Arsenal fans woke up with huge grins on their faces on Monday morning after banishing their demons, overcoming Manchester United at Old Trafford 1-0 thanks to Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang‘s second half penalty.
Arsenal dominated the tempo of the game, which is not something you’d affiliate with the Gunners against a top six side away from home.
Manager Mikel Arteta has turned Arsenal into a well drilled and disciplined side at the back
Gabriel has been Arsenal’s stand-out player this season after arriving from Lille in a £27m deal
But perhaps more importantly was their stubbornness at the back, with £27million new boy Gabriel Magalhaes the stand-out figure once again in Arsenal’s defence as they shut out United’s big-money attack.
Since Mikel Arteta took over in December last year after replacing the sacked Unai Emery, Arsenal have looked a different animal in defence and are a hugely tough nut to crack.
And that is highlighted by their defensive record at the start of the new campaign. Despite already travelling to United, Liverpool and Manchester City – Arsenal have conceded the least goals throughout the league, only shipping in seven in as many games.
Here, Sportsmail takes a close look at how Arteta has transformed Arsenal’s error-prone defence into one of the most formidable in the Premier League…
A DEFENSIVE SHAMBLES WHEN ARTETA TOOK OVER…
Simply put, Arsenal’s defence was all over the place when Arteta was tasked as the man to turn around their fortunes after years of decline.
A lack of identity and a patchy defence shot of confidence cost Unai Emery his job and it was evident when Arteta took over.
It was clear Arsenal’s problems wouldn’t go away in a heartbeat, which was highlighted during Arteta’s first game in charge against relegated Bournemouth at the Vitality Stadium last season on Boxing Day last season.
Despite looking promising in attack, Arsenal fell behind as their defence failed to put any pressure whatsoever on Bournemouth’s attack. Callum Wilson came flooding forward but the likes of Granit Xhaka and David Luiz kept backing further off.
As Wilson was given loads of time on the ball, he offloaded it into the path of Jack Stacey on the overlap who had the simple task of squaring it across goal to Dan Gosling to poke home. Easy as you’d like.
Arsenal backtrack as Callum Wilson runs at the defence in Arteta’s first game in charge
Wilson easily plays in Jack Stacey down the right as Arsenal fail to put the pressure on
Dan Gosling has the simple task of putting Bournemouth ahead after weak Arsenal defending
There was absolutely no pressure whatsoever on Bournemouth’s attack – it was a free run at goal. Luckily Aubameyang was on hand to bail Arsenal out yet again.
Despite Arsenal dominating proceedings, their defence had cost them once more. There were too many players in the backline whose futures – at that time – appeared almost over.
The likes of David Luiz, signed from London rivals Chelsea, Shkodran Mustafi and Sokratis were nowhere near good enough if Arsenal wanted to regain their place among England’s elite.
And their worrying defensive form would continue as Arteta continued to adapt to life in the managerial hotseat.
Just three days later against Chelsea, Arsenal were heartbroken as they let their lead slip against Chelsea before losing 2-1 at the Emirates. They again had been the better side throughout but a horror Bernd Leno mistake before Chelsea caught the Gunners on the counter-attack, ensured they fell to an agonising defeat.
Arsenal were crumbling far too easily and an early question mark surrounding Arteta was whether he could really transform this defence, or was it going to be an impossible task?
Ainsley Maitland-Niles fails to clear a defensive header against Sheffield United at home
Maitland-Niles is then slow to close down John Fleck, who fires home the equaliser
During Arteta’s early days in charge, Arsenal were far too often letting advantages slip. Against Sheffield United at home in January they were ahead before a nervy second half, in which it looked like there would only be one real outcome.
As the Blades’ attack continued to grow stronger, Arsenal finally succumbed to the pressure. After a ball was floated towards the back post, Ainsley Maitland-Niles failed to header away the danger and the ball landed into the path of John Fleck.
But as Fleck got ready to line a shot up on the half-volley, Maitland-Niles was too slow to get out to him and the Sheffield United man duly converted. It was coming but again, Arsenal should have prevented the equaliser.
The next game, it was another defensive mishap that cost the Gunners and Arteta so dearly. The much-maligned Mustafi, arguably the first defender in need of axing, attempted a back-pass to Leno but the latter was short-changed.
Tammy Abraham got to the ball ahead of the Arsenal goalkeeper only for Luiz to haul the Chelsea striker down in the area. Down to 10 men and a goal behind they go. Their promising work undone in an instant.
Shkodran Mustafi’s back pass to Bernd Leno put Arsenal in all sorts of danger against Chelsea
David Luiz then trips up Tammy Abraham in the area before receiving a straight red card
But at Stamford Bridge on the cold January evening, Arsenal took a real step forward under Arteta, showing real grit and determination to peg their London rivals back 2-2 despite playing over an hour with a man less.
It was time to kick on and Arsenal would go onto record three clean sheets in four Premier League matches before the season was brought to a halt amid the coronavirus pandemic.
