Ok, hands up, who genuinely saw that coming? There’s always been a sense that Arsenal had that sort of a performance in them, but no-one could have really expected such an accomplished, dominant and clinical performance to come against Manchester United, especially after the debacle against Olympiakos.
The 3-0 scoreline didn’t quite reflect just how much Arsenal controlled the match and how they never gave the visitors from Manchester a sniff of winning the game. It was the sort of performance that makes losing at home to Olympiakos all the more maddening, but there’s no point dwelling on negatives after a match like Sunday’s. It needs to be enjoyed and appreciated for its magnificence, and needs to become a blueprint and an inspiration for Arsenal for the rest of the season. With the Gunners now just two points from the leaders, dreams of a proper title challenge are now justifiable.
It was as if Manchester United weren’t expecting Arsenal to play at such a high tempo from the start of the match, with van Gaal seemingly hoping for the match to be quite cagey and Arsenal to suffer a European hangover and therefore be cautious in their play. Arsenal were anything but. This was an Arsene Wenger team at its free-flowing, expressive and vibrant best.
The speed of Arsenal’s start in the match was reflected in the pace of the attacking options the Gunners had on the pitch. Theo Walcott put in one of his best all-round performances as a centre-forward by stretching the centre-backs, while Alexis Sanchez wrecked the full-back in front of him, so much so that Louis van Gaal had to substitute Matteo Darmian at half-time in a show of mercy. Ozil and Cazorla fed the ferocious pace in the front-line, with Aaron Ramsey’s energy adding to the quick tempo that Arsenal were able to play at.
To attack at such pace, the passing needs to be accurate, purposeful and incisive, and in his best performance since joining the club, Mesut Ozil gave an exhibition in how to orchestrate this fast paced brilliance. He was at the centre of everything in the early exchanges and had a goal and assist to his name before seven minutes had been played, with Alexis being the first beneficiary of the German’s creativity. With Manchester United unable to escape from around their own penalty area, Ozil exchanged passes with Aaron Ramsey and sprinted to the by-line to cut back a dangerous low cross into the six-yard box. David De Gea expected to be able to dive and collect the ball relatively comfortably, but he didn’t legislate for a flying Chilean to dart in front of him and nonchantly flick the ball into the vacant space at the near post to give Arsenal the lead.
With Manchester United’s hopes of a slow start from Arsenal completely out of the window, the visitors were 2-0 down before they had time to regroup or draw breath. A minute after the opening goal, Ozil conjured up another up majestic move. From the ball being passed into the Manchester United half by Santi Cazorla, there were only three passes before the ball was in the back of De Gea’s net again. Alexis repeated the flick he scored with to allow Ozil to release Walcott in the left inside channel. Rather than having a tame effort on goal, Walcott flew into the box before laying it back for Ozil to stroke into the net.
There was a brilliant wave of euphoria around the Emirates Stadium, and there was a genuine feeling that Arsenal could score every time they got within shooting range of the Manchester United goal. As if to prove that point, before the clock had ticked past twenty minutes, Alexis was at the end of a sweeping move involving Ramsey and Walcott, and after cutting in past Darmian, unleashed a rocket into the top corner from the edge of the box. To think we were worried about him ten days ago. Three games, six goals and one opposing full-back subbed off since then; Alexis is back.
Even though that was the end of the scoring for the game, Arsenal created the best opportunities for the rest of the game and should have increased the lead. Aaron Ramsey missed a great chance at the back post, while in the second half, Mesut Ozil and Olivier Giroud shot straight at De Gea when well-placed before Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was unlucky to hit the bar after lifting the ball over the goalkeeper in stoppage time.
But that initial first the-half burst had done the necessary damage. It’s not that long ago since the season before Alexis joined the club, and when Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain had long-term injuries, that there seemed to be no pace in the Arsenal front-line. Now it’s like watching a relay squad with master providers in Ozil and Cazorla to make sure the baton changes are smooth. Olivier Giroud will still have a big role to play this season, and will be vital against certain styles of teams, but he’s firmly behind Walcott in the striking pecking order because of the Englishman’s pace getting the best out of Ozil and Alexis as part of a lethal three-pronged attack.
Having taken such a commanding lead, Arsenal were strong in the tackle, managed the game well and kept the visitors at arms’ length for the whole match. When United were able to find an opening, the door was slammed shut by Petr Cech, who exuded confidence out to his back four.
To play like Arsenal did on Sunday following such a massive disappointment in midweek strenghtens the hope that this team is ready to compete properly for the title. Obviously it would be better to not suffer major disappointments which then require a reaction, but it was reassuring to see Arsenal bounce back in such a commanding way. The team showed fantastic solidarity to pick themselves up and put in such a committed team performance. Yes, there were stand-out individual performances, but the collective effort was superb. No-one had a bad game and everyone contributed.
Questions will, and should, still be asked if Arsenal can consistently produce such a level of performance in the majority of matches for the remainder of the season. If they do, very few, if any, other teams in the league will be able to contain them, plus it’ll be fantastic to watch. But those questions can wait for the moment. While it wasn’t quite 8-2, Arsenal were long overdue a good win against Manchester United, and when it came, it was glorious.
It was a tough week for Arsene Wenger, but when others might look for blame elsewhere, Wenger will always trust his players. They repaid that trust spectacularly on Sunday.