Arsenal’s 2-0 win over Manchester United has been lamented by many for not being like the old days of crunching tackles, fights in the tunnel, pizza throwing and Martin Keown coming close to ripping off Ruud van Nistelrooy’s face, but in the circumstances of a terrible second half of the season, it was a most welcome result.
Given the Gunners have been so low on confidence, to have a Jose Mourinho team turn up and not look intent on attacking was a good thing. Barring one moment of panic in the first half, Arsenal defended well with the three centre-backs, and slowly they grew in confidence going forward to score two second-half goals.
The first of those was fortuitous in the way Granit Xhaka’s shot looped into the net off the back of Ander Herrera, but that just made it all the sweeter given Herrera is the embodiment of Jose Mourinho on a football pitch, in that he’s thoroughly dislikable. The goal though was reward for another decent showing from Xhaka in the new system. The criticism of him this season has been way over-the-top as, while he hasn’t necessarily set the world alight, he’s been far from one of Arsenal’s main problems. His passing was excellent against United and he did a good job of shielding the back three.
Alongside Xhaka, Aaron Ramsey put in one of his best recent performances by covering loads of ground and being the man to support the centre-forward. With Xhaka sitting deeper and with the extra defender in place, there is more of a freedom for Ramsey to burst forward from midfield, which is when he’s at his most dangerous. An excellent save from De Gea denied him a goal in the first half that his performance would have deserved. He can be an incredibly frustrating player, but we know how effective an in-form Aaron Ramsey can be. Hopefully Sunday was a sign that he’s getting back towards that level again.
Despite what some people say about the game not really mattering as it was 6th vs 5th, you wouldn’t have known it by the reaction of the fans after the second goal. There hasn’t been much to celebrate recently, so it was just a great moment to see Danny Welbeck thump a header in off the bar against his former team. The celebrations didn’t quite match the scenes of the semi-final a few weeks ago, but there was a roar that went round the Emirates that hasn’t been heard for a few months. Plus, the striker celebrated against his former team. None of this muted celebration nonsense, arm in the air, huge smile on his face. Having been out for so long, it must have been a relief for Welbeck to score again at the Emirates, regardless of who it was against.
The finish was well taken by Welbeck, but it was all about the cross from Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. Darmian didn’t put him under pressure and the Ox used the space to whip a perfect ball to the edge of the six-yard box, taking out the centre-backs. It’s exciting when he runs at players and uses his strength and trickery to take people on, but equally it was great to see him whip in an early cross of such quality. He provided a similarly excellent delivery for Nacho Monreal at Wembley, and having him in the wing-back position does mean he can vary Arsenal’s attack down the right by either running at the full-back or delivering a cross.
Overall, the new system suits Danny Welbeck more than it does Olivier Giroud. The Frenchman must have been slightly frustrated that he didn’t get a quality cross like the one from the Ox when he’s started recently as he’d also have gobbled up the chance that Welbeck scored from, but the former United player gives Arsenal a bit more flexibility when he plays. As the Gunners are effectively an attacker-light with the three centre-backs, having a static centre-forward immediately cuts down the attacking options. As Welbeck can spin in behind defences, press from the front and compete in the air, he opens up a few more possibilities in this system than Giroud does. If he’s fit enough to, I hope Welbeck gets a run in the starting XI through to the end of the season and get into some form ahead of the cup final. Giroud is still a great plan B off the bench if Arsenal need a goal, but isn’t suited to the 3-4-2-1.
The other stand-out performer on Sunday was Laurent Koscielny. He’s at a level where no-one is surprised when he has a fantastic game, but as the middle of three centre-backs, I thought he quietly was superb. Barring one moment of hesitation where Rob Holding’s back pass allowed Wayne Rooney a shot on goal, Koscielny’s reading of the game was superb as he tracked the pacey runners looking to get behind the back three. Both Martial and Rashford couldn’t find a way through him. His performance also made it easier for Rob Holding and Nacho Monreal to adapt and perform well in roles that are still slightly unfamiliar in the three-man defence.
The good win does have to be caveated slightly by saying that Manchester United were pretty insipid for a lot of the game, but they still needed to be broken down because of the defensive way they’d been set up by Jose Mourinho. It was Arsene Wenger’s first Premier League over Mourinho, which added an extra dimension to the win, especially when I expected it to be another Mourinho-special and the game finish 0-0.
Arsene Wenger still has bigger things to worry about than finally beating Mourinho though, as questions about his future will only increase now we’re in May. The Gunners are just about clinging on in the race for the top four, and the challenge is now to back up the win over United by winning the two difficult away games at Southampton and Stoke. Beating Mourinho and United was great fun and much needed, but it’ll feel worthless if Arsenal show that the corner hasn’t been turned and don’t pick up maximum points in an important week.