Phew! It was a far less comfortable 90 minutes than the scoreline might suggest, and even the most one-eyed Gooner could not deny that their team was a little fortunate in the much-needed 2-0 win over Manchester United. Given 76 points should be enough to secure Champions League football, Unai Emery’s team need to register 16 from their remaining eight fixtures. Nine should hopefully be secured in the home matches against Newcastle, Palace and Brighton, which leaves seven points required from five games on the road: Everton, Watford, Leicester, Wolves and Burnley. Two wins and a draw. There is no question that beating United has made Arsenal’s task a lot more achievable. Not only did they get three points nearer their target, they denied one of their principle three rivals for the two places behind Man City and Liverpool points in the process.
It was a good weekend generally for Arsenal. Spurs lost at Southampton and Chelsea only managed a point at home to Wolves. After the second leg of the Europa League tie against Rennes on Thursday, the team will not play again for two and half weeks due to the FA Cup quarter finals and an international break. It would be good to have momentum going into that break by turning around the tie against the French club, but elimination from Europe might actually turn out to be beneficial in the long run.
As for the game yesterday, there’s no getting away from the fact that United hit the woodwork twice in the first half. On another day, this result could easily have gone the other way. As it was there was an element of fortune with both Arsenal’s goals. David De Gea completely mis-read Granit Xhaka’s shot and seemed rooted to the spot for what should have been a bog standard save for a keeper of his reputation. And Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s penalty (which was softly awarded for the challenge on Lacazette, but what the hell) was probably a worse one than against Spurs, although as the keeper guessed wrong, that didn’t matter.
Unai Emery was unquestionably adventurous in his formation, starting Lacazette, Aubameyang, Ozil and Aaron Ramsey, with Kolasinac and Maitland-Niles as wing backs. It did indicate they were not going to let United have the ball and soak up the pressure, as was the case against Spurs. It was interesting to see that Koscielny stood at least a couple of yards behind his two central defensive partners. So a policy of mopping up rather than trying to play the offside trap.
United continued to threaten throughout the game and there was more than one last ditch tackle that required the Arsenal physio to patch up various players. For all that though, the spirit in the Gunners’ play was evident. They were hungry and determined (aside, granted, from the laconic Ozil), with performances from Lacazette and Ramsey especially notable. At the back, Sokratis and Koscielny both stood out, although the man of the match was surely Bernd Leno.
At 1-0 nerves were understandably frayed in the crowd, but Aubameyang’s converted second half penalty soothed the home support. After that, Arsenal generally played result football, making the game bitty with stoppages and not over-committing numbers going forward. United certainly didn’t give up, although you could sense it just wasn’t going to be their day, epitomized by a late free Rashford header straight at Bernd Leno, who had by that time pulled off a number of excellent saves. The keeper’s game seems to have improved significantly in recent weeks.
Granted, it’s a long time until Arsenal take the field again against domestic opposition, but from 1st April, they will play their remaining eight league matches in a six week period that could, conceivably, also feature four Europa League fixtures. That might of course be knocked on the head on Thursday if they cannot beat Rennes by two goals, but at least they will go into that match with confidence after winning this huge game.
To mark the club’s progress since last season, after 30 matches in 2017/18 they had collected 48 points and were in 6th place. Liverpool were in 4th with 60 points. This season Arsenal are 12 points better off and in 4th place themselves with 60 points. Be careful what you wish for? Sure, Arsenal are not home and hosed as yet, but the brief given to Unai Emery was to get the club back into the Champions League this season – the number one priority above anything else. He has given himself a decent chance of achieving it. Even with a defeat yesterday, it would still have been possible if for no other reason than the patchy form of both Spurs and Chelsea. However, they can now even consider the possibility of finishing third and avoiding a play-off qualifier in August. If you’d been offered four points from the two matches against Spurs and United before they took place, I have little doubt Gooners would have taken that. On English soil, it's been a good nine days for the club. Now to try and put right the wrongs of Rennes away and make the climax of the season even more interesting.
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