Arsenal have an elite mentality and Oleksandr Zinchenko; that is no coincidence. And Man Utd have work to do despite the promise, starting with David de Gea.
1) That roar. That roar.
It was joked about for years that Arsenal moved from Highbury to a library. That the Emirates was a millstone around the neck of a directionless club. That this passionless theatre of self-contempt could so often be used against them. That the home support was anything but. That the atmosphere was actively detrimental on the rare occasion it even existed.
A lot of those views – as remains the case with even this undeniably brilliant version of Arsenal – were grounded in preconceptions of a team which was pretty but bulliable on the pitch and infuriatingly incompetent off it. But things have changed.
Mikel Arteta prowls the touchline to the impotent rage of grown adults for whom his behaviour is not designed. These players do not cower. Those fans scream and dance around the fire, fanning the flames with delirious joy.
They believe. Not necessarily that Arsenal will win the league; a five-point gap with a game in hand in late January does enough work in that regard. No, they believe in this team, this club, that manager, those players. They believe in what they do and what they represent. They believe in Arsenal. And particularly after both Eddie Nketiah’s second goal and then the final whistle, they made fucking well sure to make that known.
2) “You can see how much it means to everyone,” said Bukayo Saka after the game. “They’re the only team that have beaten us this season so we really wanted to beat them for the fans.”
Shortly after the Boxing Day win over West Ham, it was noted that Arsenal faced a run of Premier League fixtures against the four most recent teams to beat them in domestic competition: Brighton, Newcastle, Spurs and Man Utd. Revenge was exacted against three of them and the other is posting such ludicrous defensive numbers that that dish can afford to be served cold if necessary.
As Saka’s comments hinted, vengeance can be a strong motivator and Arsenal have just rounded off three weeks of almost exclusively exorcising demons, with a quick FA Cup detour to Oxford in between. That is an incredibly powerful feeling to disseminate throughout a squad which is running out of wrongs to right and critics to confound.
3) The Premier League’s tectonic plates have shifted again. After Liverpool and Chelsea revived the energy of those trepidatious stalemates engineered by Rafael Benitez and Jose Mourinho in the mid-2000s, Arsenal and Man Utd rekindling the nostalgic vibes which have kept this rivalry simmering since the turn of the millennium made for a refreshing change.
Manchester City are the most awkward of third wheels, a filling both teams should be honoured to sandwich, with Newcastle a brilliant outlier. Their positions either side of those financial juggernauts are neither fluke nor coincidence; two giants have simultaneously awoken from their slumbers with renewed vigour and focus. The rebuilds at the Emirates and Old Trafford are ongoing and outstanding. But without Ferguson, Wenger, Keane, Vieira, Keown, Van Nistelrooy, Henry, Giggs and projectile pizza slices, this was as close to an authentic game between Arsenal and Man Utd as there has been since both slipped from their pedestals. And most tantalisingly, there should be so much more to come.
4) For the briefest of periods after the game’s second equaliser, Arsenal wavered. There were a couple of misplaced passes from Aaron Ramsdale and William Saliba. Takehiro Tomiyasu, a half-time substitute, lost the ball twice, once on the edge of his own penalty area. Thomas Partey surrendered it once in a similar area. A slight nervousness crept into the play of a team whose unerring confidence in The Process has become a meme. And Man Utd noticed. They pushed higher and faster and in greater number. They sensed an opening, a chance to ride this turning tide to unexpected glory.
It would be misleading to suggest ‘the Arsenal of old’ would have crumbled in that scenario; when that sort of pressure was exerted on the Gunners only last season they tended to capitulate. Perhaps those experiences have coarsened them. The summer signings – of Oleksandr Zinchenko specifically – have clearly helped. But the mentality to recover from conceding an opening goal and then an equaliser against the run of play in separate halves, with a Nordic eradicator breathing down their necks, is as impressive as any aspect of this Arteta transformation. Arsenal used to be swept away by even the mildest of storms but they seem capable of weathering anything.
5) Any sustained title challenge requires an element of fortune. That does nothing to downplay the excellence of a prospective champion. Luck alone is worthless; to have an effect it needs the sort of platform that elite planning and execution builds. But to deny its necessary function is naive.
Take deflections as an example: when Fred slid in to block a Martin Odegaard shot, it skewed away towards an unmarked Nketiah in second-half stoppage-time; when Marcus Rashford’s effort took a touch as it crept through Saliba’s legs, it gave Ramsdale enough of an opportunity to produce what was still a stunning save. On either occasion the ball could have diverted slightly from that path and changed the course or result of this game but Arsenal benefited.
