Splendid defensive display
Whisper it softly, but Arsenal’s defense is actually … good.
After years of decline under Arsene Wenger and Unai Emery’s inability to fix the problem, Mikel Arteta has turned the Gunners into a team that is hard to break.
Of course, the attack brilliance was most noticeable in the last run, but the fact that Arsenal have only conceded twice since Boxing Day deserves credit too.
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At the forefront of the disciplined portrayal were David Luiz and Rob Holding.
The Brazilian has often been criticized for his sometimes disastrous approach to defending his goal, but against Manchester United he was chosen as man of the game by Gary Neville (although this was not least due to his celebrating Bruno Fernandes free kick like a goal).
Holding on the other hand was impressive again and will not have done any harm to his chances of being drafted in England in March after showing such a sure display in front of observing Gareth Southgate.
However, Arsenal’s defensive rebirth is about so much more than center-back performances. The entire team now seems desperate to defend.
Granit Xhaka was solid again, while Thomas Partey provided the extra protection it always offers and the front line also put in a layer (more on that later).
The combined effort is underscored by the fact that the Gunners currently have no faults that result in goals this season. Considering they topped that list in the Premier League, only two seasons make all the more impressive.
After the game, Mikel Arteta acknowledged his team’s desire to stop the opposing goals.
“If you have to defend your box, you have to be ruthless,” he said.
“You have to be more aggressive when you attack your opponent because every goal has a big impact on the results.
“I think in these situations everyone defends these situations with his or her life, which I ask of them.
“And if that’s the case, you’re obviously harder to beat and you get the amount of clean sheets we get right now.”
The new attitude is perhaps best summed up by the loner Brazilian in the heart of the Gunners.
After the game, David Luiz stated what his goals were for Arsenal for the remainder of the season.
“You have to be humble because we are far from first position,” he told Sky Sports. “We have to take it game by game and try to improve, and then we’ll see at the end of the season.
“Ambition fights for the first position. It has to be there. I never start anything in my life without ambition. Until the moment when it is mathematically impossible, we have to try.”
The title may be a long way off for the Gunners, but if they maintain the defensive performances of the past few months, climbing the table shouldn’t be too much of a problem.
On Tuesday night, Nicolas Pepe was apparently recognized for his praise after a goal against Southampton.
What was interesting, however, was why Mikel said Arteta had decided to play him on Tuesday night.
“The way he trained he deserved his chance and today I think he did the job really well.”
For the Ivorian, who has defended himself in a previously unknown way in his career at Arsenal, something seems to have changed.
We always knew he had the talent to attack. Aside from Alexandre Lacazette’s free kick that hit the crossbar and Willian’s golden chance, the best attack opportunities came from the Ivorian, who had blocked a shot from Harry Maguire early in the second half and rolled an agonizing low drive closer to the end.
More impressive, however, was that he was again defensively sensational against United, leading his Gunners’ teammates for most sprints in the first half by 11.
A penny seems to have fallen for Pepe, who now puts as much work on the defensive of his game as he does on the offensive.
These are the non-negotiable things Arteta requires of all of its players and while the 25-year-old signs the club record, it is no different.
Now he is finally beginning to show that additional commitment will follow the first team opportunities.
With the extent of Bukayo Saka’s injury unknown and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang still under quarantine, Pepe seems poised for another start against the Wolves.
If he can maintain this level of work for the team, one would expect this to be the next of many in the long run.
Martinelli’s defensive discipline
Heads of Arsenal fans fell after it was revealed that Saka would miss the game due to an injury an hour before kick-off.
However, the fact that he was replaced by Gabriel Martinelli on the starting line-up will soften the blow.
The Brazilian wasn’t quite at his best but there were a few moments in attack when he wanted to cause United problems.
Of particular note was a run that led to a loft pass that almost gave Lacazette a chance.
As always, his defensive awareness was refreshing for someone so young.
It was all the stranger that Marcus Rashford ran towards the Arsenal goal in the middle of the first half and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer shouted that the Brazilian could “not defend” and take him over “whenever you want”.
Just three minutes later, the 19-year-old rushed back to his own goal to score a miraculous defensive header that prevented an almost certain goal for Rashford. It’s safe to say that United’s Norwegian manager got it wrong on this occasion.
Then, after such a promising performance, it was a shame to see him retire at halftime in favor of Willian.
The assumption was that Martinelli might have sustained another injury, but when Arteta spoke after the game, it turned out that it wasn’t.
“It was a tactical decision,” said the Spaniard. “It was something we didn’t do right. I thought Willy could have done better. That’s why I made this decision.”
“It was about a couple of things, something we had to deal with, to be a lot more aggressive, how we were in the second half, a lot better, we were closer to getting the ball really high, we had better options with the ball. “
“It had nothing to do with Gabi or his work ethic.”
Transfer the conversation
With only a few days left until the window, it was interesting to notice once again the absence of Shkodran Mustafi from the Arsenal squad.
The German was linked to a move to Liverpool in the coming days and Arsenal appear pretty ready to let that happen.
After the arrival of Real Madrid’s Martin Odegaard, he is currently the surplus foreign player in the squad so the deal makes sense for all parties.
When asked about the possibility of outbound action in the last two days of the transfer window, Mikel Arteta admitted that there was still a lot of business to be done.
“Well, there are some talks going on right now,” he said. “I have spoken to all the players about their own situation because they all know the minutes they are playing and they want to improve their situation.
“I am ready to help them. Some of them the club is ready to help them and we will try to find a solution in the end. But I don’t know if that will be the case or not.”
That response also concerned possible deals for Joe Willock, Reiss Nelson, Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Calum Chambers to leave the club temporarily.
In any case, none of them could be given a drag.
Willock and Nelson are desperately in need of some playing time to establish themselves at the first team level and championship loans could be the perfect solution.
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Maitland-Niles also wants more minutes with a view to the euro in the summer, while Chambers has to get fully fit again.
If these steps continue, the Gunners may be forced to late-incoming deals just to replenish the numbers in the roster.
But from today’s perspective, it looks like the last two days of the January window will be busy for players leaving the club, not those going the other way.