Mikel Arteta craves killer instinct to compliment Arsenal’s attacking ambition

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There was good news for an all-conquering Arsenal side at Old Trafford. Not, admittedly, the Arteta Invincibles, who lost that tag, their five-game winning start to the season giving way to defeat. But the actual Invincibles, whose uniqueness spans eras. Only Tottenham and Manchester City are left unbeaten in the Premier League and one may be beaten when they face each other on Saturday.

But as Arsene Wenger’s class of 2004 can testify, Old Trafford can be a graveyard of dreams. They went 49 games without losing before Manchester United prevailed and pizza flew. Mikel Arteta’s modern-day league leaders won five in a row before United overcame them. A statement victory for Erik ten Hag was a result to rue for Arteta. “We should come here and win,” he said.

They are not words Arsenal have always voiced at Old Trafford. They have triumphed once in 16 league trips to United’s home. They have sometimes come north with an inferiority complex, sometimes simpler with a poorer group of players. An 8-2 shellacking in 2011 prompted Wenger to sign Arteta to add experience to his midfield.

Eleven years on, Arsenal have an ambition they have only infrequently demonstrated in the intervening period. It was apparent in the performance and in their manager’s words. “I saw a very different Arsenal team,” he said, when asked to appraise United. They feel transformed but their five league wins this season have all come against possible bottom-half finishers. This was a first major test. The result suggested Arsenal failed it, much of the performance that they passed it.

There was a curt directness to Arteta’s analysis. “We had some big periods where we were totally dominant,” he said. “The game was there for the taking. We haven’t won it because we lacked some discipline in some moments and we weren’t ruthless enough in front of goal.”

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He could lament two goals United scored on the counter-attack, perhaps his own overly bold triple substitution when 2-1 down, certainly the way Christian Eriksen sprang the offside trap. Perhaps, as at the end of last season, it showed a susceptibility to the break when Thomas Partey is absent. “In any moment, when they have open spaces, they are going to hurt you,” he said. Aided by the class of Eriksen, they did.

The midfield felt too open. While Manchester United had a quadruple Champions League-winning defensive midfielder on the bench for 80 minutes, in Casemiro, Arsenal had Albert Sambi Lokonga in the starting 11. Perhaps that could have been Douglas Luiz’s role had Aston Villa accepted a deadline-day bid but, after spending some £265 million in the last two summers, Arteta did not plead poverty. “I am not going to make any excuses,” he said and, apart from a lament about the apparent inconsistencies of the officiating, he did not.

It was only Antony’s third game since March

Certainly a high-defensive line is a high-risk strategy and it may have backfired as Marcus Rashford raced away to score twice, But there was a boldness to Arteta’s blueprint, shown in the style of Martin Odegaard’s outstanding display of incisive playmaking, evidenced by the statistics that showed 47 touches in the United box and 16 shots. “We created chance after chance but did not close the game,” Arteta said. “We did not score enough.”

Gabriel Martinelli’s direct running and disallowed goal illustrated why Jurgen Klopp, for one, is such a fan. He can eviscerate defences. Bukayo Saka was terrific, even if that is scarcely surprising. Include the excellent Gabriel Jesus and the creative contingent brought the possibility of plenty of goals.

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They have been too rare in Arteta’s reign. Arsenal got 56 goals in 2019-20, when he replaced Unai Emery in December, 55 and 61 in two full campaigns. They only once finished a full campaign under Wenger with as few. Last year, Arteta’s old employers at Manchester City averaged a goal a game more. That gap should be closing now. “To play the way we do [here] today, I want to see how many teams do this season,” Arteta said.

That attacking ability might have convinced him to gamble, to frontload his side with a positive triple change. “I said the game was there for the taking if we play with courage,” Arteta said. “We did, we could have scored another two or three – you have to kill the game.” Many an Arsenal side of the past has lacked that killer instinct. The oft-heard criticism is that they have had style but not substance. Arteta has added aesthetic appeal, but his unforgiving verdict showed he is demanding both.

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