It was probably a good thing I didn’t finish my piece on Friday morning. Like most fans, Thursday’s catastrophic 3-1 Europa League defeat to Rennes left me livid and I was in no fit state to be objective. To recover from that disastrous game and beat Manchester United 2-0 is testament to this squad’s blossoming character and hopefully signals Thursday was a blip. We have often failed to secure victory in must-win games against the big six, but this time we found a way. If we go on to pip Manchester United to fourth, it may be one of the most crucial six pointers in our history.
Manchester United’s resurgence under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has been remarkable. Coming off the back of a club record, nine consecutive away wins, they were supremely confident coming into this fixture therefore it was crucial to put them under pressure early. Emery’s brave decision to start with Lacazette, Aubameyang, Ramsey and Ozil did that pushing Manchester United onto the back foot. Emery’s boldness was rewarded by the players who started with the type of zest and courage he craves. The quality wasn’t always there, but the character and grit was. There were numerous examples of it across the pitch. Aaron Ramsey won more tackles than any outfield player with seven, Laurent Koscielny played on with a three inch gash to his leg, Ainsley Maitland-Niles showed immense character to recover from a poor first half and Bernd Leno continued his fine form with a number of brave and crucial saves.
We were always going to need a bit of luck to get the three points and we got it with the first goal. Romelu Lukaku who has been in scintillating form, scoring six in his last three games, somehow hit the crossbar from five yards out. Shortly after, the excellent Granit Xhaka latched onto a pass from Lacazette and hit a speculative effort that took an unusual swerve past David De Gea. The keeper took a short step to his left anticipating the flight of the ball only to see it glide away to his right. In this fixture last year, David De Gea set the Premier League record for saves made in a match, so we it was nice to see physics finally get the better of him.
Our 352 formation nullified Man United’s 442 with Pogba and co failing to deal with our intensity. Solskjaer cleverly responded after Xhaka’s opener by shifting to a 443. This immediately created more space for Pogba in midfield and for Luke Shaw to advance forward. The result was relentless pressure from United who increasingly looked the more likely to score.
We managed to ride the storm before and after the break and secure the decisive second goal with a penalty from Aubameyang. Lacazette, who was our best attacker, drove into the box and was bundled over by Fred. The penalty was a foul, but it was harsh. On numerous occasions this season, Lacazette has not been rewarded for staying on his feet despite being fouled in the box, so it was nice to see him do what top players do. Aubameyang dispatched the penalty coolly, providing another example of the character on show by the players. Missing a last-minute penalty in a North London Derby will haunt him for the rest of his life, so to step up and take this pressure kick a week later demonstrates he has the personality for the big stage. Only Mo Salah and Aguero have scored more home goals that Aubameyang since his arrival. He continues to be our match winner.
We were far from perfect conceding a host of chances to a potent Man U attack. The Red Devils created five big chances compared to our two and had the bulk of possession with 53.9%. Rashford was not at his best, but it wont be long before he’s the best player in the country. We will have to be stronger defensively in our remaining fixtures. If the effort levels remain then we’ll have no problem.
Full time: Arsenal 2-0 Manchester United
A bit more on character and grit
This victory was symbolised by the character and grit shown rather than the quality of our play. Football became too scientific and philosophical under Wenger in his later years. When he would speak of leadership or character, he would segment it into different types giving more credence to less obvious forms of leadership like technical brilliance on the ball. Despite personally loving an intellectual debate and the obvious logic of Wenger’s assertions, you always got the feeling it was too complex for his players. Sir Alex Ferguson once said “if you give players an excuse to fail, they will” and in recent years it felt like Arsenal players were let off from doing the basics of showing up and being competitive. Emery appears to be simplifying football once again and taking the threats of the opposition more seriously. Our improved running stats, greater points total and better performances against the top sides prove its working. We have a long way to go but we are making progress.
Thursday is a must win
We must now deliver the same intensity in Thursday’s second leg tie against Rennes. The Europa League is still imperative to our future. If we are going to re-enter the Champions League, the experience gained in the latter stages will be invaluable. Experience of two-legged competition against top European sides is diminishing with each year so it’s vital we get through to give our youngsters that exposure. We have enough quality to overturn the result against Rennes. On his day Ben Arfa is as good as any attacker so they won’t be a push over.
Race for fourth. Five away games and three home games
This was a great weekend with Spurs, Man U and Chelsea all dropping points. Our next game is April fool’s day against Rafa Benitez’s Newcastle at the Emirates. I’m confident we can secure maximum points at home, but can we get three wins and a draw from our five away games?
That would leave us with 79 points and maybe even third place. Who would have thought.