I don’t even know what to say about this Arsenal side anymore. I sure wouldn’t bet on them. Well, that’s not true. If someone was willing to give me good odds on Alexis giving the ball away in the final third more than any other player, then I might do it. After witnessing the embarrassment and total gutlessness of last weekend’s North London Derby, they were able to come out and control the match against a rotated, but still strong, Manchester United side. In what started with a toned down (at least on the surface) week of build-up from both sides, the fans at the Emirates were eventually treated to a fine football match, with the Gunners getting all three desperately needed points. Arsenal were finally able to break the deadlock ten minutes into the second half with a lucky deflected strike from Granit Xhaka, followed just three minutes later by a sublime cross from Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain to the head of an elevated and elated Danny Welbeck. The new look Arsenal back three became more of a back five for the last 20 minutes, and the Gunners were able to hold on for the 2-0 victory.
Here are my Five Talking Points from the match:
Yesterday was not a good day for long streaks and Manchester United. They managed to lose their 25 game unbeaten run, which is definitely the most amazing streak in Premier League history if you happen to work in mainstream football media and like to pretend 2004 never actually happened. So great was this streak, it catapulted the club all the way to fifth place (from sixth). Stuff of legends, that…
If that wasn’t sweet enough for the team and its manager, it also happened to be the first competitive League match that Arsene Wenger has been able to best Jose Mourinho in 16 tries. For a man that has faced non-stop criticism and scrutiny for the better part of two years, that is one monkey he probably doesn’t mind having off his back.
Then, of course, there were Jose Mourinho’s comments, both during the week and after the match, and he did not disappoint. After he was allowed to set the narrative during the week with his baiting comments about having no choice but to field a weakened side, he was still able to muster up a team sheet whose weekly wages would be nearly unpayable for 90% of the world’s football clubs. Poor sods. The dour figure that he has cut this season clearly shows that the job was a lot more work than he had anticipated when signing on. It seems that there is no cohesive attacking plan for the Red Devils, and his negative tactics have not done the club any favours on a transfer rumour front either. To my eyes, the results have come from the overwhelming talent of the squad far more than a cohesive plan being executed well.
After the match, Mourinho, perhaps surprisingly, elected to praise his team’s performance, choosing to maintain his side were the better of the two, and the score did not accurately reflect that. He also apparently witnessed several more chances for United to score than the rest of us had, and he insisted that they could have easily won the match. He even managed to sneak a “Wenger influences the refs” line in there as well. Jose, I don’t mean to get all pragmatic with the world’s most Narcissistic Pragmatist, but uh….scoreboard baby!
3-4-3, The Way We Should Be?
Until it becomes clear whether it is a temporary shake up or a permanent philosophical shift, the 3-4-3 will continue to be a source of scrutiny each match. The problem has not been so much the results, but even today when playing against a compact Manchester United team, the Gunners don’t really seem to be playing like….well… Arsenal. I know, I know “that’s a good thing!” I can almost hear you shouting, but like it or not, it is that slick style that attracts skilled players to the Emirates most of all. Most fans, I would imagine, would like to see much of the same dynamism that is a Wenger hallmark on attack, but combined with a more complimentary and structured defensive set up.
It is still taking the team time to adjust to their new roles, but the spacing looked much better against United, with more players in position to go for a loose ball, and the midfield partnership of Granit Xhaka and Aaron Ramsey did a much better job continuously making themselves available to each other for an easy outlet. Ramsey was his usual tireless self once again, making several threatening runs into the box, and combining a bit more often with Ozil and Sanchez in the midfield.
It seemed that Ozil and Alexis were getting into the more central areas of the pitch than they had been since the formation change, and both saw some more of the ball today as a result. Alexis still drops way too deep at times leaving no forward to occupy his defender, and the Arsenal midfield can be compressed even further.
While there is certainly much to like about this new experimentation with the way the team lines up, including the improved play and role for Aaron Ramsey, the dynamism of the Ox down the right flank from his wing back position, and certainly the defensive stability of three central defenders, there still remain some questions. Will Arsenal adjust to their new system to the point where the crisp, sharp passing moves and intricate interplay return to their attack? Will Shkodran Mustafi adjust to the back three upon his return to health? Does this formation, as Wenger claimed before last weekend’s Derby, really serve to get the best out of the current squad? and finally, will Mesut Ozil ever be able to adjust to not playing as a classic #10 in this setup, and once again become a dangerous influence over the match? Time will tell, but the early returns show much promise.
Holding his Place?
After being the player to benefit the most in terms of playing time from the switch to a back three, Rob Holding had been dropped from his new left centre back in favour of the more experienced, and natural lefty, Nacho Monreal in the two previous matches. Returning to the lineup against United, replacing a Gabriel on his more natural right side, Holding once again impressed, with many fans, yours truly among them, hoping he gets to stay in the team for a while.
The 21-year-old has a calm head on the ball that is rare for such a young defender, and though he is prone to an occasional lapse of judgement ( see: chipped back passes, Rooney’s break in on Cech on Sunday), there is no doubt he has a fine future. When Mustafi returns from injury, Holding may be forced back over to the left side, or possibly all the way to the bench, but I sincerely hope he gets a good run of games heading into the summer. If the three at the back formation becomes the new default, expect the emergence of Rob Holding in one of those flanking central defender positions to be one of the reasons why. Steve Bould is also apparently quite high on him, which I am relatively certain is still considered a positive to Arsenal fans? His £2 million transfer fee is starting to look like a classic Wenger-era talent burglary.
Top 4 Dreaming
Though Arsene Wenger likes nothing more than to use the word “mathematically” when nearing the end of the season to describe the club’s chances, the arithmetic is still not looking very promising. With Liverpool dropping points this past weekend, and naturally Manchester United as well, Arsenal at least have a chance to close the gap even more midweek. The biggest crime of all is that if they do finally drop from the top four, they will be forced to play the absolutely brutal, at times, Thursday night Europa League matches. Given that this summer is incredibly important, not only for Arsenal, but the rest of the big clubs looking to keep pace, it is perhaps one of the least convenient times to fall out of a Champions League place. The Gunners took care of business Sunday against United, now it is up to them to win out to have a shot at keeping their top four streak alive. There is still some hope at the Emirates yet, Gooners! Are we going to be ready for Wednesday?