With the news emerging an hour before kick-off that Bukayo Saka was left out as a precaution with a sore thigh, any lasting hopes of doing the double over United this season were somewhat extinguished.
There were chances for both sides in either half. Fred had an effort brilliantly stopped by Bernd Leno for the visitors’ best opportunity, with Nicolas Pepe coming closest for Arsenal with an effort that went just wide of the post.
The second half brought an improvement from Arsenal with Emile Smith Rowe growing into the match, although their best opportunity came when Alexandre Lacazette crashed a free-kick off the underside of the bar.
4 Things We Noticed In Arsenal draw 0-0 with Manchester United
United will feel the game was theirs for the taking with Edinson Cavani coming within inches of snatching victory on two occasions, misses that were some of the few clear-cut efforts allowed on goal by a strong partnership of Rob Holding and David Luiz
Missing three of their best players in Saka, Kieran Tierney and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Mikel Arteta will be pleased not to leave the Emirates Stadium empty handed, a draw that stretches the club’s unbeaten run in the division to seven matches. Here are the key talking points.
Nicolas Pépé vs. Manchester United:
◉ Most fouls won (4)
◉ =Most shots (4)
◉ Most chances created (3)
Arsenal's main attacking threat. pic.twitter.com/YfwKXgDIse
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) January 30, 2021
Football is a game of fine margins. If there was ever a better game to visualise that, then it was this one. Two glorious chances for Cavani went begging, albeit the second one being of his own creation.
Discussions after the match will centre around United not being ruthless enough against an Arsenal side missing key players, but if either one of those two goes in it’s a completely different story.
The same goes for Arsenal. If Lacazette’s effort was but an inch lower, this would be heralded as a magnificent win and performance. In a nutshell, perhaps a fair result.
While it was a far cry from the fluidity seen at Southampton, this still goes down as a dogged display and files neatly into the ‘solid’ category. United had chances but no player was unspeakably poor, with all on the pitch putting in a shift that symbolised the belief in the squad.
Nicolas Pepe Deserves Credit
With Saka out, the Ivorian was forced to switch over to his favoured(?) right flank to allow Gabriel Martinelli to play in his best slot.
Given his exploits and the confidence he gained from the Southampton win over on the left, a drop off in performance was widely expected. Sure, his finishing was slightly off, but there was no obvious decline.
Defensively, especially in the first half, he covered Hector Bellerin superbly, both in being physical in the challenges as well as dealing with any aerial threat. His technical level was also at a better standard compared to most of the season, with his dribbling both effective and threatening.
As per midweek, he pressed rigorously – as instructed by Emile Smith Rowe – never dropping his energy levels despite his constant hounding of possession.
The situation with Pepe is a case of accepting where he is at the club. That Southampton performance is one that is seen every blue moon, sandwiched by a series of otherwise hopeles outings.
Two matches in four days and he’s kept a level that offers more encouragement than witnessed all season. There are still a multitude of areas to improve, but now, where he is, the past two fixtures have to be built on and used as a springboard.
Add to that the opposition he’s faced, playing in two different positions, and there is hope.
Just two goals conceded in the past seven Premier League matches is a conversation supporters would only be having in their dreams this time last season.
How and why Arsenal are suddenly an improved defensive unit comes down to a host of reasons, starting with the manager. Having underwent a variety of stylistic transitions with how the team operates, Arteta reverted to a defensively solid setup to counter the leaky back four, one that resulted in abject attacking displays.
With new blood in the side to boost creativity in the final third, the fine balancing act that a manager has to find in this lineup is at its best since the Spaniard arrived. Of course, Saturday could easily have ended in defeat if Cavani’s curse of missing sitters against Arsenal wasn’t still weighing him down, but the Gunners are showing the closest resemblance of Arteta’s vision to date.
Besides structural composition, Leno continues to produce point-winning saves, while the faith bestowed in Holding this season is paying dividends.
David Luiz deserves praise for his best performance of the season, yet so much of that is credit to Holding‘s incredible reliability in high pressure situations. William Saliba is due back in the summer, and at this rate he’ll be Holding’s back up.
Various ingredients have come together to shape this newfound solidity, structurally, personnel-wise and with the manager. All need praising
Corner Officially Turned?
Having managed to dig themselves into a historically deep pit, Arsenal’s season pre-Christmas was destined for nothing other than further heartbreak.
They are where they deserve to be, so now they’re starting to show some grit and invention, they’ve rewritten the narrative for the season. With seven matches unbeaten and 17 points accrued from a possible 21, they’re doing all they can to battle back into European contention.
Could they have beaten Crystal Palace? Yes. But it’s important to remember just how bad Arsenal have been for so much of the campaign. Looking at the season as if it started on Boxing Day, not too much more can be asked of the side.
Will that be enough for European qualification? It now rests on their rivals doing a reverse Arsenal. While you can only influence your own matches, whether the side can rescue their season is not only within their control.
Games against fellow top eight rivals will be more crucial than ever. A helping hand will be needed from elsewhere, if indeed this positive run is maintained heading into February.
Questions over whether it was fair to suggest Arsenal turned a corner given the quality of opposition they’ve faced, that can now be answered with seven points accrued from matches against Chelsea, Southampton and United.
Their ambitions remain plausible, at least while still mathematically, but question marks over whether this run of form was its own ‘blip’ finally have its reassuring answer