Mikel Arteta would not be fired. No matter how the question was phrased, the Arsenal manager pretty much managed to dodge every curve ball and cutter that was thrown his way. He carefully spoke very little of Saturday’s opponents, Manchester United.
He was not the man to advise new United manager Erik ten Hag. Some platitudes were thrown in Liverpool’s direction after their dominant midweek win. It wouldn’t be the game to eliminate a team from the top four. Here we go. You could hardly blame him in an age when even the most innocuous pre-game statements have the potential to be mocked up on a social media chart, without context, in the event of a poor outcome.
There was, however, a momentary nibbling. It was the kind that Arteta might even be able to argue he wasn’t targeting United, a point he makes about his team in general rather than in comparison to their next opponents. “We don’t have, at the moment, five world-class players that all the problems we have at the club are going to hide every week because they’re going to score hat-tricks here,” he said. He might have plausible deniability, but give the Arsenal manager a serum of truth and he’d probably admit he was referring to United’s group of superstars who stand ready to bail them out.
After all, United are a team that can take on Norwich, bottom of the Premier League, with no visible signs of underlying principles, let alone a plan to win the full 90 minutes, and be bailed out because they have Cristiano. Ronaldo on the pitch. . Interim manager Ralf Rangnick arrived with his employers hoping he would at least be able to lay down some groundwork. Five months later, he looks like an exasperated parent called in to chaperone a group of rowdy fourth graders on a school trip. He’s out of breath, forced to throw Phil Jones into the Anfield mixer just to get a reaction. Give this man a drink.
And yet, despite the parody that his player served up to his great rival Liverpool, United theoretically remain in the game for a top four, even if the predictions and the odds do not favor them. All this team has been holding on to is a simple truth, they get points when they’re bad. The whole group stage of their Champions League campaign was a masterclass in escape, said to have been vastly improved with 75th-minute adverts. “How will Ole Gunnar Solskjaer get out of this situation? Stay tuned to find out!” West Ham somehow picked up zero points from their encounters with the Red Devils when six might have been a fairer reflection.
Then there was the last meeting between these two camps. Arsenal had all of the possession, took a lot of it and racked up smart goal returns (xG). Then they got Ronaldo-ed. Twice. Arteta might reflect on this with regret, wondering how often his team got away with it the way United seem to do in the series.
At their best, Arsenal’s good times were rewarded with impressive results, including Wednesday’s revitalizing victory at Chelsea. Yet when they are off form they tend to be punished quite forcefully, as Crystal Palace and Brighton have done in recent weeks. Perhaps that’s the nature of a team with a clearly defined tactical approach and questionable depth. When things fail, it sometimes seems like all Arsenal can do is their system, but more. Alexandre Lacazette is diving deeper, the game is channeled more and more towards their inside attackers, without a ball thrown into the mixer in sight. Where United seem to live their moment to the full, Arsenal can sometimes be a prisoner of their own principles.
It may also be that for all the work Arteta has done to address the mentality and attitude of the club as a whole, they don’t have the same depth of seasoned professionals who have made careers from great moments as their four. main rivals do. Nowhere is this difference more pronounced than in attack. Ronaldo, who is set to return to the side after the tragic death of his baby last week, is one of the most successful players the sport has ever seen. At the start of this week, Eddie Nketiah’s most notable contribution to the Arsenal cause might have been two EFL Cup goals against Norwich.
There are few valuable comparisons one can draw between these two that don’t seem a little silly, but there is one trait they both share. In the same way that Ronaldo appears to be a force of pure narrative power in decisive moments, Nketiah has a way of finding himself in positions to make a meaningful contribution to games even if he doesn’t do so with the regularity of the No. 7 from United. .
“He has this special ability that the ball lands where it is,” Arteta said of Nketiah. “He’s able to read the situation or change his position very quickly from what he expects to happen and the ball gets to him and when that happens most of the time he puts the ball in the net.” His two goals against Chelsea were typical of a player who always seems to position himself in the right places, first leaping off a missed kick from Andreas Christensen before following the mayhem to bring Arsenal’s third home early in the second half . At 16 and 10 meters, these are also the furthest goals of this pure poacher.
Beyond the fact that he’s unlikely to be a starting centre-forward for a Premier League club, it’s unclear exactly what level Nketiah can reach. He has 1,453 Premier League minutes to his name over five seasons but, as he noted in an interview with the Beautiful Game podcast, he hasn’t achieved regular runs in the team. He tends to serve as an emergency breakout option to score goals off the bench, but from that position he at least has chances. His 0.42 xG without penalty per 90 minutes is the highest of any regular under Arteta.
“You play 10, 15, 20 minutes and then the assessment will never be right because that moment is conditioned by the game, the result, what the opponent does,” admitted Arteta. “At Chelsea he had the second chance (after starting at Southampton) and did very well.”
He is likely to get a third chance from the back of his second goals. It may suit Arsenal to have their more chaotic presence, a player just as likely to score three deflects and a trip as putting the finishing touches on a smooth move. After all, it would surely be more satisfying to beat United at their own game.