Mikel Arteta takes Arsenal to Manchester United with proof a season can be salvaged

Gunners bounced back from a wretched start in the Premier League and now lead United by five points

Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta has backed his captain and striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang to rediscover his best goalscoring form. AFP

When Arsenal last went to Manchester, they lost 5-0 at the Etihad Stadium. There were suggestions then that Mikel Arteta was the early frontrunner in the sack race. They ended that August weekend seven points behind an in-form Manchester United, who were about to re-sign Cristiano Ronaldo.

Arsenal go to Old Trafford now five points ahead of United, effecting a 12-point swing during a period when Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was dismissed. “It shows the competition and the league that we are involved in,” said Arteta, who has overseen a remarkable recovery while United have wilted. “Any team can cause a problem. It's not as simple as putting names and numbers in there, it's much more than that. But the quality they have is incredible. They have a squad that is one of the most talented in the league.”

But they trail Arsenal. Arteta is proof that the Gunners can salvage a season after a false start. A decade ago, their third game was an 8-2 hammering at Old Trafford, leaving them with a solitary point. It prompted Arsene Wenger to sign the wise old heads of Arteta and Per Mertesacker. They helped Arsenal finish third.

Arsenal’s latest revival has instead come courtesy of youth. Arteta has even preferred the 21-year-old Nuno Tavares to the fit-again Kieran Tierney for the last two games, despite the Portuguese gifting Liverpool’s Diogo Jota a goal at Anfield. “If somebody makes a mistake, that’s when you have to show trust because you want to build confidence and resilience,” rationalised Arteta, who is waiting to see if the talismanic Bukayo Saka is fit to play on Thursday night.

While United languish in limbo, waiting for Ralf Rangnick to be allowed to take charge, Arteta will face the caretaker Michael Carrick, an adversary in many a midfield for a decade. “In terms of the preparations, it was a little bit trickier than usual because you don't really know the influence that the new coach is going to have,” he said. “It is very difficult tactically so it’s focused more on ourselves.”

Some of that focus will be on his captain. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang has not scored in his last four appearances and was guilty of a glaring miss in Saturday’s 2-0 win over Newcastle. He had his poorest scoring season for a decade last year and, since signing a lucrative new contract, has only struck 13 times in 40 league games.

“The form of ‘Auba’ is always going to be related to the goals that he scores,” Arteta said. “We need that contribution because goals are critical for our success.” He has used the Gabonese both as a striker and a winger and conceded that Alexandre Lacazette is “more comfortable” as a No 9.

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“‘Auba’ has played in both positions throughout his career,” he argued. “I think the formation that we play allows him more freedom to attack certain spaces more often. His aim has to be to continue to do all the things that he's doing and then, in the right moments, put the ball in the net.”

Aubameyang did that at Old Trafford last season, securing Arsenal’s first league win there since 2006. Results in Manchester had been a sign of their decline and seemed to shown an inferiority complex. Now Arteta is looking for another triumph to provide proof of progress.

“That’s what we have to try to do,” he said. “It's not about winning once. I think when we won last year, Arsenal hadn't won there for 14 years so obviously, that cannot happen if we want to be at the top level. We have to have the end goal, the mindset, the confidence, the desire to win the game.”

Updated: December 2nd 2021, 7:15 AM