The final minute of the 90 showed the two options from the summer. On one side, Lisandro Martinez, under pressure after a heavy pass from Marcus Rashford, gives a hard pass to Fred, who knocks the ball out of touch. 30 seconds later, Oleksandr Zinchenko plays the ball across the Manchester United penalty box, and Eddie Nketiah’s improvised volley won Arsenal their 50th point of the season.
Arsenal definitely wanted Lisandro Martinez, and the Argentinian had a fine game, scoring Manchester United’s equalizer, and getting tight to Eddie Nketiah. But Zinchenko, an alternative to Martinez for Arsenal, has transformed the Gunners. Today, he led Arsenal in touches, and he was vital in allowing Arsenal to take control of the match in the second half. Even before then, though, Zinchenko was paramount to Arsenal’s equalizing goal.
Prior to Zinchenko taking control, though, Arsenal had a more tenuous grasp on proceedings. Some of it was down to Arsenal’s play; at times, especially in the first half, the passing wasn’t sharp. There was also the influence of Manchester United’s pressing, but that was undone in the last half hour of the match, as Zinchenko, popping as a second number 6, an 8, a number 10, and on the inside left, took control.
Part of it was gaining numerical superiority. Manchester United’s midfield, without Casemiro, did a good job man-marking Arsenal’s midfield, with Bruno Fernandes forcing Partey to rush, and generally forcing Ødegaard to come deeper to have an influence. But with Ødegaard coming deeper, Arsenal weren’t flooding into the space. Indeed, the rotations were happening wider, with Arsenal looking to get an advantage wide and create space in the middle. That space, though, was well occupied by Scott McTominay.
It’s why in the first half Arsenal kept building onto the right hand side. Firstly, that’s because Saka was excellent and could keep running at Shaw, but it was also a way to get Ødegaard involved. This continued in the second half, with Tomiyasu growing in stature. But, Manchester United were able to deal with it; Rashford on the left is a better presser and defensive player than Antony, and hence, after the Martinez equalizer, Arsenal began building more through Zinchenko, who in the final 30 minutes had more of an influence on the match than Ødegaard.
What Zinchenko was able to do was give Arsenal numerical superiority in midfield. It became such a concern that Erik ten Hag changed system, bringing Fred on and shifting Bruno Fernandes to the right, in an asymmetrical 433. Yet, Manchester United’s problem is once Zinchenko grew in influence and stature, Arsenal’s rotations became much better out wide. At one stage, Zinchenko was to the right of Partey, with Xhaka at left back, and Zinchenko kept getting on the ball in space, and then driving to create space further forward.
Arteta’s change requires a mention too: Trossard is very comfortable receiving possession in the interior, and doing so gave Manchester United a problem: would Wan-Bissaka cover him, or would it be the responsibility of McTominay? Eventually, that problem told, and it was Trossard who played Zinchenko, this time on the outside, in an orthodox attacking left back position, to play the crucial pass for Nketiah’s winner.
There are a number of reasons for Arsenal’s transformation over the first half of the season. Martin Ødegaard has reached a new level; Bukayo Saka is growing and growing, and Gabriel Jesus, before his injury, brought an all around intensity and movement to the centre forward position. But the biggest difference from last season is the addition of Zinchenko, Arsenal’s second playmaker, and the one who has the freedom to not only disrupt opposition’s structures, but gives Arsenal so many different ways of creating numerical superiority and overloads.