Arsenal inflicted Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s first Premier League defeat as Manchester United manager with a 2-0 win at the Emirates Stadium on Sunday.
The Gunners went ahead early when a Granit Xhaka strike from range swung wickedly in the air to deceive and wrong-foot David de Gea. However, had Romelu Lukaku managed to convert his gilt-edged chance moments earlier, then it could all have been so different.
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang banished the memories of his recent penalty miss against Tottenham Hotspur when he converted from the spot in the second half to seal the points for the home side.
It was a fiercely-contested encounter that could have gone either way but Unai Emery’s side defended stoutly and were clinical in front of goal. The result vindicated the Spanish coach’s tactical approach, which in itself revealed plenty about Emery as a manager.
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Despite being amongst the north London club’s most effective attacking players, Aubameyang, Alexandre Lacazette, Mesut Ozil and Aaron Ramsey have rarely all featured in the same starting XI under Emery. However, surprisingly, they all lined up together against the Red Devils.
Considering Arsenal were without the steel, defensive diligence and tenacity of Lucas Torreira in midfield, due to suspension, this attacking starting XI was especially bold. However, it paid off, as each member of this quartet of attacking talent all performed their defensive tasks with commitment and discipline.
Emery reverted to a back three for this match, with wing-backs operating on the flanks. This allowed for the inclusion of Sead Kolasinac on the left, and the Bosnian powerhouse acquitted himself well.
On the right, Ainsley Maitland-Niles was brought back into the fold. The versatile 21-year-old academy graduate has struggled to get in the team recently, as both Stephan Lichtsteiner and Shkodran Mustafi have been preferred on the right flank. This suggested that Emery lacked faith in the young Englishman to provide the defensive focus and solidity required.
However, the manager showed that he still believes in Maitland-Niles by selecting him for such an important game. This move paid off, as the England under-21 international was excellent against the in-form Old Trafford outfit.
On previous occasions, when Arsenal have been defending a lead against a side who boast plenty of firepower, the Gunners have made the mistake of dropping off, sitting too deep and inviting pressure. This is an issue Emery has clearly recognised, and took measures to counteract at the weekend.
Despite Solskjaer’s side being desperate to get back into the game, Arsenal were relatively comfortable for the last ten minutes of the match. They saw plenty of the ball and retained control of their share of territory.
Emery was able to engineer this situation with his substitutions. Whereas in the past he might have introduced someone like Mohamed Elneny from the bench for the last few minutes, he instead brought on 19-year-old striker Eddie Nketiah.
This injection of pace and attacking threat helped Arsenal maintain their ground and continue to pose a threat on the break. This ensured that United weren’t able to swarm forward and overwhelm the Gunners in the closing stages.