Every now and again, this Arsenal team produces the sort of spell of ruthless, rat-a-tat football, that doesn’t so much leave our opponent punch-drunk, as lying prone in a pool of their own blood, riddled by bullets and gasping for life.
Liverpool were the victims back in April, when we scored three times in eight first-half minutes, but today, it was the turn of Manchester United to get gunned down in a glorious hail of the Gunners’ artistic ammunition. Goals by Alexis Sanchez, Mesut Ozil then Sanchez again, all before the 20 minute mark, killed the game and sent us up to second in the standings.
The parallels with the 4-1 win over Liverpool didn’t end with the quick-fire goals and Ozil getting on the score-sheet; Sanchez’ second strike this afternoon, cutting in from the left and unleashing an exocet past David de Gea, was almost identical to our third against the Merseysiders. Only today’s was even better I thought; more top-cornerish, possibly more powerful and definitely after the red-hot Chilean had dribbled past a greater number of bedazzled defenders.
Afterwards, Arsene Wenger spoke about the message today’s 3-0 win sends out to Arsenal’s rivals in the Premier League:
To win in a big game is always a statement. We are in it, we are two points off the league leaders, Manchester City, so I hope that result today will give us belief to fight for it.
As expected, our starting line-up confirmed Petr Cech’s return in goal, Gabriel partnering Per Mertesacker at the heart of our defence, Nacho Monreal taking over from Kieran Gibbs at left-back and Theo Walcott retained as the central striker at the tip of our attack.
We began the game on the front foot, forcing a succession of corners in the first few minutes before Sanchez opened the scoring. Francis Coquelin, as he did countless times all afternoon, nipped in ahead of an opponent to win the ball before Ozil and Aaron Ramsey played a one-two on our right which resulted in the German sending a cross to the near post with his weaker foot.
Sanchez, the hyperactive and super-alert phenomenon that he is, was quicker to read and react to the delivery than any United defender and darted from the back to the front post, to apply the most sublime of flicked, back-heeled finishes to the move, to give us the lead with just over five minutes on the clock. Commentating for Sky Sports, Gary Neville conceded:
They’ve been all over United from minute one, punch after punch…
He was spot on, and less than two minutes later, we doubled our lead. Chris Smalling clipped a speculative ball forward, Gabriel rose unchallenged and nodded it down to Santi Cazorla, he played it forward to Sanchez, who flicked it infield to Ozil first-time. The German then released Walcott ahead of him, who scared the life out of their retreating back-line with his pace as he flew into the penalty area, before cutting the ball back to Ozil to pass the ball emphatically into the corner leaving De Gea motionless. Neville summed up the situation at that precise moment:
Arsenal are rampant, United can’t get near them. Every pass is precise, it’s clinical, it’s perfect…
It took a further 12 minutes for the next brutal assault on the netting behind De Gea, but it was certainly worth the wait. Hector Bellerin took a throw midway inside our own half on the right and found Ramsey tight to the touchline and being pressed by Ashley Young. The Welshman simply flicked the ball away from his marker, spun and strode forward before playing it inside to Walcott who was demanding the ball like a player really enjoying his game.
The striker’s two touches; the first, with the outside of his right foot, to spin away from the defender and back towards his own goal, and a second, on the swivel using his left instep, to shift the ball wide left to Sanchez, were the very definition of efficiency and allowed his team-mate just that split-second extra to receive the pass unchallenged, skip infield past a few, forlorn United bodies and bury the ball into the far top corner. Cue Neville:
They can’t believe it, these Arsenal fans, in and around us here, that is absolutely brilliant from Alexis Sanchez…
Except they could believe it, because as mentioned above, we’ve seen Arsenal and Sanchez do this in the fairly recent past. It’s a bit like when pundits said Arsenal finally adopted a sensible contain and counter game-plan in a big match at Manchester City last year, completely oblivious to the fact Arsene had set his teams up pragmatically, plenty of times previously, like when we beat Bayern Munich away from home a few years ago, playing exactly the same way.
Anyway, Aaron Ramsey should have grabbed our fourth from a pin-point Sanchez cross but got his attempt at a finish all wrong, side-footing the ball high and wide. Anthony Martial then nearly pulled a goal back just before the interval but Cech spread himself superbly, stretching out a leg to block the shot and maintain our three-goal lead heading into half-time.
With the game all but won, we sensibly decided to play it safe in the second half, keep compact, let United enjoy possession and attempt to hit them on the break. A manager accused of only knowing how to play one way was now adopting two very different approaches within the same game. In fact, when he identified that United’s half-time substitutions were resulting in us being dominated in the middle of the park, Arsene instantly ordered Ramsey to shift into the middle alongside Cazorla and Coquelin, and told Ozil to play from the right to rectify the issue.
As much as United huffed and puffed however, they failed to make many clear chances, mainly because they’ve built their team around Wayne Rooney, a player who can’t run, and on the evidence of today, can’t pass, shoot or tackle either. But one England international who showed he can do all those things was Walcott. Many are calling it his best performance in an Arsenal shirt and whilst I think he’s had better games in terms of his overall attacking influence, Theo was undoubtedly brilliant this afternoon.
Silky in his link-play, confident, hard-working going both ways – this is the Walcott we all want to see but truth be told, few thought they ever would, even if personally, I’ve always had faith in him and believed in his potential as a striker for us. Here’s how Arsene assessed Walcott’s display after the game:
I must say Walcott had a hugely committed performance today in a hugely convincing way. He didn’t score but I like to praise the strikers when they don’t score and contribute and give assists. He was involved in two goals – Ozil’s and Alexis’ [second] one. He did really fight today and showed he can fight, commit and protect the ball as well. He is gaining some aspects of his game as a centre forward and they are improving.
Although Theo was excellent, I thought he was one of 11 others who were just as good. To a man the players all performed at a very high level today and contributed to what was a fantastic result.
More post-match reaction etc from me tomorrow but for now, it’s time for MOTD2 and another look at today’s murdering of Man Utd.
Til next week.