Arsenal versus Manchester United was once one of the most anticipated fixtures of the season. But ever since their respective longest-serving managers have departed, the clubs aren’t nearly as relevant at the top of the table.
Unai Emery’s time at Arsenal won’t be remembered fondly by anyone. Since the start of last season, there has never been a moment where Arsenal looked like a capable side, relying heavily on the brilliance of Aubameyang and Lacazette. Their shot numbers were consistently average, and there were countless games where the team generally lacked an attacking structure, struggling to break down teams like Wolves and Crystal Palace. Emery’s man-management also did come under scrutiny. His treatment of the club’s highest earner, Mesut Ozil, was somewhat baffling and continued the narrative of Emery’s difficulties in dealing with prominent personalities.
Yet, what bothered me the most was how Emery was utilising his midfielders. Since summer 2018, Arsenal have brought in several midfield reinforcements. Lucas Torreira arrived as a defensive midfielder, having a massive defensive output while being a competent ball progressor. Matteo Guendouzi was arguably the highlight of Sven Mislintat’s time as head of recruitment. The Frenchman arrived for £5 million and has done a lot more than I expected from a player coming from Ligue 2. He’s proved to be a progressive passer, even if the defensive side of his game still needs a lot of work.Embed from Getty Images
I never liked how Emery set up these players. He’d regularly play Granit Xhaka has a single defensive midfielder. While Xhaka’s passing can make him a valuable asset to every manager who he’s played under, his lack of mobility will always make him a target defensively. It was more frustrating to see Torreira playing as a box to box midfielders and Ceballos as an advanced playmaker. While they’re versatile enough to fill those roles, it makes it difficult for them to play to their strengths. A cohesive midfield can be built with these talented players, which makes the lack of protection offered by the midfield even more infuriating.
Mikel Arteta appointment as the new Arsenal manager is the most exciting Arsenal have been for over a decade. While Arteta is an unknown in terms of how I think his team will play, some factors hint towards a man who could become the long term successor to Wenger. Generally, central midfielders are seen as the smartest players on the pitch. The likes of Sergio Busquets, Fernandinho and Marco Verratti are all excellent readers of the game, able to spot their teammates in hard to reach positions, and sense danger before any attacks materialise. We’re seeing this now with some of the most prominent managers in Europe. Carlo Ancelotti, Pep Guardiola, Didier Deschamps and Roberto Martinez, all previously midfielders, have shown to be intelligent tactically, whether through building a philosophy for their teams or showing a high level of adaptability. Arteta’s work with Pep Guardiola and experience playing under Arsene Wenger have given him a high level of knowledge from two of the games best thinkers from the century.
Arteta is clearly seen as a long-term option, but if he is to success for the next six months, he must fix the midfield and add some consistency in terms of approach and lineup. It would help evaluate the level of many of these players. Arsenal do have a lot of players I like, but thus far haven’t shown the level we know they can play at. If he can do that, as well as make them fun to watch, he will set himself up for an exciting second season.Embed from Getty Images
Since we last spoke about Manchester United, after their 1-1 with Arsenal, not much has really changed. While Rashford’s improvement in form and Martial’s return to the starting XI has helped them move up the table, the same issues persist. Big wins over Manchester City, Tottenham and Chelsea, did help push United into the conversation for Champions League football next season, especially with these same opponents dropping points at crucial stages of the season. United have been reliant on the pace in their forwards when playing one of the bigger teams, accepting that they are the underdog in these games. City and Tottenham struggled to deal with the speed in which United were transitioning. Martial would consistently drop deep to retrieve the ball, while Rashford and James would stretch the defence and use their pace to beat whoever they’re against. Manchester City consistently leaving themselves open was definitely a factor in their 2-1 defeat. However, United still deserve praise for taking advantage of the weaknesses City have gained since De Bruyne’s return.