The encouraging changes were there for all to see but there was still plenty of work for Arteta to do.
And again that showed immediately after the Premier League restarted after Luiz produced a horror cameo display at Manchester City, handing Raheem Sterling the opener before fouling Riyad Mahrez in the penalty area before receiving his marching orders. One step forward, two steps back.
And they then crumbled to a defeat against Brighton in their next encounter in June, letting their heads slip as the south coast side overturned a one-goal deficit to win 2-1 late on.
It was the same old story at the Emirates – Arsenal crumbling as soon as the slightest bit of pressure is put on them.
But fast forward almost five months, and the situation couldn’t be any different.
David Luiz’s Arsenal career appeared in jeopardy when Arteta took over last December
The Gunners were far too often collapsing in defence when Arteta took the reins at Emirates
BUT NOW ARSENAL HAVE ONE OF THE MOST FORMIDABLE DEFENCES AROUND…
So many names in Arsenal’s backline were in danger of being culled when Arteta took over.
But the Spaniard has kept faith in many of them, including Luiz and Mustafi, just like legendary manager Arsene Wenger did throughout his time in north London.
And it has paid off. Arsenal are all of a sudden a different animal in defence, and now boast the most formidable backline in the Premier League at present this season.
Arteta has been in charge for almost a year now and his work on the training ground is evident for all to see when the Gunners take to the pitch.
They finally have a backline working in absolute unison with each other, a defence that has cut out their terrible mistakes.
Victory away at Wolves in the Premier League and triumphs at Wembley over Manchester City and Chelsea in last season’s FA Cup set the tone for the Gunners going forward.
But in the space of less than a year at the club, Arteta has transformed the Gunners defence
Against City in the semi-final, Arsenal produced a heroic performance in defence coming up against Kevin De Bruyne and Co, with Luiz proving an absolute stalwart.
Luiz all of a sudden looks a completely different player, and while the credit should land at his door, Arteta also deserves huge amount of praise for sticking by him and transforming his fortunes.
Luiz perhaps epitomizes Arsenal’s stark improvement at the back. Every single player in the defence knows their exact role, and that came to fruition against United on Sunday.
After dictating the first half, they weathered an early United storm in the second period before Aubameyang netted from the penalty spot.
United came back in their desperate hunt for an equaliser but Arsenal held emphatically firm. In years gone by, the Gunners would have collapsed under the onslaught but not this time, and not under Arteta.
While the defence rightly earn the plaudits, the whole team are working as one with Alexandre Lacazette setting the tone up top. Their pressing of United was immense, not allowing the Red Devils anytime to get comfortable on the ball and harrowing their opponents to make mistakes in their own half.
Arsenal show their compactness at the back as Manchester United looked for a late equaliser
Arsenal’s extreme press from the front harrowed United into making errors in their own half
It has been a stand-out element of Arsenal’s play this season with every single player fully invested into Arteta’s long-term project. This certainly wasn’t the case under Emery and even Wenger during the latter years of his incredible tenure.
Arteta has prioritised defence since taking over, and it has paid off even if Arsenal are still struggling to find their free-flowing football going forward.
And another key reason why Arsenal are flourishing in defence is down to astute business in the transfer market.
Arsenal followed up the signing of Kieran Tierney last summer, who has become one of the first names on the teamsheet, by adding Gabriel to their books in a £27million deal from Lille.
The Brazilian has enjoyed an incredible start to life in north London, and has been Arsenal’s Player of the Season so far. Despite only arriving a couple of months ago and not being able to speak English, he has been a real leader in the back line.
Both Gabriel and Rob Holding were booked early on in the first half at Old Trafford but if you thought they’d lose their heads, you’d be wrong. They shut any doubters up and didn’t give Marcus Rashford, Mason Greenwood, Bruno Fernandes and Paul Pogba a sniff.
Gabriel produces a huge tackle on Nemanja Matic at the death at Old Trafford on Sunday
Gabriel never gives his opponents a second on the ball, always lurking to pounce in front or win duels in the air to alleviate any danger on Arsenal’s backline.
As the clock ticked down at Old Trafford with Arsenal looking to hold onto all three points, Gabriel produced some match-winning heroics, including a last-gasp tackle on Nemanja Matic in the penalty area – performing a perfectly timed tackle despite already being on a yellow.
He has become Arteta’s trusted man and looks like a centre back Arsenal have sorely lacked for years since their glory days began to dwindle.
And with Thomas Partey in front of him – who enjoyed a fantastic display against Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side – and talisman Aubameyang up top, that is some spine.
With defensive discipline and leaders at the back, the ingredients are there for Arsenal to kick on and reclaim their place on the top table. Now it’s time to capitalise on what is set to be a topsy-turvy season, having already played three of the league’s Big Six away from home.
Arsenal have a solid spine again with Gabriel, Thomas Partey and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang