Man Utd 0-1 Arsenal: The Curse is broken
By Alfie Cairns Culshaw (Chief Editor)
After 29 attempts across five and a half years, Arsenal have finally claimed all 3 points at the home of a top six side. The win over Manchester City in January 2015 was supposed to kick start a new Arsenal side which was more resilient and able to grind out results in a more pragmatic style in the cauldron's of the elite. Instead, similar patterns resumed, and we managed to go almost 6 years without replicating this feat in the league.
However, with Halloween passing by, this curse was finally broken. Arsenal went to Old Trafford and came away with 3 precious points that could have a significant impact on our season. With a week of meltdown and turmoil on social media prior to this encounter, where the odd question mark around Mikel Arteta was thrown around, this win could not have been more welcome for a coach who, despite impressing in his short stint, still has a lot to prove. This was a statement.
Far from a fluid performance where we completely derailed a poor Manchester United side, but it did showcase several encouraging signs of progression. Most notably, Arteta made a blatant tweak to his system, looking to press United high up the pitch- a way to counteract our creative issues- and did so very effectively in the first 45 minutes in particular. The shape almost resembled a 4-4-2 when pushing high up, with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alex Lacazette leading the cohesive pressing unit. This led to many attacking opportunities, and whilst there were many 'what if' moments rather than several clear cut shots taken, it's definitely a tactical element to our game that must be implemented in the future, particularly against low blocks.
The lack of clear cut chances from open play may well still be a concern, but the more we work on pressing as a team, utilising the space merited from causing a turnover deep in the opponents half, the more we should create. Our shot count was only seven, so definitely more work to be done, but the way in which we controlled the game and looked to be on the front foot throughout was refreshing.
Perhaps the most encouraging aspect of this performance, however, was just how much we nullified United's threat. As mentioned above, pressing from the front and winning the ball back quickly was a large factor in that, but the defence as a collective was superb. When United did break through our press on the odd occasion, our ability to recover and drop in our compact shape was brilliant. Whilst some of the big wins we enjoyed towards the backend of last season were satisfying, they weren't flawless defensively, and there was certainly an element of goalkeeping heroics, but also luck, involved. That can't be said of yesterday, where we limited United to very few opportunities, evident in their measly 0.39 xG. Arteta has instilled defensive structure in this team and it's now paying dividends- no-one has conceded fewer goals than Arsenal in the Premier League thus far.
Amongst this brilliantly organised display was some outstanding individual performances. Gabriel Magalhaes shone once again at the heart of our defence. His imposing presence, willingness to stay on his feet and immense recovery pace saw him dominate United's feeble attack. The way in which he's adapted to English football in such a short space of time is remarkable and the fact that he's just 22 suggests the sky really is the limit in his potential.
Another one of our new acquisitions was equally excellent. Thomas Partey showed why we decided to trigger his £45 million release clause on deadline day, with a superb all round, combative display. His physicality and positional awareness enabled him to sniff out danger and break play up- he made five tackles and two interceptions, leading the game for defensive interventions. He was also very efficient on the ball, progressing it with his expansive passing and drives from midfield (10 final third entries- the most on the pitch). If he can reproduce this level of performance on a consistent basis, it almost makes Granit Xhaka's role redundant- Partey has his ball progression but with much better defensive involvement and greater mobility.
The most surprising selection and also the most surprising standout performer came in Mohamed Elneny. The Egyptian had been ostracised from the Arsenal squad, looked certain be on his way out before Mikel Arteta revitalised his career in North London. Now, he's a key member of this squad and this performance showed why. He was typically efficient in possession, but added more penetration into his game, breaking the lines with incisive passes and mazy runs. His relentless work rate was encapsulated in the late pressing he exerted on United which forced them back and eventually led to them playing the ball off the pitch- that was in the 91st minute. Sensational.
What a win and what a feeling at full-time. Arteta embraced his players, knowing the significance of this victory. It's time to build on this.