Even the rescheduling of this match at 10 days’ notice gave Man Utd a midweek trip to Crystal Palace in the middle, as well as two fixtures during which Casemiro duly collected enough bookings to be suspended.
Hell, Chelsea’s profligacy meant Arsenal signed a less exciting but considerably more proven entity to Mykhaylo Mudryk in Leandro Trossard, who happened to contribute to the winning goal.
The Gunners earned and deserved this victory but as Jesse Lingard and December 2017 will be quick to remind them, that can sometimes count for nought. Arsenal were fortunate in some ways but dominant enough to make it matter.
6) Man Utd will and should take heart from this performance. The game could essentially be boiled down to a team three years into a project against one at the beginning of that journey. The sparks and shoots of Arsenal progress could be seen and assessed best in matches against Manchester City and Liverpool in previous seasons; how astonishing it is that they have so suddenly become the masters against whom others measure their evolution.
The visitors had a plan and it was carried out to a decent standard. Lisandro Martinez led a spirited and determined defence and Wout Weghorst helped synchronise and structure their attacks a little better. But their entire approach going forward against opponents of this stature rests on the phenomenal counter-attacking shoulders of Marcus Rashford and their build-up play needs to be overhauled entirely.
Anyone capable of independent thought knew the title talk was foolishly premature but beating Manchester City before consecutive 90th-minute setbacks in four days feels very Solskjaer, which is to be expected for a team learning to walk again when their immediate instinct is to let minds race.
7) It was a transitional line-up in nature. Question marks remain over David de Gea and Aaron Wan-Bissaka. Scott McTominay was an unsurprisingly inadequate stand-in for Casemiro. A newly-signed loanee led their front line. Put it like that and holding their own for so long was an achievement in itself.
Ten Hag signed four of the starters, Solskjaer purchased three, Louis van Gaal and Sir Alex Ferguson bought one each and two graduated from the academy. Compare that mishmash to Arsenal: Arteta signed six of Arsenal’s starting XI, with Unai Emery responsible for two, Arsene Wenger the man behind one and another couple emerging from the youth ranks. That more favourable composition naturally comes with the time and patience of a longer tenure and Ten Hag has earned the chance to work towards that.
The Dutchman should have had it confirmed on this evidence that at least three of those players must be on the periphery of his team at best come next season. This game underlined both that Man Utd are on the right path and that there is considerable work ahead.
8) The imminent expiration of De Gea’s contract ought to make one of those next steps easier to take. Even with the substantial pay cut that would be required to renew a deal worth £375,000 per week at the time of signing, the Spaniard is not worth keeping on for the sake of continuity.
One great save from a late Nketiah chance doth not a good performance make. Arsenal targeted De Gea’s limited distribution, preying on his discomfort with the ball at his feet to force numerous dangerous turnovers. The ninth minute saw the keeper hammer a pass out for a throw-in on the false pretence that Martinez had taken up a position at left-back. His weak punch of a high ball when surrounded only by his own defenders in the 81st minute was baffling. Even Saka’s goal, though a tremendous display of individual skill, was turned from a powerful, low effort into an unsavable strike by De Gea’s tennis split step just as the shot was hit.
Having spent the build-up claiming that he has nothing to prove after presiding over one league title in a decade, much of which was spent as the world’s best-paid keeper, De Gea signed his own exit forms with a display underpinned by inadequacy.
9) Arsenal’s equaliser came from one of those many instances they hounded Man Utd from square one. Nketiah was warned twice by the referee to stop encroaching from goal kicks, so blatant were the traps that De Gea kept falling into. By the half-hour mark he finally submitted and starting launching it long to Weghorst but by then the damage was done.
Wan-Bissaka was De Gea’s chosen outlet on most occasions, even in open play. Gabriel Martinelli cracked that code early on and was diligent in closing the right-back as soon as the pass came to him. When Nketiah and Saka shut all other lanes down in the 22nd minute, De Gea sought solace once again in Wan-Bissaka but Martinelli was practically already snapping at his heels. The Arsenal forward retrieved the ball and forced the corner from the Gunners constructed their first goal.
Some tactical plans are intricate, requiring hours of work to research, devise, implement and train. Others need only a five-minute glance at a Man Utd game to see how insistent they are on shooting themselves in the foot by relying on a goalkeeper and right-back whose sheer anguish in possession is on as overt a display as a target on a video game boss’ back.
