ARSENAL! ARSENAL! ARSENAL!
Ahead of the United game, Mikel Arteta said this about the team's relationship with our fans. "We have to convince the fans and transmit to them what we’re trying to do and the way we’re trying to approach the game."
As they did against Chelsea, our supporters saw that the players were willing to give their all for the shirt - and they in turn gave their all from the stands. The atmosphere was special, a marked improvement on the dark days of October and November, and two particular moments encapsulated this repaired relationship.
Just before half-time, a combination of Torreira, Ozil, Pepe and Maitland-Niles chased down United players, eventually forcing a turnover. It happened again in the second half when another boisterous press earned us a throw in front of our head coach. Arteta responded with a gesture of encouragement and the fans were on their feet. "Arsenal! Arsenal! Arsenal!" was the chant, both an acknowledgement and appreciation of the players' efforts. Arteta demanded intensity and desire from day one. He's getting what he wants - and so are the fans.
It's taken until New Year's Day for our awesome foursome of Pepe, Ozil, Aubameyang and Lacazette to start a match together, but it was worth the wait. All four shone, but Pepe probably stole the show.
He's turned heads with his flamboyant skills since signing last summer, but this was by far his best all-round display. The stepovers were present and correct - much to Luke Shaw's bewilderment - but Pepe put in a real defensive shift too, ensuring that our press was a collective effort. Our record signing had a team-high four key passes, he completed all 26 of his passes, and he was our most potent goal threat.
His first-time finish from Kolasinac's cut-back was unerring, and another left-footed effort from 22 yards bounced off the base of the post. Aubameyang put in another tireless display on the left, and Lacazette led the line well and ran himself into the ground again. Ozil, meanwhile, ran further in this game than he has in two years, and made a team-high 10 ball recoveries. Awesome indeed.
Hats off to Sead Kolasinac. Forced off by an ankle ligament injury in the first half of our defeat to Manchester City, he was only expecting to return to full training in January. But Kolasinac was fast-tracked into the starting line-up on New Year's Day and he was one of our standout performers. He didn't start well, picking up a yellow card with a rash challenge. But after that Kolasinac was on the front foot. It was his powerful surge - and precise cut-back - that set up our first goal for Pepe. Another strong run saw one opponent bounce off our Bosnia international, and another eye-catching moment was a perfect first touch and instant backheel to release Lacazette. Another injury stopped Kolasinac in his tracks, but his taste for aggressive football fits perfectly with the intensity and passion that Arteta demands.
There were echoes of the first half against Chelsea on New Year's Day - and we all know how that panned out. So it was an almighty relief to get the second goal before half-time. It was certainly no more than we deserved and it came via the boot of Sokratis, back in the side after suffering concussion at Bournemouth on Boxing Day.
Pepe sent over a wicked delivery from the right, Lacazette got the perfect angle on his flick-on and - even though De Gea kept that out - Sokratis smashed the loose ball into the roof of the net. We've now scored eight goals via corners in the Premier League this season - two more than any other team.
For the second home game in three days, the players left nothing on the pitch. Their effort was admirable. But it's clear that the level of intensity we've shown in our last two first-half performances has so far been impossible to sustain in the second half. Against Chelsea we paid for our fatigue in the last 10 minutes, and we dropped off against United too.
In the first half we had six shots from inside the box and 13 crosses from open play; the equivalent numbers were two and one after the break. The complex of the game had changed by then of course - Sokratis' goal meant we could stay compact and play on the break. But in the long-term, improved fitness will close the gap between those first and second-half levels.
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