. He stepped away from Matic and curled a shot against the post. Arsenal won the midfield battle, with the fit-again Granit Xhaka enjoying an encouraging 90 minutes.
Solskjær had been determined to concentrate on the players who were at his disposal but, inevitably, Pogba’s absence provided a subplot. It was revealed after the game that the midfielder needs surgery on the foot injury that has wrecked his season and the operation would rule him out for the rest of the month.
It should mean that a January transfer is out of the question but, with the battle lines drawn between the club and Pogba’s agent, Mino Raiola, there have to be questions about how much longer the player wants to remain at Old Trafford. Raiola has said that United are “out of touch with reality and without a sporting project”, a club that would “even ruin Maradona, Pelé and Maldini”.
Arteta’s team are not ready to maintain the physical demands he makes of them and they dropped deeper from the beginning of the second half. United took up residence in the Arsenal half, as Solskjær swapped Lingard and James for Mason Greenwood and Andreas Pereira.
The latter had a sight of goal when he was played through by Matic only to hit the side-netting but that would be as good as it got for United, with their desperation being reflected when Aaron Wan-Bissaka tried to win a penalty with a dive. Like his team, he got nothing. For Arsenal, to borrow a line from Sokratis, the fun is back.