Arsenal will be celebrating the three points – their first in 14 years away to Manchester United – but in many ways this was a game that exposed the major tactical issues at both clubs.
Gone are the days when these clashes were title deciders; this season we can’t even be sure if either of these teams will truly be the strongest challengers for a top four place.
Starting with United, this defeat is clearly a bit of a disaster – that’s now four home games played in the Premier League this season, with no wins, one draw, three defeats, and just two goals scored, with ten conceded. It’s their worst start at home in the league since 1972/73, a season in which they finished 18th.
Behind the awful numbers are also some pretty poor performances. In that 6-1 thrashing at the hands of Tottenham, their defence was all over the place, but in this game and the 0-0 draw with Chelsea, their midfield and attack didn’t click at all.
A Jadon Sancho-type player was badly missing for Man Utd against Arsenal yesterday. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer will no doubt have regrets about the club’s performance in the transfer market this summer, with Donny van de Beek brought in to a crowded central midfield and only making the bench once again perhaps illustrating that point; even with United playing a diamond formation, they still couldn’t fit in their biggest summer signing, and it played into Arsenal’s hands.
The Gunners set up with three centre-backs and Bukayo Saka and Hector Bellerin providing the width from wing-back. With a little width in the United team, there would surely have been gaps they could have exploited, and yet neither Daniel James or Jesse Lingard even made the matchday squad. Lingard’s decline has been evident for some time, but James’ drop-off in form and rapid dropping down the pecking order is pretty alarming, with the Welshman initially looking a great fit for Solskjaer’s style of play when he got off to a flying start last season. Even if the young wide-man is out of form, this could’ve been a good game for him to enjoy some space and do some damage in attack.
With Bruno Fernandes the only real creative spark behind United’s front two of Marcus Rashford and Mason Greenwood, it was pretty easy for Arsenal to nullify their opponents’ attacking threat. This was of course aided by superb performances from their defensive midfield duo Thomas Partey and a revitalised Mohamed Elneny, but Solskjaer’s poor tactics still made it all too easy for his opposite number Mikel Arteta.
Arsenal have problems too, however, with Arteta still proving his own worst enemy with the way he sets up Arsenal’s attack.
As with United excluding Lingard, you can see the logic in Arsenal freezing out Mesut Ozil, but there’s a worrying lack of creativity in Arteta’s squad, and if it’s not going to come from Ozil, he could still utilise other players and be a bit more adventurous with his approach up front.
Willian had a good game at Old Trafford and will surely serve some purpose this season, but he and Alexandre Lacazette are both pretty functional players who are unlikely to give you that moment of magic that can change a game. Lacazette played a false nine role similar to that of Roberto Firmino at Liverpool, but without the flair and creativity to really excel in the role. It would be something if he made up for it with his goals, but he doesn’t, with his work rate his only real strong point. In a team lacking strength in midfield, that extra runner might be useful, but with Partey and Elneny looking so strong, Arteta can surely afford to be less cautious in that department and bring in a flair player like Nicolas Pepe, who was an unused substitute in yesterday’s game.
Against a better team, Arsenal would have struggled to score, as they did in recent defeats to Manchester City and Leicester. In the end, Aubameyang only ended his long recent goal drought with a goal from the penalty spot. This is an elite goal-scorer, as we all know from his performances in his time at the Emirates Stadium, but Arteta is badly struggling to get the best out of him at the moment.
On the flip side, as much as Arsenal were perhaps fortunate to eventually get their breakthrough, United would have been punished by a better team as the visitors dominated in terms of possession in dangerous areas. Indeed they were punished by Tottenham’s slick play in the recent 6-1 game, and they were lucky that Chelsea were denied a clear penalty in their 0-0 stalemate.
In the end, plenty for both of these teams to worry about, and plenty for the likes of Liverpool, Man City, Chelsea and Spurs to be pleased with as it points towards favourable top four hopes for them come the end of the season.