Mikel Arteta is not a gambling man.
When the teams were announced one hour before kick-off, he was being widely labelled as one. Aiming to banish 14 years of hurt to the history books and bring a halt to any further mention of that game against Manchester City, he changed his Arsenal team around.
The now dependable Granit Xhaka was exempt from the lineup in favour of Mohamed Elneny. The same Mohamed Elneny who struck terror into the hearts of Arsenal fans when he not only stayed at the club over the summer, but started in the opening day win over Fulham.
Yet nobody can confidently claim to have foreseen what would happen over the course of the next seven weeks. An unreliable and uninventive cast member who potentially could have earned a few minutes in the Carabao Cup, Elneny just went to Old Trafford, and owned it.
Not a blade of grass wasn’t covered. And not by mindless running or ill-timed pressing. Every movement, touch, decision and pass was faultless. How is that possible? From his early days at Arsenal where nobody was particularly smitten, he’s suddenly evolved into this midfield titan. That performance was colossal.
But Arteta knew what he was going to get. Calling it a gamble to start Elneny suggests that he didn’t know the Egyptian was capable of that. He obviously felt it was within the realms of likelihood.
If his side had lost, immediately it would have been heralded as a failed gamble. It would have been Xhaka’s absence that cost the team, regardless of how Elneny may have played.
In his post-match interview questions were asked about Gabriel Magalhaes and Thomas Partey, but Arteta interjected with just one name: “Mo”. Tough to single out any one player for brilliance on Sunday, it was the 28-year-old who earned special praise.
Those who play for Arteta play because they deserve to. We’ve heard about the ‘non-negotiables’ consistently throughout his tenure, and if you were ever curious exactly what they were, then watch ‘Mo’ closing down the ball all the way into the United half with 91 minutes on the clock.
Elneny’s commitment is exemplary, but Arteta deserves immense credit for building the platform for him to showcase that desire. As a manager, you have to improve your players first and foremost. Elneny is the ideal case study.