For a time, things were so dire for Arsenal that it couldn’t even get a new manager bounce.
Almost everybody gets a new manager bounce. A new boss takes over and there’s a brief honeymoon period when a new belief sets in amongst the players and everything that was hard becomes easy for a little while. Results pick up, before things usually regress to the mean until the new man’s ideas begin to take hold, if they ever do.
On Wednesday, West Ham United provided a good example as David Moyes began his second rescue assignment with the club with a whopping 4-0 win over Bournemouth, just the Hammers’ third win since September.
But when Arsenal fired Unai Emery on Nov. 29, caretaker Freddie Ljungberg, getting a serious audition for a full-time appointment, did not provide a bounce. In his three weeks in charge, the Gunners won just one of four Premier League matches, losing two. They tied their only Europa League match.
In came Mikel Arteta, poached from Manchester City, where he seemed destined to succeed Pep Guardiola either this summer or the next. Arteta had apparently been passed over for Emery 18 months ago, when Arsene Wenger finally retired, but he was installed this time around. Like Ljungberg, he had no senior team managerial experience. And he, too, found the going hard.
Arteta, thrown in right before the absurd holiday congestion of games, started with a scoreless tie at a sinking Everton — although he delegated the coaching for that game to Ljungberg, who stayed on — and a 1-1 draw at Bournemouth, plunging the club into an unimaginable 12th place at the halfway point.
On Sunday, things started to turn. Arsenal had the better of Chelsea for most of the game, looking tight and structured for once, and nursed a lead before giving away two late goals on a howler by goalkeeper Bernd Leno and a defensive lapse, squandering what would have been just a second win in 12 league matches and 15 games in all competitions — not to mention Arteta’s first victory.
That made it Arsenal’s worst record after 20 games in the Premier League era, and the fourth straight home loss tied a club record.
But on Wednesday, on the first day of the new year, an unmistakable ray of sunshine peeked through the dark pall that’s hung over Arsenal for, well, several years.
Because the 2-0 home victory over longtime rivals Manchester United didn’t just rocket the Gunners to within four points of United’s fifth place. It was convincing and deserved. They were the same old players, the flawed and limited and underwhelming and underperforming players of the last few years, but it was a different Arsenal.
An Arsenal that, in the first half especially, pressed high and hard and played with a fresh zeal. It worked hard, crowding a forgettable United going forward and tracking back in numbers. It seemed to have clear ideas and an entirely new belief in itself.
These are all uncommon occurrences at the Emirates Stadium. And they haven’t been seen at the same time in a great many months.
After United fired off a threatening opening salvo, it was all Arsenal in the first half. And the embattled record signing Nicolas Pepe was the first to capitalize. In the eighth minute, Sead Kolasinac finished off a nice buildup over the left flank with a low cutback cross that deflected to Pepe, who swept it home.
Finally finding the room he needs on the right flank to cut inside and weak havoc, Pepe also pinged a shot off the post after a distribution screw-up from United goalkeeper David de Gea.
On the brink of halftime, Arsenal converted its dominance into a second goal. A corner was flicked on at the near post by Lacazette. De Gea saved but the ball set up for Sokratis Papastathopoulos, who rammed it into the net.
In the second half, Arsenal took a more reactive approach, allowing United to take the initiative and responding with counter-attacks. That ploy, too, seemed to work out for Arteta, as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s ponderous attackers forged practically nothing of note and Arsenal had several good looks on the break.
On the day, everything Arsenal attempted tactically seemed to work, which represents a dramatic reversal from the last three months or so.
But there were other encouraging signs. Playmaker Mesut Ozil, seen as the poster child for Arsenal’s slow decline, looked reborn, unlocking United’s lines with his daring passes again and again. Pepe looked confident. Lacazette and fellow forward Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang weren’t getting in each other’s way. The defense held up under long spells of pressure. Granit Xhaka didn’t do anything dumb.
It might be that Mikel Arteta’s effect will be less of a bounce than a slow upward climb, and that might prove more sustainable in the end anyway.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.
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