By Miguel Delaney


It was both a game to revive Arsenal’s entire season, but also to kill Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s previously firm belief that Manchester United can finish in the top four without any new signings. That has been a discussion behind the scenes. Mikel Arteta has meanwhile already changed the discussion around Arsenal, and he can certainly feel that the top four is suddenly within the side’s grasp.

That’s how tight this league is. That’s how influential any kind of run can be. Arsenal can now generate momentum, because they have a clear pattern of play and movement. United don’t have that pattern of play, so can’t generate any momentum. That is already a conspicuous difference between these sides, that could yet prove a difference this season, and this match offered so much proof of that.

Most of all, there is the stark statistic that it is now 348 days since United won three consecutive league games. That last run itself came amid Solskjaer’s confidence-charged opening burst of six victories in the job, since which the only kind of run has been stop-start. This has been United of late, both in results and in play: occasional bursts of exciting pace – usually from Marcus Rashford or Anthony Martial – amid a lot of lethargy.

That they have just gifted Arsenal a first home win in 87 days and only a second win at all in 15 is entirely indicative of what the modern United are, especially in the last few months: record-breakers in the wrong way. But this was obviously not just down to United, nor was it totally gifted by a limp and complacent display. Arsenal so assertively took what was offered up, and much of that was down to Arteta.

It is early days, yes, but you can already see an initial effect. There was a sharpness to Arsenal, and a clear pattern of passing that sought to play through United and prise them open. This is precisely what United themselves lack. There is so much more to this than the absence of a passer like Paul Pogba or Mesut Ozil.

It so often feels like Solskjaer has one reactive way of playing and if it that is rumbled, or just doesn’t work in the first place, he has little else. This was sadly summed up by the fact this was another match where he refused to make key changes at half-time, just as at Watford.

It is of course entirely fair to say Solskjaer does not have much on the bench, and has been left high and dry by the Pogba problem. But the only reason this is relevant is because of the dire need to make signings this January. United are crying out for extra individual creativity, especially in attacking midfield. It is why one of the targets like Christian Eriksen, or James Maddison, or Jack Grealish is a necessity. They would immediately add so much to the team, not least a bit of nuance and perception, that is so lacking in the likes of Jesse Lingard.

The absence of such a player – or Pogba – does not however excuse the absence of any kind of proactive attacking play. United just don’t seem to know how to construct a co-ordinated attack, that gradually pulls an opposition out of place through passing and imagination to hurt them. If they can’t play it fast and direct they can’t do much at all. It is why it is unfair to put so much blame on a midfielder that has been as unimaginative as Lingard for so long. He is in someway a victim of the system.

None of this is the case with Arteta’s Arsenal.

There was immediately a sense that the side are learning these patterns, and trying to execute them. They created a copious amount of chances early in the game, often bamboozling United, and putting a badly off-form David de Gea under pressure.

Arsenal did inevitably drop off, and it feels like that is going to be a feature of Arteta’s first few months, because this is not yet a squad physically conditioned to this kind of modern pressing game.

Spring could well bring a bad run, and some injuries. That should merely be something to keep in mind, however, because and it is all worth keeping the faith with.

It involves a sharpness and alertness that has just been missing from Arsenal, and from way back into Arsene Wenger’s time. This is something Arteta the player used to rail about. It is thereby something Arteta the manager is determined to instil. Mesut Ozil chasing back on 88 minutes is a clear sign of this. Arteta was getting more out of his most imaginative player, as he ensured the rest of the team were offering more imagination.

Arsenal can again visualise a place in the top four.

It isn’t that outlandish when the table is so congested, when any kind of three-win run suddenly brings a massive leap. It is precisely that kind of run United have been utterly incapable of. It sums up this regime that they went into this game apparently fully ready to make the leap, and with so much set up for a big win… only to flunk it once more.

Solskjaer insisted after the match that “we’ll bounce back again” – but that’s the problem. They don’t have an idea of play that brings sophisticated movement, or proper momentum. Arsenal, however, may finally have something like it.

It was a difference on the night, and might yet make a difference even this season.





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