Following a cruel last-gasp defeat at the hands of Chelsea, Mikel Arteta’s Arsenal side would finish the 2010’s with only one win in their last 15 matches. The past 10 years have seen the club’s most successful manager stepping down, three FA Cup triumphs in four years, as well as THAT unforgettable night against Barcelona. But it was a bitter end to a decade of mixed fortunes for the North London outfit.
Speaking on BT Sport prior to the game, I tuned in to their coverage just in time to hear Robin Van Persie and Rio Ferdinand using the words “Arsenal” and “Relegation” in the same sentence. An impossible scenario most would think, but Arteta’s side would come into the first game of 2020 only four points clear of 18th-placed Bournemouth. In contrast, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s Manchester United had enjoyed back-to-back wins against Burnley and Newcastle.
Despite persistent speculation linking Granit Xhaka with a move away from the Emirates, he found himself back in the starting line-up alongside Lucas Torreira in the heart of midfield. But there was a certain attacking quartet that had all Arsenal fans eagerly anticipating the start of the match. Nicolas Pépé, Mesut Özil, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette all found themselves in the starting line-up for the first time ever. This was a side clearly set up to attack, and Arteta reaped the rewards of his tactics early on.
Sead Kolasinac, back in the Arsenal side much earlier than most had expected, was simply unstoppable down that left-hand side throughout the first half. Linking up well with captain Aubameyang, the Bosnian fizzed the ball into the area, eventually landing at the feet of Pepe who made no mistake with a crisp first-time finish. The powerful full-back has improved considerably since last season, and is beginning to have fans wondering if he could keep Kieran Tierney out of the side when the Scotsman is fully fit again? He has the best part of three months to prove his worth, and is giving a very good account of himself thus far.
With Torreira and Xhaka dictating the play from midfield, Ozil playing with levels of intensity and desire we didn’t even know he had, and a compact, organised defence, Gooners were once again treated to a delightful and dominant first 45. But of course, we had seen the exact same pattern against Chelsea, and fans don’t need reminding of how that panned out. Arteta’s side would do well to quell those fears with a second goal, and on the stroke of half-time, they did just that.
Having already scored seven goals from corners this season, Pepe’s delivery to the near post found Lacazette, who saw his header kept out by David De Gea, only for Sokratis Papastathopoulos to smash in from close range. It was a thoroughly deserved second for Arsenal, and while Lacazette’s finishing is certainly in need of improvement, his near-post runs, hold-up play, and ability to bring others into the game cannot be undermined.
In an almost identical pattern to the Chelsea defeat a few days ago, it was clear that fatigue was beginning to set in for the Arsenal players. Solskjaer’s side took the initiative in the second half, but Bernd Leno remained relatively untroubled for the most part. A standing ovation was no less than Pepe deserved as he was taken off for Reiss Nelson; the winger was much quieter throughout the second half, but had already repaid the faith in his manager for his inclusion in the first XI.
In an honest and humbling interview after the game, David Luiz admitted his side “were not physically ready”. There’s no question that both a lack of fitness and experience playing such a high-intensity style of football was evident near the end of the game. Explosive attacks had fizzled out, and Kolasinac and Lacazette were both hauled off after top performances. United’s half-hearted efforts to restore parity were in vain as Arsenal began the new year with their first home win since October, and perhaps most impressively of all, a clean sheet.
Yes, United were lacklustre, but the dominant, passionate and free-flowing Arsenal performance is exactly what Arteta will want to see in every game. The smiles and hugs as the final whistle blew have been few and far between for the Gunners this season, but as the old and often overused saying goes: “New year, new me”.
The improvement was already there, and now the results are coming too. After the FA cup visit of Leeds, Arteta’s side can look forward to a London derby against Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park. As the players’ fitness and familiarity with the new tactics keeps on progressing, this could be the start of something truly exciting for Arsenal fans.