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Arsenal 2 - Manchester United 0 recap: starting 2020 off right

First match of the decade, first win of the decade.

Arsenal FC v Manchester United - Premier League Photo by Visionhaus

Fun Fact: Arsenal haven’t lost a match this decade. On the first day of the new year, the Gunners rode a two-goal, dominant first half performance against Manchester United to Mikel Arteta’s first win as manager in front of a packed Emirates crowd. In a few short weeks, Arsenal look a totally different side from Unai Emery’s feckless and limp lineups. If this is what he can pull off in two weeks, things are just going to get better and better.

Arsenal came out swinging, much like they have in Arteta’s previous two matches. They landed the first blow in the 8th minute, as Nicolas Pepe pounced on a deflected low cross from Sead Kolasinac and cooly curled it past David De Gea for an early lead. In the 42nd, Sokratis doubled the Gunners’ lead, cleaning up a loose ball on a corner kick. United were outplayed by the hosts in the first, and despite a late push in the second half, the two goals proved to be all Arsenal needed to notch a New Year’s Day win against one of their historic rivals.

Arsenal came into the match in desperate need of a win and the win was, as they say, a total team effort. From front to back, the Gunners looked as cohesive as they have all season.

The starting midfield trio of Mesut Ozil, Granit Xhaka, and Lucas Torreira once again looked like completely different footballers than they did a month ago. A large part of that, I think, is that Arteta is asking them to do things that they are comfortable doing. A month ago, the midfield looked like a black hole of talent and opportunity. Each of the starters looked displaced and despondent. But in just a few weeks’ time, they have become a huge boon for the Gunners. So what changed?

Ozil has the freedom of the center of the park and is creating chances again. Ironically, with what appears to be less rigid defensive responsibilities, he’s tracking back and winning possession more frequently than ever before. Ozil gets a lot of stick for being “lazy,” but he was anything but. Over the course of the match, Ozil covered more ground than any other Arsenal player on the pitch while also covering more ground than he has in over two years.

Lucas Torreira, who had been shoehorned by Emery into a more box-to-box role with more attacking involvement, is finally being deployed as the disruptor that he showed he could be early last season, and boy is he being disruptive. It felt as if he ended every Manchester United attacking move by dispossessing someone or intercepting a pass. His aggression meant that few United attacks had much opportunity to develop as he stepped into every challenge with confidence and purpose.

And then there’s Granit Xhaka. Only a few short weeks ago, the majority of Arsenal fans were ready to send him packing for pennies on the dollar after several ineffective seasons and his embarrassing row with the fans. But since Arteta took over, he has been a player reborn. His strengths have been accentuated and his weaknesses mitigated by playing him as a proper holding midfielder, receiving the ball and distributing it to the attackers, which he did with great consistency over the match.

Arteta has been public with his admiration for the Swiss midfielder since taking over, and despite rumors this week of a reported transfer back to the Bundesliga, Arsenal’s manager seemed adamant following the match that Xhaka was staying put.

Defensively, Arsenal were sound for the majority of the match, especially when it mattered most. Considering the rampant injuries that have pervaded the defense, the back four made sure that United didn’t get any easy looks at goal while also avoiding any rash challenges in the box. Sokratis and Luiz were excellent, Luiz in particular with his distribution to the attackers from deep. Ainsley Maitland-Niles once again looked comfortable on the right, linking up with Pepe and Ozil deftly to pull United’s attackers apart. Sead Kolasinac, a surprising addition considering his recent injury, played admirably

As well as those Torreira and Ozil played, the Man of the Match was Nicolas Pepe. Pepe has come under fire for his slow start, drawing the tag of “bust” by impatient Arsenal fans and rival team supporters alike. During Arteta’s first two matches in charge, he started on the bench, stoking the “bust” claim flames. Starting against United, he quickly reminded people just why Arsenal ponied up £72 million for his services with a scintillating display. He did a little bit of everything: routinely terrorizing a hapless Luke Shaw down the right flank, pinging passes with 100% accuracy, scoring a goal, and altogether looking like the player we have all desperately wanted him to be.

However, not everything was perfect on the day. Arsenal still have ample room to improve, as evidenced by a fairly bland second half. One of the big drawbacks of Arteta’s high intensity style of play is that the players need to be conditioned for it. Much like the Bournemouth and Chelsea matches, Arsenal’s players began to wane in the second half as they struggled to maintain the high press. Thankfully, they did not make any lapses that resulted in United goals, but they invited far more pressure from United’s attackers in the second half. United’s attackers collectively could not hit the broad side of the barn and rarely tested Bern Leno with meaningful efforts, as the German secured a clean sheet on the day.

Alexandre Lacazette had another stinker, although he was much more influential in the build up than he had been against Chelsea. He is in one of the deepest ruts of any Arsenal player in recent memory, and he wears it plainly. Had he been on his game today, he could have scored a goal or two. Alas, he was off the mark on his few opportunities. His best and worst moment came in the first half, when he outmuscled Harry Maguire in the box and had a chance from the edge of the six yard box careen off the side of his foot and out for a throw in.

Arsenal were also wasteful in the tail end of the match. While United were selling out for a late goal, they left Arsenal ample opportunities for counter attacks. On no less than three occasions, Arsenal saw gilt-edged counters fall apart with either wayward passes or a lack of ruthless finishing. The Gunners could have put another one in to put the match well out of reach, but failed to do so when the opportunities arose.

On the whole, Arsenal put in the most complete performance of the season on New Year’s Day. We saw what Arteta’s vision can look like when it comes together, and it came against a rival in form. It hurts to imagine what this team could have looked like with Arteta in charge much earlier, but playing “What If?” is a fool’s errand. The reality is that Arsenal have finally found a sense of identity under their new boss. The new task will be maintaining and growing from it, and while that will take some time, the early showings are incredibly promising.

I don’t need to tell you how much the club and supporters needed this one. The weight off of the collective shoulders feels tremendous, and with how happy the players were following the match, you could tell that this match meant so much to them and Arteta, who hugged and congratulated each player following the victory.

It feels so good to win a match again, and it’s one that should be more often with Arteta at the helm. Things are beginning to look up in North London.

Happy New Year, folks!