It had been nearly six years since Arsenal last won away at a top-six ground and a staggering fourteen years since Emmanuel Adebayor slotted the ball past Tomasz Kuszczak at Old Trafford. Such a staggering statistic only served as a humiliation to the Arsenal teams that had preceded it. Unai Emery and Arsène Wenger had both gone close in that time, but the pressure was now on Mikel Arteta to grab all three points at one of Arsenal’s least favoured hunting grounds.
There were a few changes to the side that comfortably beat Dundalk 3-0 in midweek, with the most notable drops being Granit Xhaka and Nicolas Pépé. Pépé, whose stunning strike in midweek gave Arsenal their third, was replaced by Willian and Xhaka, who had played a number games, most notably, bizarrely, as a central defender against Dundalk, was dropped in favour of Mohamed Elneny.
For Arsenal, this game also represented a merciful end of playing top-six opposition, with their next top-six fixture being away to North London rivals Tottenham in December.
It was Arsenal who kicked off at Old Trafford and they soon began to take the game by the scruff of the neck. Manchester United had come out triumphant victors against RB Leipzig in midweek, with a stunning 5-0 victory, implementing a diamond formation, which manager Ole Gunnar Solskjær (who was actually on the field the last time Arsenal beat Manchester United at Old Trafford) saw fit to use this time around.
With United’s diamond formation, Arsenal were better equipped to attack the space, with Mohamed Elneny being given an unusually large amount of space with which to run into, which allowed more progressive distribution to the flanks for Arsenal to attack.
And Arsenal did attack, with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Bukayo Saka coming close, but it was summer signing Willian who came closest, with an intricate one-two with Aubameyang, the former Chelsea winger fired off a shot with his weaker left-foot, which shaved the top of the crossbar. United came close themselves, with Mason Greenwood coming closest, forcing a good save from Bernd Leno.
Though half-time didn’t bing any personnel changes, United switched away from the diamond position and began to have more freedom to attack. Though United never totally troubled Leno or the Arsenal defence, they created a number of changes.
Soon, Solskjær decided to make some changes and introduced Serbian defensive midfielder Nemanja Matić (Willian’s old Chelsea teammate) into the fold, but the Serbian could do little to stem the flow of Elneny and Thomas Partey, both of whom began to stretch United’s midfield and draw them into defensive positions, which was shown when Willian played in Héctor Bellerín in the penalty area, only for Paul Pogba to bring the Spaniard down for an Arsenal penalty.
Getting a penalty from Mike Dean was one thing, but to get it at Old Trafford was another and Aubameyang didn’t waste Arsenal’s opportunity, firing Arsenal into the lead from twelve-yards and sending De Gea the wrong way.
From there, Arsenal perhaps surrendered more zones of possession to United and allowed a few more attacks on goal. Though United came close on a few occasions, the only really worrying moment for Arsenal was when substitute Donny van de Beek’s cross into the penalty area cannoned off of Mohamed Elneny onto Bernd Leno’s face and then onto the post, other than that, Arsenal were very rarely threatened.
The final whistle finally blew on a momentous occasion for Arsenal, with an important three points on the board, bringing an end to their fiery run of fixtures.
Though Arsenal had still lacked a bit of a creative edge when attacking Manchester United, they looked far more composed in defence, with Rob Holding and Gabriel Magalhães both turning in outstanding performances, with Gabriel, in particular, looking to be a shrewd purchase.
The Brazilian could have perhaps counted himself lucky that he wasn’t sent off for a somewhat rash challenge in the second half, it was the only potential blemish on an otherwise fantastic performance from the defender, whose £27m price tag is starting to look like daylight robbery from Arsenal.
Elsewhere, the Arsenal midfield looked to work together very well too. Certain eyebrows would have been raised prior to kick-off to see both Dani Ceballos and Granit Xhaka kept on the bench, but Elneny, Saka and Partey more than played their part in United’s downfall.
When in possession, Arsenal switched from a traditional 4-3-3, into a more fluid 4-4-2, which allowed Aubameyang to drift inside and Saka to report to the flanks, with Partey and Elneny doing the dirty work in midfield, which allowed them to contain the threats of Paul Pogba and Bruno Fernandes, effectively cutting off United’s supply line.
Though Partey, the big money signing from Atlético Madrid will likely get all the praise, the performance of Mohamed Elneny was equally impressive. The Egyptian midfielder was everywhere on Sunday night and closed down a lot of potential avenues for United to pass in to and his performance was no greater encapsulated and he was still frantically, hurriedly pressing and hunting down loses passes in the 91st minute.
Arsenal can breathe a sigh of relief that their Old Trafford and Away Top Six curses are finally lifted, but now Arsenal need to turn their attentions to the visit of Molde, which in a weird bit of serendipity, was the last club that United boss Ole Gunnar Solskjær managed at.
1.) Bernd Leno
2.) Héctor Bellerín
16.) Rob Holding
6.) Gabriel Magalhães
3.) Kieran Tierney
18.) Thomas Partey
25.) Mohamed Elneny
7.) Bukayo Saka
12.) Willian (Maitland-Niles 86’)
14.) Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (c) (Mustafi 87’)
9.) Alexandre Lacazette (Nketiah 76’)
13.) Rúnar Alex Rúnarsson
20.) Shkodran Mustafi
15.) Ainsley Maitland-Niles
34.) Granit Xhaka
8.) Dani Ceballos
19.) Nicolas Pépé
30.) Eddie Nketiah
Manchester United team:
1.) David De Gea
29.) Aaron Wan-Bissaka
2.) Victor Lindelöf
5.) Harry Maguire (c)
23.) Luke Shaw
39.) Scott McTominay
17.) Fred (Matić 62’)
6.) Paul Pogba
18.) Bruno Fernandes (van de Beek 75’)
11.) Mason Greenwood (Cavani 75’)
10.) Marcus Rashford
Manchester United subs:
26.) Dean Henderson
28.) Axel Tuanzabe
33.) Brandon Williams
31.) Nemanja Matić
8.) Juan Mata
34.) Donny van de Beek
7.) Edinson Cavani