16 Conclusions: Arsenal 2-0 Manchester United

Date published: Thursday 2nd January 2020 11:16

1) Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was appointed Manchester United manager 378 days ago. He has had £145m to spend, 12 months to implement his playing style, impress his ideas and leave an imprint on this club.

Mikel Arteta was appointed Arsenal manager 12 days ago. He has had nothing to spend, less than a fortnight to rouse a sleeping giant and show a hopeless, aimless side the way forward.

It is difficult to work out whether this result is more damning for the former than it is testament to the latter. It was similarly tough to decipher which of these coaches had only just started their respective projects. It doesn’t feel like there will be a four-point gap separating them come May – at least not as it’s currently weighted.

 

2) If the performance in the first half against Chelsea was the teaser trailer, this was the feature-length film. Mesut Ozil can expect award nominations for his leading actor role and Lucas Torreira spent the evening applying his sunglasses and calmly strolling away from explosions.

And that should be incredibly heartening and encouraging for the support. This was no one-off. It was precisely what they showcased in their previous game, only a little more sustained and polished. The same passing patterns were there, the structure, the hard work, the ability to play as a unit slotting into a system rather than individuals with no clear plan.

Perhaps starting with a draw and a chastening defeat has served Arteta well. It means this cannot be labelled as a new-manager bounce or an example of a squad playing with freedom after being inhibited by the previous regime. That two poor results did nothing to sap the belief of the coach or players in the new vision is promising.

 

3) It also exposes the fallibility of the Arsenal hierarchy. They could have had this 18 months ago. It was within their grasp. The option to engender genuine change was open but they panicked and went for an ostensibly safer bet.

That they have eventually arrived at what seems to be the right destination does not absolve them of blame for the sort of delay that would make Northern Rail blush. Questions must still be asked: Why was Unai Emery given so long? Why was legitimate and understandable fan disgruntlement described as “noise”? Why was Freddie Ljungberg thrown both under a bus and in at the deep end with absolutely no help for three weeks?

Only the inconsistency of those directly above them has saved such painful indecision and indirection from costing them this season. Arsenal are nine points behind Chelsea with 17 games left and momentum on their side. Imagine how much better off they could have been if the people who finally appointed Arteta shared his apparent clarity.

 

4) Eventually deciding upon the right path is better than belligerently refusing to correct your course. Mauricio Pochettino remains available; Solskjaer is becoming assailable.

Those who read into wins over Newcastle (lost their two subsequent games by an aggregate score of 5-1) and Burnley (sandwiched their defeat with losses to Everton and Aston Villa) have been made to look foolish. Just as Solskjaer seemed to solve the problem of facing smaller teams, he forgot how to approach games of this magnitude.

It’s like a quilt that is just too short. United have kept their feet warm with statement victories against established direct rivals, leaving their top half – games and performances against ‘lesser sides’ – cold. If this is a sign that the cycle has been reversed, the manager has a problem. Foundations are much more solid when comprised of wins over Manchester City, Tottenham and Chelsea. It becomes much harder to build on beating members of the bottom eight and falling so inadequately to those around them.

 

5) Solskjaer is actually the oldest manager Arteta has faced in his nascent coaching career. At 46, the Norwegian has a slight advantage in experience on Eddie Howe (42) and Frank Lampard (41).

Yet while they both managed to react to the challenges of an unknown adversary, Solskjaer failed. Howe kept Bournemouth compact and disciplined, with an emphasis on counter-pressing Arsenal’s defence as they looked to pass out from the back. It led to the goal that earned their draw.

Lampard erred initially but corrected his mistakes, changing Chelsea’s formation and approach to turn the tide and snatch a victory from the jaws of defeat.

Solskjaer was powerless. United were entirely dreadful until Arsenal sat off and defended a lead which never looked in jeopardy. When United’s only way of playing – counter-attacking at pace – was thwarted by diligent defending and organisation, their lack of a Plan B was exposed.

 

6) It started so well. Marcus Rashford had a shot from range within the first 30 seconds, clearly with a view to testing Bernd Leno after his weekend mistake. It had the opposite effect, affording the German the opportunity to make the sort of comfortable save which would have settled his nerves.

United’s next shot came in the final 30 seconds of the half, Harry Maguire heading into Leno’s arms from a corner. For 45 minutes in between, they offered absolutely nothing. Jesse Lingard was particularly dreadful.

Consider that when contemplating how Solskjaer made no substitutions at half-time. How bad would United have had to play for him to make a change?

