Arsenal‘s progress under Mikel Arteta has come largely in baby steps. There have been some bigger strides too, though, and this was undoubtedly one.
In the Premier League, however, it is a long time since Arsenal found a result away from home to resemble this. They hadn’t, for example, won at Old Trafford for 14 years.
Arsenal’s 1-0 win over Manchester United was their first at Old Trafford in a massive 14 years
Victory over Manchester United was a bigger stride of progress for Arteta’s Arsenal squad
Manchester United remain a team that struggles to dominate possession, particularly at home
The problem inherited by Arteta almost a year ago was that Arsenal had become predictable on occasions like this. Not mentally or physically strong enough, they would occasionally flatter but buckle when the big moments came.
It has been a problem so deeply engrained during Arsene Wenger’s latter years and the brief stewardship of Unai Emery that Arteta has had to dig pretty deep even to find the root of it.
He isn’t there yet, either. Last week’s home defeat to Leicester on a night when victory would have taken Arsenal in to the top four was indicative of ongoing issues with consistency and reliability.
But Arteta is moving this team forward. There can be no doubt about that and if this is to be a season of tangible progression then this performance and victory will doubtless be seen as a staging post.
This is not the United of yore, of course. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s team have their own character flaws. It is still a team good enough of beating Champions League opponents of the quality of PSG and RB Leipzig, though, and it is against that background that this Arsenal victory should be judged.
A penalty ultimately decided this game. Conceded needlessly by the infuriating Paul Pogba and converted emphatically by Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, it was one of only four shots on target in the whole game. The sides had two each.
This was on the whole an attritional contest, precisely the kind of game that Arsenal usually find hard to emerge from with a victory.
Arteta embraces Arsenal match-winner Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang after their victory
But there was a steeliness about them here. United, poor for the most part, came at them hard for the final quarter of an hour but apart from one low cross from Donny van de Beek that deflected against the post via the forehead of goalkeeper Bernd Leno, Arsenal stood fast.
There were some excellent performances within the team effort. Both Arsenal central defenders were booked early on and against forwards with the quickness of Marcus Rashford and Mason Greenwood, that felt problematic.
But both Rob Holding and Gabriel were outstanding thereafter, their efforts helped by the excellence of Mohamed Elneny and new signing Thomas Partey immediately in front of them.
Left full-back Kieran Tierney continues to grow, meanwhile. The young Scot has pace and the requisite bravery as well as the ability to produce lovely out swinging crosses from his side. The 23-year-old looks set to be a fixture in the side for many years to come.
Gabriel and Rob Holding were outstanding behind Thomas Partey and Mohamed Elneny
Arsenal pressed hard from the front, too. The Brazilian Willian started on the right side, struck the bar with a dipping shot and worried United with his scurrying energy.
Bukayo Saka was also a willing outlet and although Aubameyang looks a little ill at ease stationed on the left side of Arteta’s attacking formation, he was sporadically dangerous.
Aubameyang, the highest paid player in the team in the absence of Mesut Ozil, has the feel of a problem needing to be solved by the Arsenal manager.
Too often he is peripheral to the action which is no use given that he is essentially his team’s best player.
That is something that will need to be sorted out over time but here at least he was part of an Arsenal performance of substance.
Paul Pogba was not the only problem for Manchester United on a disappointing evening
Having been persuaded to sign a new contract in the summer, Aubameyang will need to feel he is part of a team that is going somewhere if he is not to become unsettled and this victory took Arsenal to within a point of the top four.
United were a bit of a mess on the whole and their strange season lumbers on. Solskjaer’s team have now lost three league games, all of them at home.
Pogba will get all the hate after giving away the penalty so dimly and after another disappointing performance. But the Frenchman was not the only one.
Bruno Fernandes – the darling of last season – does not look the same player this term while the make-up and formation of Solskjaer’s midfield does not seem remotely settled.
United remain a team that struggles to dominate possession and that must change, particularly at home. They are far too reactive and only played with any energy once they fell behind.
On social media last night it was suggested they are missing their supporters. Much more of this and the good people of Manchester may never come back.