Arsenal 2-0 Manchester United: 5 players who impressed for the Gunners | Premier League 2019-20
Arsenal started 2020 with a morale-boosting win over Manchester United in the final Premier League fixture on New Year's Day, as first-half goals from Nicolas Pepe and Sokratis gave Mikel Arteta his first victory in charge of the Gunners.
They raced into an early lead after £72m summer signing Pepe converted from close-range, after Sead Kolasinac's driven cross was deflected into his path. David de Gea was given no chance and was consequently wrongfooted, as the Ivorian forward recorded his third league goal of 2019-20. Just like against Chelsea on Sunday, Arsenal were comfortably the better side in the early exchanges and playing with the type of swagger and guile we have seldom seen since Arsene Wenger's departure in May 2018.
The difference this time though, was they importantly earned a deserved two-goal cushion just before half-time from an unlikely source. Sokratis reacted quickest to smash into the roof of the net, after a poorly defended corner saw de Gea parry Alexandre Lacazette's header towards the Greece international's path.
The second-half was certainly nervy viewing for the hosts, as United eventually settled into the game and enjoyed sustained spells with possession and half-chances. Andreas Pereira, Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford all had efforts on-goal, while hearts would have been in mouths when Aaron Wan-Bissaka went down in the box.
Fortunately, the Gunners defended well and they ultimately held their nerve to record only their second clean sheet since October 6 - having played 17 games since then across all competitions.
As for United, it's a forgettable start to the New Year. After successive wins, they now lose ground in the top-four race, after Chelsea drew 1-1 at Brighton while Southampton were 1-0 winners against Tottenham. So without further ado, here's a look at Arsenal's top five performers from a memorable win to kick off the new decade in style:
#5 Alexandre Lacazette
Poor form and injuries have seen Lacazette's progression stall in recent months. The fact the Frenchman has only scored six goals and created one assist this term after 17 appearances doesn't help, even if he's only completed a full 90 seven times to date. It has led to a lot of critics suggesting he's just not that good a centre-forward - either that or he's mentally checked out of Arsenal already, preparing for a lucrative summer move to pastures new.
However, displays like these simply prove that untrue. He led the line confidently in Arteta's 4-2-3-1 formation, being flanked by Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Pepe and Mesut Özil: this match marking a first time the quartet has been unleashed all at once. He was an ever-present threat for United's backline to deal with by linking attack with midfield, utilised his body well to draw fouls and kept the visitors on their toes trying to mark him out of the match.
That proved easier said than done, just ask Harry Maguire: their £80m defender was turned inside-out effortlessly by Lacazette in the box, before he dragged a shot on his weaker foot wide. There were still one or two instances where he didn't fully anticipate potential avenues to run into, half-chances were squandered and it's clear that he isn't yet 100% sharp.
Importantly though, it didn't stop him from making a committed effort to press from the front and set the tone against a United side that started slowly and weren't given ample time to pass out from defence. If you think his role as their lone centre-forward is overstated, let me refer you to Ryan Giggs' verdict on Martial's performance - compared with his compatriot:
"He [Lacazette] sets the tone and gives a massive lift to the whole team. If you've got a centre-forward harrying, closing defenders down, it's huge for the midfielders. You see a striker doing that, then you're up with the play.
"Martial against Newcastle and Burnley, he was like that. Here, he wasn't. Maybe he did press a couple of times, looked back and the midfield weren't as compact as they should be. But Lacazette was impressive, with and without the ball."
With two successful dribbles, key passes and tackles completed, one interception made and 9 of 16 duels won, it was a tireless display by a player who will hope this performance is a springboard for future success in the weeks and months to come.