 

7) That shot was also Rashford’s first of two touches before Arsenal’s goal in the eighth minute. His second would play a part in Nicolas Pepe’s opener. Anthony Martial also had just one touch in that time; they would remain isolated and impotent until the second half.

The goal can be traced back to two defensive actions from perhaps surprising individuals. A blunt United attack came to an abrupt but entirely expected end when Sokratis pushed up to force Rashford into a mistake, with Ozil intercepting the subsequent pass. The ball found its way into the middle, Xhaka won a 50-50 challenge with Daniel James, then played Sead Kolasinac into space on the left.

Not bad for a lazy, mercurial forward player and a midfielder once literally advised “not to tackle” by his own manager. Their contributions were not immediately obvious amid Pepe’s celebrations, but they should not be forgotten. The goal was not possible without either of them.

 

8) United’s passive defending was encapsulated in the build-up. When Xhaka played the ball to Kolasinac, the left-back was in his own half. He was allowed to sprint a full 40 yards or so before playing a simple ball into Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and running towards the touchline to offer the return. There was no pressure, no prospect of a tackle being made in the interim.

Barely two minutes later, Kolasinac was left to run even further down the left-hand side after a fine lay-off from Aubameyang, which resulted in a concerted period of danger culminating in Pepe taking on Luke Shaw twice and setting Aubameyang up for a bicycle kick.

By the 21st minute, the hat-trick was complete: Kolasinac brought a Leno clearance down, shrugged off James and glided past Fred as he dribbled for about 50 yards before once again handing it over to Aubameyang. United, burned by letting him have the freedom of the entire flank early on, proceeded to pour petrol on the open flame twice more. Solskjaer deserves criticism, but that was ridiculous naivety from the players.

 

9) The biggest culprit was Maguire. He was stood just ahead of the penalty spot as Aubameyang had the ball for the goal. Even before the striker played the pass Victor Lindelof had raised his hand, having seemingly played Kolasinac offside to quell the danger. Yet Maguire, behind his defensive partner, stepped out far too late, compounding that mistake by rushing towards Alexandre Lacazette and helping leave Pepe unmarked.

Maguire was vulnerable again just after the half-hour mark, clinging to Lacazette like a wet T-shirt as the Frenchman chased a fine ball into the area from Pepe. Lacazette spun wonderfully and Maguire, too tight to his man, was completely dumbfounded and had to back away for fear of conceding a penalty. The shot was missed on this occasion, but the centre-half was no less susceptible.

He hardly improved throughout, continuing his recent spate of poor performances. Yet he has already been earmarked as a future captain and cornerstone of this protracted revolution. He is genuinely no better than Chris Smalling.

 

10) Arsenal did not have another shot for 30 minutes after opening the scoring against Chelsea. Barely 100 seconds had passed before they followed up Pepe’s goal with another effort on Wednesday. Lacazette’s attempt followed later, with Torreira also shooting narrowly wide soon after and Pepe hitting the post from David de Gea’s terrible clearance.

It was as much a case of them learning the lessons of failing to capitalise on periods of dominance three days ago as it was United simply being more malleable opponents. Between the 9th and 30th minutes Arsenal misplaced 11 of 161 attempted passes as United were left chasing shadows. They had ten touches in the opposition box in that time; United had one, with Martial crowded out as he tried to create something out of nothing with a dribble.

That Arsenal had taken the lead came as no surprise. That they had an plan to protect and build on it was quite the development. They seemed prepared to be in the ascendancy for once.

 

11) The main issue United faced was in their predictability. At their best they play at a searing pace and attack in numbers, overwhelming defences with sheer physical attributes. At their worst they are starved of space in behind so are made to rely on either short, intricate passing moves or moments of individual brilliance. They are not capable of the former and cannot plan for the latter.

Torreira and Xhaka had a first-half passing accuracy of 96% and 94% respectively, compared to Nemanja Matic’s 75% and Fred’s 88%. And Pepe, Ozil, Aubameyang and Lacazette misplaced nine of 85 passes, compared to James, Lingard, Rashford and Martial failing to find their target with 16 of 57 of theirs. So Arsenal’s midfield was servicing the forwards considerably more efficiently, and the forwards were, in turn, much less wasteful.

 

12) Arsenal thoroughly deserved to double their lead. As it came from a corner, Sokratis finishing after Lacazette’s front-post flick-on was saved, the move that preceded it might be forgotten. It shouldn’t be.

