Pepe gives Arteta lift-off to leave Solskjaer facing a decisive January
Nicolas Pepe has hit far cleaner shots in his career but, for him and Mikel Arteta, it's unlikely many will have felt sweeter.
Arsenal's record signing had plenty of time and space to size up Sead Kolasinac's cut-back but still could not connect properly with the ball. But connect he did, and Arsenal, Arteta's Arsenal, had lift-off.
Not only was this the new head coach's first win in charge, it was just the Gunners' second in all competitions since October 24. Thirteen of 14 matches had come and gone without a victory, including those against Crystal Palace, Vitoria Guimaraes, Southampton, Norwich City, Bournemouth, and Chelsea in brutal fashion three days ago.
Pepe had looked a lost cause in some of those matches, a £72million passenger this team could no longer carry. Well, not against Manchester United. He dominated the right wing, left Luke Shaw on his backside and switched play with confidence. His eighth-minute goal was a little scruffy, but it was deserved reward for a determined, defiant performance, and perhaps a sign of what is to come under Arteta: it lifted the players to new levels, gave the Emirates crowd its voice again, and meant Sokratis Papastathopoulos' close-range second came as little surprise.
But what, exactly, is to come for United? The defeat is only the second they have suffered since the end of November, but it followed a pattern that suggests many more will follow in the new year.
In United's previous league defeats to Bournemouth, Newcastle United and Watford, they started poorly, fell behind, and that was that. The story was the same here, at a stadium where setbacks have come to be expected, where Chelsea were outplayed for an hour only to win 2-1 just days ago.
However, the fact is Solskjaer's United – far, far too often for their manager's liking – can be beaten simply if the opposition work harder. Pepe wasn't the only one to show that: the more Alexandre Lacazette harried the unsettled Harry Maguire, the more David Luiz scampered across the back to snuff out any threat, the more it became clear that this was Arsenal's game for the taking.
United made a habit of starting matches in 2019 as though they were already 4-0 up; a day into the new decade, it's a problem Solskjaer has still not solved. Well, he will certainly have to this month. Their season depends on it.
Wolves, Manchester City (twice), and Liverpool must all be faced in the coming four weeks, along with Norwich City and Burnley, teams in need of Premier League points. By the end of January, United could be in the fourth round of the FA Cup, the EFL Cup final and find themselves firmly in a top-four race. Or not.
With Scott McTominay and Paul Pogba likely to miss all of those matches due to injury, perhaps the transfer market will offer the solutions Solskjaer cannot find. Salvation in the January window is never guaranteed, though – and who is to say a new signing would fix what is clearly a problem of mentality, rather than talent?
Arteta is thought to be exploring the market, too, and this win, commendable as it was, does not mean Arsenal's problems have evaporated. Better, more focused teams will still pick apart this defence, just as Manchester City did last month.
But what a Pepe pep-up for the new year.