Five things we found out about Unai Emery’s top-four pretenders
Arsenal hardly looked like world-beaters last night, but they can take confidence from the fact this was not their strongest side and they have so many players who can improve them. In defence, for example, fit again first-choice full-backs Hector Bellerin and Kieran Tierney were not named in the matchday squad.
Centre back Rob Holding, however, was on the bench and will surely be a starter in the coming weeks. As well as teenager Bukayo Saka did in attack, he will not be playing as soon as Alex Lacazette is fit again. It all adds up to show Unai Emery has a much stronger squad in his second season in charge and that is why he will be expected to deliver some form of success.
Granit Xhaka was named Arsenal’s club captain for the season ahead of this fixture, a decision that perplexed supporters who claimed the Swiss midfielder hardly warranted a place in the team, let alone the privilege of leading them out.
Emery countered the criticism by saying the armband would not guarantee Xhaka’s selection and he would only choose the best players for his side, but he was there last night despite a recent poor run of form. And then, as if to compound all of the negative attention he seemed to duck out of the way when Scott McTominay fired United into a half-time lead.
It could be argued he avoided the risk of suffering concussion but in the name of former granite-like Arsenal captains such as Frank McLintock, Tony Adams, and Patrick Vieira, does a truly inspirational leader really get his head out of the way of a goal-bound shot?! United’s Harry Maguire showed how it is done when David Luiz struck a free-kick in the second half.
Mesut Ozil’s mentions in the build-up to this match centred around transfer speculation that Arsenal will try to find a new club for him in this January’s transfer window.
That might have seemed a bit far-fetched after Emery named him one of his captains for this season in Friday’s pre-match press conference, but his absence from the starting line-up and the substitute’s bench told a story. Emery does not trust his £350,000-a week enigmatic German in big games. Yes, he can be a captain for the League Cup and maybe the odd Europa League game, but to not even be on the bench last night signifies a long winter ahead for a player who can be their most creative asset when at his best. Can he back from this latest big-game snub? The fact Arsenal no longer miss him in this sort of match, or any other crucial clash, would suggest not.
The Arsenal supporters were cheering every time goalkeeper Bernd Leno kicked a long goal kick, a clear comment that they believed Emery’s previous obsession with playing the ball out from the back was a bad tactic — for this set of players. Arsenal were run ragged when they deployed the tactic relentlessly when they gave away a two-goal lead at Watford recently but player power has clearly won the day and Arsenal’s often shaky defenders looked far more stable when their No.1 was not passing the ball short to them. It is a tactic they need to persist with.
Arsenal and Manchester United had a chance to show they are the best of the rest in the Premier League’s race for the top four last night.
With Manchester City and Liverpool so far ahead of their rival this only went to show just how wide the gap has become. The conditions were shocking, as the players battled it out in driving wind and rain, but one could not help but feel the two best teams in England would have put on a better show. Emery said that this was a match “the whole world wants to see” when he spoke last week, but it really did not live up to its billing. Fellow Champions League rivals Chelsea and Tottenham, will not be concerned as the outcome did not particularly damage their hopes either.