The Arsenal defeated Manchester United 2-0 in a Premier League face-off between two of the fading powers of English football. The eight-minute strike from Arsenal's record signing Nicolas Pepe and a 42nd-minute effort from defender Sokratis Papastathopoulos resigned the Lancashire club to their second defeat in five games, while the London club registered their first home win at the Emirates for the first time since October.
Arsenal who are still closer to the bottom of the table than they are to the top (10th with 27 points) will delight in the shades of form they displayed against their fierce rivals, who find their fifth position increasingly precarious to hold onto with inconsistency bordering on criminal.
We here analyse the sequence of events from this fixture.
Understanding the chronology
Prior to the match, there were reports of two informal transfer requests going around English broadsheets: Open the paper, place it by your morning cuppa and turn to the sports section, your eyes will naturally find the stories of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (Arsenal) and Paul Pogba (Manchester United) reported moves away from their respective clubs. Like following the skidmarks that lead to a car crash.
The Gabonese international, Aubameyang, who is in contention of being a back-to-back league golden boot winner this season feels that Real Madrid or Barcelona should be his next natural progression, having proved himself in the Premier League. Understandable, considering so much of his effort is going in to keep Arsenal's dignity than to be challenging for glory. When he joined the Gunners, he envisioned himself winning trophies with the North London club. As luck would have it, his club is being ridiculed by pundits, calling Arsenal relegation fodder. The falling out of romance happens in a relationship where the reciprocity is wanting. It hurts Arsenal fans' pride to admit it, it pains them so very much, one would imagine to waking up to the reality they are in every day. Players wanting to leave, especially your star players, feels akin to being dumped in the football sense: It's you, not me. It's also a sign of the start of a cyclical downturn.
The situation is similar at United, but worse, despite better fortunes in the league: Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's side is five points away from fourth placed Chelsea. Pogba’s agent Mino Raiola declared that Manchester United have fallen off the rails on a systematic level. That the administration had been calcified by disorganisation. That he’s looking to move his star asset and World Cup winner from France, away from a corporation with depreciating value.
These statements coupled with the player's recent injury that stopped him from traveling to London for this match took a toll on the team's morale and it was palpable.
Had Pogba been present for the game United’s midfield wouldn’t have been run over: Granit Xhaka wouldn’t have time to actualise his inner Xabi Alonso, Lucas Torriera wouldn’t have the bandwidth to do anything but defend. Mesut Ozil wouldn’t have been Mesut Ozil. For United, having Jesse Lingard was akin to playing with two men short. Nemanja Matic did not have the feet to dance with Mesut Ozil. Fred was back to being, well, Fred.
Aubameyang however was present for Arsenal in spirit and in person.
8th minute: The ball hopped ahead of from a Aubameyang's stepover pass down the far left. A bullish Kolanisic whipped the ball across the goal-line. The intercepting heel of Lindelof became the unwitting tee to set up Pepe's left shuffle curler into the net from near the penalty dot. David De Gea dives the wrong way. Pepe wheels down to celebrate down the right side and Aubameyang falls to his knees in thankful prayer.
— Arsenal (@Arsenal) January 2, 2020
Little later a floated cross-field ball to Ozil on the right released Pepe again. This time he dribbled like a spaghetti dancing from a fork, sat Luke Shaw into Netflix-and-Chill-big-spoon pose and crossed the ball to Aubameyang with a diving scissor's kick that whistles past the bar.
On the 31st minute, a pass from Pepe saw Lacazette facing his back to goal turned a heavy-footed Harry Maguire on the right side. And if he didn't choose to fire the shot there would have been a squared tap-in for who else, then a prowling Aubameyang.
Soonish defensive midfielder, the sheet anchor in Arsenal's ship, Lucas Torriera hopscotched across the midfield and came skipping into the United box to fire a shot wide from another turn-and-shoot.
Pepe's 37th-minute curler from 30 yards away came as a result of De Gea kicking the ball into a leaping Lacazette. Pepe took the shot on and was nearly rewarded had the post was an inch thinner. On this occasion too, Aubameyang made himself available for a much easier option of a cross. Yet he was there for the rebound shot that went well over.
David De Gea shook his cold-sweat riddled head. He wore the look of a man in purgatory.
On the 42nd minute, the diminutive midfielder Torriera did the improbable and bear-hugged the celebrating, wide-shouldered Sokratis, lifted him up in a manner a cartoon swan would lift a cartoon bull. The goal that was the cause of the celebration was underwhelming by those standards; a simple near-post flick-on from Lacazette bumbled the ball down to the feet of Arsenal's Greek slab of a man who reacted quickest with a stab.
The Arsenal man who had the most defenders marking a player's attacking zone in that corner? Aubameyang.
✅ Day two of 2020
— Arsenal (@Arsenal) January 2, 2020
At the end of the game, there were many coroner’s reports from pundits sitting in studios all across the world. From Brazil TV to Dutch programming. A player to infamously played for both clubs, Robin van Persie reaffirmed the fears Manchester United fan’s at the Emirates saw with their naked eyes: Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial were starved of service. They were making incisive off-the-ball runs but had no one to find them. There was a Pogba shaped empty chalk-line hole in the United midfield crime scene.
In the post-match interview Arsenal cult hero David Luiz confessed to not having the fitness enough to persist with the newly acquired high-intensity football under Mikel Arteta. Arsenal’s energy levels were fading by the 50th minute.
It wasn’t until the 54th minute did United with Fred really got a pop at goal and even then, that pop was a long punt, aimed directly at Bernd Leno. The German squatted the ball down and grabbed it with contempt.
Andreas Hugo Hoelgebaum Pereira tried his own turn and shoot in the box, rippled the side netting, off-target.
Finally, United's last chance came from a lifted ball from Juan Mata from the deep right of their midfield to a diagonally running Rashford. Leno put his body on line and snuffed the chance and any chance of a consolation goal.
The final whistle blew, Arteta raised his hands facing the crowd behind his technical area, in jubilation. This the greenhorn manager's first win as an Arsenal manager and it came against the once-mighty United. Solskjaer, grim-faced, offered commiserations to his drained players on the pitch and congratulations to the ones who outclassed his.
In the end, Pogba’s absence was as telling in Arsenal’s 2-0 win over Manchester United as Aubameyang’s presence.
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Updated Date: Jan 02, 2020 15:04:32 IST