10) The four corners Arsenal took before that one Martinelli won were all crossed into the box, including both of the two they had after 100 seconds as a result of their rapid start. One failed to clear the first man. The fifth was taken short and allowed Zinchenko, Odegaard and Granit Xhaka to work patiently down the left-hand side – an area Arsenal focused on heavily – for an opening which resulted in Nketiah’s headed equaliser, courtesy of some choice back-post defending from Wan-Bissaka.
Arsenal obviously took the next corner long because people are stupid.
11) The Martinez header to make it 2-2 was narrative beauty but it detracted from what might be some difficult questions for Man Utd to contemplate. Sumptuous as the delivery from Christian Eriksen was and so often is, this chapter in his touching career renaissance might have to be brief if progress is demanded any quicker at Old Trafford.
The 30-year-old’s technical wizardry cannot be doubted and there is a place for that in any squad. But as a starter Eriksen lacks the physicality and energy, as so harshly exposed with Saka’s goal. His inability to close down the player or the angle was costly and emblematic of a more general ineptitude in midfield duels.
It is harsh. It is ruthless. It is cutthroat. But that is what Man Utd and Ten Hag must be. There has to be brawn with the brains at this level and while Casemiro helps in that regard, Odegaard, Bernardo Silva and Georginio Wijnaldum have all recently proved that two positions don’t need to be taken up for it.
12) Benjamin White was weirdly poor, taken off at half-time for reasons including but likely not limited to sloppy passing and a crunching tackle on Rashford shortly after the Man Utd striker’s marvellous goal, which earned a booking.
That yellow card did seem to inhibit the right-back somewhat thereafter as he pulled out of a couple of challenges but White’s general play was lacklustre. At one stage when trying to offer an overlap to Saka he only got in his teammate’s way and Arteta was justified in not sticking with something that clearly wasn’t working. Tomiyasu helped restore a semblance of balance.
13) On the other side, Zinchenko was exemplary. His ability to invert and play as a central midfielder or stay wide to maintain structure and stretch the play is invaluable. The way he is able to bypass a press or break the lines with a dribble or pass has elevated Arsenal’s game considerably. And this is even before bringing his more immeasurable leadership characteristics into the equation.
The Ukrainian was without peer in the second half. He more than anyone helped Arsenal exert the constant pressure which eventually forced the winning goal as Man Utd continued to retreat into their area. Before then, around the 60-minute mark, Zinchenko helped construct a move from back to front as a sort of moving pivot. He dropped deep to receive a couple of passes from Saliba, then gave Odegaard and Partey outlets under pressure as Arsenal progressed towards and past the halfway line. Still advancing, he clipped a Gabriel ball around the corner to Xhaka for Odegaard to eventually fire over. It was masterful from a player who has been true to his word in turning Arsenal into title contenders.
14) Even as someone who felt Gareth Southgate did well at the Euros, watching Rashford embarrass Partey on the left, blocking the Ghanaian’s pass before dancing through him and smashing a low drive past Ramsdale, with Saka thriving on the right, minds could only wander to what might have been against France. Those two in particular are in the absolute form of their lives and genuinely among the world’s best forwards. And they’re English. It’s bizarre.
15) And if Harry Kane fancies a rest then Nketiah is probably worth a shot as his international back-up. The 23-year-old has stepped up to the plate in the absence of Gabriel Jesus to the extent that the conversation must be had as to whether keeps his place upon the Brazilian’s return. Nketiah is Arsenal’s top scorer this season from 13 starts.
But the fear was never he could have a sufficient impact in front of goal. It was only ever a question of how well Nketiah could fit into Arsenal’s counter press and replicate Jesus’ effort and link-up play. The resolve he needed to stick it out on the sidelines for so long was evident in the work he put in to nullify Man Utd, an 89.5% pass accuracy was better than any Arsenal player bar substitutes Trossard and Tomiyasu, and those finishes were confirmation of a prowess that was already known. The ability to combine that so effectively with those hard yards makes him a viable starting option in the long-term.
16) Victoria Concordia Crescit is a perfectly serviceable motto but “you can always get better in life, innit?” is a mantra worth changing to.
Arteta when asked about his yellow card : “You can always get better in life innit” 😭 pic.twitter.com/ujQvN3achP
— HM (@Arsenal_DB10) January 22, 2023