It’s telling that, as impressive as the sheer all-encompassing nature of Arsenal’s domination of Manchester United this weekend, what was even more stunning was the shock of it all.
The match was billed as the head-to-head clash between the only two teams with any shot at spoiling the seemingly inevitable Manchester City early-April coronation. Neither had done all that much either this season or in their recent past to make anyone really believe in their title chances, so this was an opportunity for one of these ostensibly even-matched teams to stake their claim as true contenders. What we got instead was a performance of such immediate, one-sided intensity that it was over 20 minutes in.
The method and manner of Arsenal’s destruction was simple, really: they had far and away the two best players on the pitch, and both of them played like it. This was evident almost immediately.
Not a minute into the match, Santi Cazorla picked up the ball near his defenders in his own half—in an attempt to prey upon the glaring weakness that is Arsenal’s central midfield, United had Wayne Rooney and Bastian Schweinsteiger press Cazorla and Francis Coquelin up high; Cazorla had enough space for this pass thanks to Aaron Ramsey dropping in and distracting Schweinsteiger—and noticed all the space afforded his advanced teammates. Trying to either hit a streaking Alexis Sánchez (who had made a diagonal run aiming in behind the Red Devils’ defense) or send it on to Mesut Özil, who was in the vicinity, Cazorla’s pass came closest to the German.
Özil was shuffling backwards, and as the ball approached, he was closed down by two of United’s players. Because he has the vision of a fly and the delicate touch of a sculptor, he somehow knew exactly where Alexis’s run led and in one motion flipped the ball with the outside of his foot behind in that direction. Naturally, the ball rolled exactly where it needed to. Alexis had Mateo Darmian rushing out to him and with two herky-jerk touches he left the defender for dead and opened up a lane into the United box.
As Alexis burst towards goal, Özil and Theo Walcott made two supportive runs, the former arrowing towards Alexis’s left, the latter straight through the center. Alexis poked the ball through towards Özil in the penalty area, which didn’t find the German’s feet exactly, but eventually Walcott corralled it. The striker took a few touches in that lefthand side of the box, couldn’t find an option to set up a teammate, and so dribbled out toward the wing. There, he sent in a reverse pass back from where he came before getting fouled by Darmian. Within just a minute of kickoff, Arsenal had already managed to work the ball to a player in the most dangerous area of the field—a feat United wouldn’t match until they were already losing by two. And they accomplished it with just a handful of key touches by their two superstars.
All three of Arsenal’s goals in that blistering first 20 minutes featured that Sánchez-Özil connection, organized in different ways. For Alexis’s opener, Özil ran after a through ball spinning towards the byline in the right side of the penalty area, glanced up, and saw the Chilean darting from the far side of the far post to a spot in front of the near one. The German’s cutback pass made its way to Alexis’s feet. A first time backheel gave the Gunners the lead. The move itself was set up by a couple of Özil’s prior passes, as he sprayed the ball around, sending out runners this way and that and stretching the defense as if to specifically create the pocket of space in which he would soon find the ball and squeeze it into Alexis.
Alexis repeated the touch that got him the goal not a minute later, this time using his heel to send a first-time pass to Özil which sparked a break for the two plus Walcott. Özil dribbled toward goal, sent a pass to Walcott ahead, and waited at the penalty spot with finger pointing to his left foot. Walcott weaved the ball past two defenders and slid it onto the foot Özil had indicated, which then slapped it into the net.
The third, scored right as it seemed like United might have gotten just a toe into a crevice that could possibly serve as a foothold back into the match, technically involved an Özil pass on the right wing to a more central Walcott and another into Alexis, but the goal itself and his control and confidence when striking it was all about him. When the monster that is Alexis is in that groove he was in on Sunday, he doesn’t need much help to wreak havoc.
As brilliant as Arsenal were in attack during that opening spell, it was just as important that they went on to keep Man U off the scoresheet. Arsène Wenger’s career is littered with leads his teams wound up gagging away in the most embarrassing of circumstances. Yet it was still that first passage of play, those three goals bearing the indelible marks of Sánchez’s and Özil’s world-class abilities, that had for the first time convinced anyone watching that these might not be the same old Gunners we’ve seen for a decade.
Maybe it’s the fact that this came as such a shock that’s the most damning indictment of Arsenal over the years. Before coming to England, Alexis and Özil were critical components of Barcelona and Real Madrid, two of the three true superduper clubs the game has. Rather than being sold as spare parts that never integrated into the whole, as is usually the case when a player in his prime leaves the Spanish giants for anywhere else, they were only let go when their clubs found even better replacements. Both departures were lamented by a sizable amount of each respective fanbase, as they realized they were losing a couple legitimate studs.
Sánchez and Özil are among the best players at their positions in the Premier League—maybe the best, outright. On any given day, they can take over and win you a game almost completely by themselves. That these two at the height of their powers can run up against a rival side lacking a single player in that rarified class, and that the response when they do what they do is total speechlessness, tells you all you need to know about Arsenal of recent vintage.
Now, this is only their second season together. There’s a definite chance that as the two familiarize with each other’s quirks and preferences on the pitch alongside their lesser but still very talented teammates, we’ll see more sustained periods of brilliance against similar quality opponents as Manchester United. But while we hope to never lose that feeling of awe when that watching a couple great players take apart a defense like a soldier disassembling his rifle with a quick, calm, and leathal mastery, that a really good team with great players can do so from time to time shouldn’t blow anyone’s mind.
Photo via AP