Tuesday, February 7, 2023

Hale End 3-2 Man Utd: Nketiah and Saka too hot for United to handle

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Is there anything quite like a last minute winner? Maybe a last minute winner against a big rival who look like they’re going to basically nick a point in a game when they were dominated by 25 shots to 6, and in which the opposition goalkeeper acted like a right gimp late in the game.

Eddie Nketiah put an arm out across David de Gea who went down pretending to be really hurt. In some ways, I understand it, because by the 86th minute Arsenal’s pressure and momentum was relentless and he wanted to slow that in any way he could. However, he looked like an idiot, and when Eddie stuck a foot out to poke home the winner, I couldn’t help but remember that moment as I celebrated the goal.

The first half was pretty even all told. United started with some intent – the intent was to cheat a penalty, as Bruno Fernandes, with his evil chinchilla face, threw himself into Aaron Ramsdale. Nothing doing. The irony, if you can call it that, is when they played some football they hurt us. Marcus Rashford more than made the most of a Thomas Partey pass which he intercepted, nutmegging the midfielder then blasting a shot into the bottom corner. There’s always an inquest when you concede, but sometimes you just have to give the opposition credit for a really good goal, and this was a really good goal from a player in great form.

Going behind isn’t something we do a lot of, especially in the big games, so it was a test of character to see how we’d respond. Within seven minutes we were level. Good pressure helped us win a corner, from there we recycled the ball, Granit Xhaka overlapped and Eddie was there with sharp movement to head home from close range. I think the defending was poor, but credit to the striker for sniffing out the chance, and to Xhaka for a perfect assist.

The yellow card for Mikel Arteta in the first half is only worth mentioning because of his interview after the game when he was asked if he could learn from the incident. He said, “You can always get better in life, innit!”, haha.

A half-time change saw Takehiro Tomiyasu replace Ben White who looked a little off the pace yesterday. No criticism, just an observation. After 18 brilliant Premier League performances this season he can have an off day, but what a joy it is to be able to bring on a player of that quality to replace him. It took Tomi a few minutes to get into the game, but when he did the threat of Rashford was basically completely nullified.

We went ahead through Bukayo Saka who tormented United down their left all game. His goal felt a bit like a response to Rashford’s. Not in a bad way, just a ‘Ok, you can do that, let me show you what I can do’, kinda way. Stepping inside Cristian Eriksen in midfield he made space for a shot and curled it with real power into the bottom corner. What do you call a shot like that? A power-curler? I don’t know, I just know Saka is an incredible player, whose talent and versatility terrifies defences to the point where they simply back off because they don’t know what he’s going to do, or where he’s going to do it. That it took so long for United to actual pay him real attention was quite surprising to me.

Their equaliser was a touch fortunate. I think Ramsdale will regret trying to catch it rather than punch it, he found his path to the ball impeded by Tomiyasu and it fell for Martinez who looped a header home. To be fair to the Arsenal keeper, he had made a genuinely outstanding save just a couple of minutes before, but he’ll feel he should have done better.

Speaking of Martinez, I watched him closely yesterday, especially in light of the fact that when he chose Man Utd we brought Zinchenko in instead. It’s a bit mad to think, given how incredible the Ukrainian was, we thought Martinez could bring anything like that to the team. Maybe he could have in time, but I really doubt it. Zinchenko was just amazing. The Arsecast Extra explainer from last week about him being like the queen in chess was even more relevant. No player had more touches, and for all his craft on the ball, I love how competitive his defending was, especially in the air.

After that, Arsenal just turned up the heat to try and win the game. 12 of our 26 shots came in that period, and as you can see from the graph below, the attacking momentum was well and truly with us. Saka hit the post after again twisting a defender who knew what he wanted to do but could only just stop him; de Gea made an excellent save close range save from Nketiah; and we had corners which United on the back foot. The xG in the end was 3.2 for Arsenal to United’s paltry 0.36.

There were shades of the Newcastle game. Arsenal on top, but just missing something extra. Yesterday, we were able to bring on new signing Leandro Trossard who got involved straight away. You can see he’s got the technical level to slot into this side, and he was involved in the winner. His ball to Zinchenko was perfectly timed to beat the offside line, the ball back in was met by Odegaard and a defender, it span for Eddie who stuck his foot out to make it 3-2 and to win the game.

It’s six goals in six games for Eddie since he came into the side, and to bag two against United in a game of this importance is so great for him. Beyond that though, he’s getting better every week. I thought he had good games against Newcastle and in the derby despite not scoring, and yesterday was probably his best ever performance in an Arsenal shirt. Not only did he score those goals, his all round play was excellent. He ran the United centre-halves all day long, held it up well, and the combination of those elements with his penalty box instincts was the difference between one point and three yesterday. I know that when his new contract was issued, some eyebrows were raised, and I’ll admit I was worried about the drop-off between him and Gabriel Jesus. Credit to the manager though, he always spoke about how Eddie – who always backed himself too, btw –  could deliver, we’re seeing that right now, and it’s great.

On a day when Zinchenko was brilliant again, Odegaard majestic at times (that flip-flop pass that almost created a goal for Xhaka was out of this world), to have the two Hale End graduates be decisive made this all the more sweet. Football is a mad industry, and so often the correlation between how much money you spend and how successful you are is obvious. Here though, we had two players – who cost a whopping zero pounds and zero pence in the transfer market – deciding the outcome of a massive fixture which could have real implications on the title race. The Arsenal Academy should be proud, and it’s another reason why for any young player, Arsenal must feel like the club to be at right now. Unless you were politically strong-armed into going somewhere else, who wouldn’t want to join?

Afterwards, Mikel Arteta said:

It doesn’t get much better than that. It was a beautiful moment, a really special one because we were pushing and pushing and pushing and the goal wasn’t coming, but it came at the end and then VAR made it even more difficult, but it was just electric, it was really emotional, really passionate and I loved it.

I spoke to some people after the game who were there, and they all mentioned the atmosphere in the stadium. I was there for the derby earlier in the season, so I have some sense of it, but every week I think it’s going to get more and more intense. We’ve just reached the halfway point of the season, it’s Arsenal’s best ever start to a league season, and we still have a long way to go. There’s no doubt the support and the connection between this team and the fans has been a real factor this season though. Long may that continue.

So, to sum up: a dramatic 3-2 home win against Man United in a season where we’re chasing the title? Don’t mind if I do. Don’t mind one bit.

Right, let’s leave it there for now. James and I are recording the Arsecast Extra for you later on this morning. Keep an eye out for the call for questions on Twitter @gunnerblog and @arseblog on Twitter with the hashtag #arsecastextra – or if you’re on Arseblog Member on Patreon, leave your question in the #arsecast-extra-questions channel on our Discord server.

We should have the podcast for you around lunchtime. Until then.

 

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