Optimism was understandably lacking among Arsenal fans before their home game against Manchester United.
The Gunners had lost their last three games at the Emirates and were without a win there in seven, the type of statistics unheard of for England’s third most successful club.
Fortunately for Arsenal, it was against United, a team who’ve been incapable of winning more than two consecutive league games all season and who have a dire record against teams in the bottom half, which is where the Gunners were languishing.
No team is more bafflingly inconsistent, not even Arsenal. Had United won a third game, they would have entered territory not experienced since the first flush under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer a year ago.
Inconsistency is the story of United’s season. Just when they seem to be on an upward curve, they crash. December was promising with six wins, two draws and a defeat at Watford. January, a month of tough games, has started poorly.
While United keep coming up against teams revitalised by new managers, that’s little excuse. They were as wretched in the first half as Arsenal were impressive.
Nicolas Pepe, their £72 million (Dh349m) record and thus far much-maligned close season signing, gave Luke Shaw a tortuous evening. Harry Maguire alongside him was culpable, while David de Gea continue to slip up as well as save.
United’s midfield looks weak without the injured Scott McTominay and Paul Pogba, who will be out for a further month after surgery.
United had one shot on target in the first half, after 26 seconds, which meant an Arsenal defence prone to caving in under pressure this season, was allowed a comfortable start to the New Year.
United were static and lacked speed, creativity and ideas. The defenders looked like they’d met for the first time the previous night at a New Year’s Eve party as they managed to do the impossible and make Arsenal look convincing at home.
Arsenal were hungrier and more assertive, their confidence soaring after seven minutes when Pepe put them ahead. Mesut Ozil played in a freer attacking role than he did under Unai Emery, while Alexandre Lacazette never stopped working.
It was Lacazette who pressured David de Gea to make a poor clearance to Pepe, who struck the post, a warning United didn’t heed.
The Ivory Coast winger was involved in Arsenal’s second, a Sokratis volley after 37 minutes which came after Pepe’s corner was headed towards De Gea by Lacazette.
United improved in the second half, if an improvement constitutes a couple of feeble shots.
Substitute Andreas Pereira came closest with a stronger effort into the side netting which initially fooled the 3,000 away fans into thinking it was a goal. He’d replaced the ineffective Jesse Lingard, who is almost as derided by Arsenal fans as much as he is by his own.
“Two – nil to the Arsenal” and “Oh Arsenal we love you” sang the home fans, having found their voice at a stadium mocked for a lack of atmosphere.
It was the first time this season that they’ve beaten a side in the top half of the table and when Fred skied a late free-kick so high that it brought loud derision from the stands, it summed up United’s fortunes.
“What I demanded and wanted to see, we saw it,” said Mikel Arteta, after his first victory as a manager. “We’re asking the players to do something different, to play at a different pace much more aggressive than they’re used to. I liked their resilience.”
The mood can change very quickly in football but Solskjaer put a brave face on the defeat.
“We started decent enough with two or three counter attacks but after they scored the first goal it seemed like they had loads of energy,” he said ahead of Saturday’s difficult FA Cup game at Wolves. “Our heads were tired. They were the better team. They were aggressive, they regained the ball, they played really well. The goal before half time was a killer blow.
“We’ve had a very good December. Nine games. We’ve been on a good run but we didn’t have enough today.”
United, who’ve lost four of their last five league away games at Arsenal, remain fifth; Arsenal moved up to 10th. On the evidence of this game, that’s a false position, but this toothless United would have made any side look like world beaters.
The two giants who dominated the Premier League at the turn of the century are shadows of their former glory as we enter its fourth decade.