There was so much to enjoy about Arsenal’s win over Manchester United.
The fact that Arsenal ended a hoodoo; two hoodoos, actually. The fact that it meant Manchester United lost. The fact everyone got off Mikel Arteta’s back for a bit. The fact Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang got on the scoresheet.
There’s even more.
Individual performances of the highest order by the likes of Rob Holding and Mohamed Elneny can get thrown into the mix. So, too, can the continued brilliance of Gabriel Magalhaes; and Thomas Partey showing the world why he’s truly world class. A lot to enjoy, yes. And that still doesn’t cover all the bases.
How aggressive the players were in bullying the United midfield stems from the infectious attitudes of the new boys, but there was another tactical tweak in the victory that is worth highlighting: Bernd Leno opting to go long. The shackles were ever so slightly loosened.
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From Arsenal’s seven Premier League matches this season, Leno’s 23 attempted long passes (FBref) were eight more than he’d produced in the next two options down the list, Manchester City away and Sheffield United at home. By contrast, he went long once on the opening day.
Considering Arteta has spoken previously about a nervousness he gets when Leno doesn’t play it short, it’s an intriguing difference.
"“I get nervous when we kick the ball long. The quicker it goes there, the quicker it comes back. I’d rather do that with the right structure, the right timing and using the right spaces. It’s something that we have to do more often.”"
Noteworthy, too, is that in the case of the City encounter, Arsenal were chasing the game late on and resorted to long balls as a route back into proceedings. There was nothing of the sort at Old Trafford, where Leno went long even under minimal pressure in the first half. Some of the occasions were when he was being hounded down, granted, but I don’t think that tells the whole story.
Partey helps with the narrative.
There are many reasons why Leno is instructed to seek the geographically simple route, but one of them stems from having precious few players – particularly forwards – who are strong in the air. There is no Olivier Giroud anymore, and Alexandre Lacazette lost out to Harry Maguire more than once in the 1-0 win.
But that didn’t necessarily matter, because Arsenal had someone who could pick up the second balls. Someone who was close to the forward line, ready to feed off the afters. Mohamed Elneny offered the same. The Egyptian and his Ghanaian teammate are distinctly more mobile than their fellow midfield teammates, more alert to the danger in defensive situations but equally, and crucially, more switched on to loose balls in advanced zones.
There is tenacity in that area of the pitch both for tackling purposes and ball recoveries – Partey racking up 11 of the latter over the 90 minutes. Even he was the target for some of Leno’s long balls, never losing an aerial dual all evening.
Arteta mentioned he’d rather play long balls when his side have ‘the right structure’. Going off Old Trafford, then he’s closer to that holy grail of on-field symmetry.
Whether Leno’s willingness to go beyond the first man is an indication of the future, or instead the eventuality of a specific game-by-game plan, remains to be seen. Despite that, we can see the path to greater variation in the build-up play.
Playing out from the back is glorious to watch when it comes off. Goals against Manchester City and Liverpool stand out. That latter of those teams, however, are not exclusively utilising a back-to-front system, and that minor tactical tweak against United paves the way for some greater diversity in Arsenal’s style.
We have better personnel to accommodate it and, as Arteta said, the ‘structure’ to put it to the test.