Arsenal vs Manchester United: Unai Emery shows off tactical flexibility in his best performance yet

This was Emery's third good win as Arsenal manager against tough opposition, but this performance was a marked improvement on wins against Tottenham and Chelsea

Unai Emery 'proud' of Arsenal players after 2-0 win over Manchester United

Unai Emery did not want to say that this was Arsenal’s best performance of the season, but it was difficult to avoid that feeling last night at the Emirates.

Arsenal have beaten good teams before, beating Tottenham 4-2 here in December and Chelsea 2-0 here in January. But this one felt at least as good as those two, not least because of the way it marked a clear improvement on Arsenal’s FA Cup defeat to United here just six weeks ago.

That night Arsenal looked naive, open and sloppy, cut apart by United on the counter-attack, just like so many Arsenal teams before them. But here they adjusted and smartened up, switching to a 3-4-1-2 system that gave them reinforcements to stop United from getting down their sides.

And when Emery gave his post-match press conference, that tactical flexibility is what pleased him the most. At times this season it has felt as if Arsenal do not know exactly what they are trying to do, but here they looked comfortable and in control playing this system. They looked, for maybe the first time this season, well organised and well coached.

“I don’t know if it was the best performance this season,” Emery said. “I think we are improving. We are being competitive in different matches away and home, against different teams. Sometimes with different systems, different players. Above all, I feel proud of every player.”

This was not a perfect performance and there is no question that Arsenal benefited from key moments and fine margins breaking their way. Like David De Gea losing the track of Granit Xhaka’s long-ranger. Or Jon Moss awarding a penalty when Alexandre Lacazette went down in the box.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer said afterwards that United created more good chances here than they did in the FA Cup game six weeks ago and it is difficult to disagree. He said that the game was determined by Arsenal getting the first goal, which allowed them to sit back more, let United have the ball and try to hit them on the break.

The managers embrace

And yet despite that this was still an impressive, improved defensive display from Arsenal. Bernd Leno had some saves to make but he was faultless again in goal for Arsenal. The back three worked well as a unit, was rarely caught in behind or down the sides. It is probably no coincidence that this defensive improvement came with Sokratis, Laurent Koscielny and Nacho Monreal together at the back, their three most accomplished defenders. And with Shkodran Mustafi on the bench.

Emery singled out Leno and his back three for praise in his press conference. Especially for the cool heads that they showed, not making any mistakes, not being impulsive as they have been recently. In that sense it was a far more mature, balanced performance than anything Arsenal have given recently.

“We must be calm, be patient, and continue improving,” Emery said. “We know, like on Thursday, one match can change a lot with one red card, one goal. Controlling emotion is very important. Today we worked very well with the emotion during the 90 minutes because they had some chances, we needed our goalkeeper, or centre-backs, our defensive players. Clean sheets are very important. Keeping this consistency in our mind is very important.”

It is far too early to say that Arsenal have momentum again, it was only four days ago that they lost badly at Rennes. They have a long way to go to qualify for the Champions League next season and despite this it feels as if Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur will probably have the edge. But it is at least a start, an improvement and an example that they have set. Keep playing like this and there may yet be a promising outcome for this stop-start season.

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