In all fairness, their ability against the bigger sides was never in question. The problem was how they could break down teams who were willing to sacrifice possession in the same way United do. Defeats to Bournemouth and Watford and draws to Everton and Aston Villa highlighted how these issues have remained. Their 1-0 defeat to Bournemouth, in particular, was awful. A lack of chance creation and the forward line failing to get behind a rather weak Bournemouth defence. Their lack of consistency is easily the most significant issue. One week they’ll beat two of the best teams in the country, the next they fail to beat a relegation favourite.Embed from Getty Images
Yet even with questions regarding the players in this squad, having better players would fix a lot of their issues. However, I think it might be a while before United will ever be back in the conversation for a title. When hearing Ed Woodward speak on how difficult it is to sign more than three players in a summer window or the lack of value in the January transfer window, it makes you wonder if the club even want to get back to the top. A majority of the players linked to the club are usually players from Premier League clubs who would cost an insane amount of money. James Maddison, Jack Grealish, Declan Rice, John McGinn and Dominic Calvin-Lewin do fill the rather strange policy of going for British players, but there is better value out there. In the summer alone, we saw Thiago Mendes move for £20 million, Julian Brandt for £17 million and Marcus Thuram for £10 million. Even now, players like Dani Olmo and Marco Roca are available for less than £40 million. You can always find value in the market, but it entirely depends where you are looking. If Manchester United’s focus remains only in the Premier League, it’ll take years to build a cohesive squad.
Arsenal’s 2-0 win over Manchester United was the first time I’ve managed to watch Arteta’s Arsenal, and they’re showing some promising signs. The lineup the former Arsenal captain chose was a massive departure to the defensive starting XI’s seen under Emery. Nicolas Pepe, Ozil, Lacazette and Aubameyang all started this game. These elite talents were one of the reasons why Arsenal did look so good in the first half. Kolasinac and Aubameyang linked up well on the left side, with the Gabon forward consistently staying wide, allowing Kolasinac to run with the ball through the space opened from Wan-Bissaka staying with Aubameyang. This was how the first goal was made. Kolasinac had another free sprint right at the defence. He picks out Aubameyang, who notices Pepe free in the box, and delivers a perfect ball for the Ivorian.Embed from Getty Images
What impressed me a lot about Arteta was just how quickly Arsenal were able to get into United’s half. While their opposition do deserve some blame for this, the ways they were able to quickly create chances in the first half. They could progress the ball through the full-backs, or use the excellent passing of Xhaka and David Luiz to send a long ball into the wingers. Arsenal were really exciting in that first half, and while they did slow down in the final 45 minutes, the game was in their hands.
Defensively, Arsenal looked very good. The attacking lineup did cause some concern, mainly if United could produce similar counter-attacks as they have done against some of the top 6. However, all of their forwards, with some garnering a reputation of being lazy, were fantastic defensively. All four of Arsenal’s forwards kept United’s defenders short of options during buildup play. Even Mesut Ozil, who many pundits have consistently labelled as lazy, made 46 pressures, more than any other player on the pitch. United were slow in moving the ball, but Arsenal made it so difficult for them.
Torreira returned to his more familiar role as a true defensive midfielder. Xhaka was given more licence to push forward, while Torreira would ensure the defence wouldn’t be facing much traffic. It was arguably the most significant crime Emery committed; not playing one of the best young midfielders in the right position.Embed from Getty Images
While Arsenal were more focused on holding onto their lead in the second half than truly humiliating United, that first half was such an encouraging sign for any Arsenal fan. For the first time since Wenger, they were fun to watch in a game. They were attacking with speed, dynamism and skill. The question is if they can do this consistently, but we’ll have to wait and see.
As for United, the lack of energy and pressing was disturbing. United aren’t the pressing side they probably wish to be, but Arsenal were given so much freedom in transition. David Luiz and Sokratis had so many opportunities to run straight into midfield without a United player to close them down. Martial and Rashford looked slow in this game, and you can’t really blame them. The pair have played so much football when they’ve been available. With top four looking like a possibility and the Europa League returning in a month, I doubt they’ll ever get a chance to sit out games. They are United’s only chance of getting into the top four. If they have to rely on James, Lingard and Pereira, they’ll plummet down the table.
Both managers are in very different places. Arteta, replacing a pretty unequipped coach, has given Arsenal players and fans something to be excited about. Solsjkaer also went through this same period, so we’ll see if Arteta can reach the same level as the coaches he’s worked with.Embed from Getty Images
Solskjaer will be under a lot of pressure until the summer arrives. You hear a lot of trusted journalists say the Manchester United board are happy with the Norwegian, but that sense of doubt will always be there. If Pochettino wants to join the club, will they just let Solsjkaer go, similar to what they did to Van Gaal once Mourinho was available? I can’t blame Solsjkaer for all the problems. There are so many holes throughout the squad that one window isn’t enough with the lack of urgency United currently operate with. Woodward can go on and on about how difficult it is to sign players, but with players needed in midfield and attack so clear, it’ll be an embarrassment if their targets aren’t brought in by the end of June.