Kolasinac initiated it, intercepting Fred’s pass. Xhaka, David Luiz, Sokratis and Kolasinac himself proceeded to recycle possession between them, resulting in Xhaka playing an exquisite first-time ball from the left flank to Ozil in the centre. He flicked it over Rashford, encountered absolutely no pressure whatsoever, then picked out a sensational pass to find Ainsley Maitland-Niles’s run on the right. Maguire put the subsequent cross out for the corner from which Arsenal scored.

It was one a few moments which saw Ozil transcend what was really a game between a team with structure and one without. No other player was willing to play such ambitious, defence-splitting passes; indeed, no other player was particularly capable. And those runs where he leads a counter-attacking charge by carrying the ball from midfield are just wonderful.

There were many candidates for man of the match. As far as the biggest difference between the two sides, it is difficult to look beyond Ozil as the embodiment of the gulf in class.

 

13) He also worked incredibly hard off the ball. Not that he was alone: every Arsenal outfield starter aside from Kolasinac made at least one tackle, with Aubameyang the sole outlier in terms of interceptions. Four outfield United starters did not make a single tackle and six failed to complete an interception. Their three substitutes managed none of either; Bukayo Saka did one of each in his 22 minutes.

It would be crass to reduce this to one side simply working harder than the other. The gap was far wider and more stark than that. But it is no coincidence that Arsenal defended and attacked as a team, whereas United so often do both independently.

 

14) For a manager with such unerring faith in youth, Solskjaer often has a weird way of showing it. Shaw was utterly dreadful in the first half, petrified of Pepe and unable to cope with either his pace or trickery. Yet this was his fifth start in six Premier League games, and he has impressed in roughly none.

Then there is Brandon Williams, yet to be on the losing side in any of his nine senior starts this season, the man who allegedly forced a transfer rethink in November yet has barely been seen consistently since.

And don’t get me started on Greenwood, a player with more Premier League goals this season than starts, more shots in 33 minutes than Martial in 90 and more smoke blown up his arse by his manager than a train fetishist.

 

15) Solskjaer’s decision to make no half-time changes was baffling, a bizarre acceptance of mediocrity. It matters not what message was contained in his team talk because the players had to have it shown to them in no uncertain terms that their display was not even close to good enough.

His choice to make a double substitution almost straight after United managed to muster two shots early in the second half was downright perplexing. Neither were close – Lingard and Fred having efforts blocked and saved respectively – but after delivering something that resembled a response the shape and personnel was changed.

There are numerous reasons to make a substitution: injury, a change of formation, a desire to challenge the opponent with something new, you are making a Tesco home delivery. Greenwood for James was changing pace for pace; Andreas Pereira for Lingard was swapping not good enough for not good enough. It just felt as though Solskjaer checked the scoreboard and the time and figured he had to be seen to do something. By that point, he had been painfully out-coached by someone with a practically blank C.V.

 

16) That does a disservice to Arteta, who has parted the dark clouds that had consumed the Emirates long before his arrival.

It also just goes to show that professional footballers are almost never as bad as pundits, journalists, fans or neutrals claim. There are exceptions – Shkodran Mustafi is not for saving – but David Luiz, the PlayStation-controlled clown, was exceptional. Sokratis, the big Greek lump alongside him, his equal. Xhaka was excellent, Pepe brilliant, Aubameyang and Ozil diligent and industrious.

Each of them have been labelled liabilities who are not good enough to represent this club, indolent mercenaries who do not play for the badge, wastes of transfer fees and wages and everything in between.

One change of manager later, they are tenacious, zealous cogs in a machine working towards one common goal, and restoring a pride that the supporters had long – and understandably – abandoned. Arteta has reinvigorated them but there has to be something there in the first place for it to be coaxed out.

Scoff at that all you want, but footballers are human. They are subject to the same changes in emotion, the same mental challenges, the same struggles with work and life. You can pretend they should be above it all because of the extra zeros on their wage, but that is countered by the immense amount of pressure they are placed under each day on social media and television. If they do not like working for a manager it has a subconscious effect. Footballers rarely want to play badly.

Sometimes all they need is a different voice, a change of direction and ideology. As Sokratis said after the game: “The fun is back.” It can be that simple.

And if you read that entire conclusion with Solskjaer and United in mind, the point stands. Don’t fall into the trap of just assuming these players aren’t good enough because they look bad. This Arsenal squad had won one of 12 Premier League games to end the decade. The flock often just needs a more suitable shepherd to guide them.

Matt Stead

 

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