LONDON – A first victory for Arsenal under Mikel Arteta brings with it a profound sense of relief. Other results earlier on New Year's Day meant Arsenal began its match against Manchester United just four points above the relegation zone, with the club having won just one of its previous 15 games in all competitions. A threat that even recently had seemed so remote it could safely be joked about had started to become worryingly real. What if Arsenal did become involved in a relegation battle? How would this most-emotionally fragile of clubs cope? But after its best performance of the season, Arsenal can, for now, stop looking over its shoulder and start dreaming of a bright new future under its new coach.
There were signs in the defeat to Chelsea on Sunday that things were changing under Arteta. That was a much more aggressive, much more coherent performance than Arsenal had been producing, undone only by what Arteta identified as a lack of fitness in the second half and then two entirely characteristic individual errors. This game followed a similar pattern: Arsenal domination in the first half followed by a second in which it was forced onto the back foot. This time, though, its lead at halftime was 2-0, and it was able to hold on by that same score.
Before anybody gets too carried away by Arteta’s first win, there is a caveat to be considered, and it is a major one, which is that United was dreadful before halftime. There is a sense that, with the exception of Sheffield United, below the top four this season, the Premier League is a series of competing crises and neuroses (and a harsh critic may even include Manchester City and Chelsea in that). Nobody is consistent. Nobody is entirely sure of themselves. Every team has the capacity to produce a terrible half.
Here, it was United. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side may have only lost one of its previous nine games, but the first half at the Emirates was as bad as the defeat at Watford. There was no shape, no cohesiveness, no spirit. Jesse Lingard kept running down blind alleys. The rapid front three, who can be such a threat on the counter, were barely involved. It’s been 50 weeks now since United won three games in a row. Since that initial spurt immediately after Solskjaer replaced Jose Mourinho, there has been no consistency about his United, and it remains hard to discern what the plan is beyond springing rapid counters.
By contrast, it is already possible to see what Arteta is trying to do. To describe it as Guardiola-lite would be simplistic, but the principles of attacking and pressing are clearly similar.
His team selection was notably adventurous. For only the third league game all three big-name forwards–Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Alexandre Lacazette and Nicolas Pepe–started, and for the first time Mesut Ozil was also included. Arsenal’s opener showed just how dangerous this front three in harness can be. It was Aubameyang on the left whose exchange of passes released Sead Kolasinac to cross, and although Victor Lindelof prevented the ball from reaching Alexandre Lacazette in the center, it fortuitously fell for Pepe, who swept gleefully home from 10 yards, his first home league goal from open play.
Pepe has underwhelmed since his $95 million move from Lille in the summer. He has seemed one-footed and bewildered by the pace of the Premier League. But on Wednesday, he was a persistent threat and had beat Luke Shaw every time he ran at him. Here was the penetrative wide forward Arsenal thought it had signed, forever cutting infield. He very nearly had a second seven minutes before halftime, his clipped shot from 25 yards bouncing back off the post with De Gea beaten.
A second goal did arrive before halftime, with Sokratis lashing in after Lacazette’s flicked-on header had been pushed out by De Gea.
That’s two goals in successive games from corners. It’s probably too early to identify that as a pattern, but Arteta wouldn’t be the first manager to see set plays as an easy way of enhancing his side’s threat. But there is more than that. The prospect of Ozil supplying the creativity for that front three is hugely exciting, so long as it doesn't leave Arsenal open to the counter. Here–albeit against an insipid United–it didn’t.
It’s early days yet but, for the first time in a long time, things at Arsenal might be looking up.