At full-time following the Chelsea defeat, many of the Arsenal players slumped to the floor and there was a collective pause in the stadium. You felt the energy sap from the arena momentarily, as you always do when the full-time whistle sounds on a defeat- that brief moment that feels a little like air escaping from a balloon.
Ordinarily, defeats and even draws at the Emirates are greeted with a smattering of boos which rebound limply from rows of empty seats. This time it was different, as the players sunk to the floor, an air, not quite of pity, that’s not the right word, but of consolation took over the stadium. People got to their feet and applauded.
Yes, Arsenal had Arsenaled it up again, but there was a recognition that something different had happened. Arteta wasn’t quite able to bleach Arsenal’s inherent Arsenalness out of the team inside a week, but there had been an enormous transformation in energy. Energy certainly is the right word.
I think it is reductive to talk of ‘effort.’ I don’t think there had been a notable lack of effort on the part of the players prior to Arteta’s arrival. A lack of intensity? Certainly. A lack of direction? Definitely. I don’t think anyone was coasting though. Upon his appointment, Arteta spoke of quick wins in the early weeks of his management.
“I think energy is everything, in life in football and in sport,” Arteta said. “If we are able to generate this, it will give us a lift. I was really pleased with how the fans treated the players [at Bournemouth] and I was happy that the players went to see the fans after the game as well because we need that connection. Slowly, we need to build that back to where it was. It’s going to be very powerful for us to use that.”
— Tim Stillman (@Stillberto) January 1, 2020
There are definitely interesting tactical tweaks Arteta has made, more on which anon, but the fans have not responded so enthusiastically to the opening three games of his tenure (the first two of which didn’t generate a win) because of Ainsley Maitland-Niles’ inverted full-back role, or Granit Xhaka’s quasi left-sided centre half / central midfield position, it’s because of the energy the team has shown.
That’s what they were recognising when they climbed to their feet to applaud the team after a draining late defeat to a disliked local rival. In fairness, when Arteta spoke of these quick wins- greater energy, greater intensity, greater focus- the bar was set pretty low for him to lift. Part of the reason that supporters applauded the team after that Chelsea defeat was because they saw something they’ve not seen enough of in recent years.
Be they tactical sophisticates or otherwise, fans can see when there is something to get behind and when there isn’t. They can see when players are invested in a plan and when they are not and the Arsenal players have not looked this engaged for such a long time. It remains absolutely incredible that Raul Sanllehi could not see or refused to act upon the clear evidence that Emery’s goose was cooked long before he took it out of the oven.
Call it energy, call it enthusiasm, call it a ‘vibe’ if you must, but you cannot replicate it and its absence socks you between the eyes. Sokratis spoke of ‘the fun’ returning in his post Manchester United interview- the Greek is of course renowned for his sunny disposition. Something fans and analysts often fail to appreciate, in my view, is that players want to work hard.
You simply do not ascend to this level of football without being freakishly competitive. Players exude energy in different ways and players respond differently to stimuli, but underneath it all, none of them want to play at half pace, none of them want to skirt around the edges of games with their hands on their hips.
Arteta has managed to get a rise out of the players quickly because he is smart enough to recognise that it’s about more than shaking your fists and thumping your chest. Against Manchester United, Arsenal started with Özil, Pepe, Lacazette and Aubameyang together for the first time and at no point did the team look exposed.
I watched Arteta’s pre-match interview on the big screen and the interviewer asked, ‘is the message to show the same intensity and effort as the Chelsea game?’ and he answered, ‘that’s the message for every game. That’s a non-negotiable.’
— Tim Stillman (@Stillberto) January 1, 2020
“[I am] being demanding with them, being challenging with them, and convincing them that if they do that, straight away they don’t have to run as far, they will be more organised, they won’t fight with each other because one is not doing what is required, and they will control the games better.”
In Mikel’s opening utterances, the word ‘convince’ has stuck out as much as the word ‘energy’ and that is the tangible behind the improved intangibles. He has spoken of convincing his players. It may have been a quirk of language, but it was interesting that in his opening press conference he said, ‘this is the way we are going to live.’
Not ‘play’, not ‘train’, not ‘work’, but live. Arteta is certainly shaping up to be an ideologue as a coach, but there are tactical tangibles that have guided the improved intangibles. For a start, he has quickly closed the distances between the different departments of the team. No longer is Granit Xhaka exposed by being asked to cover 50 yards of empty grass in front of his defence.
Instead, Ainsley Maitland-Niles has shuffled in-field as an inverted full-back, creating a line of three across the centre of the pitch behind Mesut Ozil. This means that Xhaka and Torreira are operating in smaller spaces. Instead of every effort to regain the ball becoming an exercise in middle distance running, they each have very distinct turf to fight for.
It’s easier to defend in this scenario, it means you can sprint quickly to danger rather than galloping after it over the horizon. The interchanges in attack have been neater, with Ozil drifting over to the right hand side, one of his favoured pockets of space. As Adrian Clarke highlighted after the Chelsea game, Lacazette and Aubameyang have dovetailed when Arsenal have transitioned, meaning the Gabonese can operate as a centre-forward when Arsenal attack while Lacazette can remain in his favoured zone on the edge of the area.
The transformation has been such that Mesut Ozil ran further than he has in any game in the last two years against Chelsea. This hasn’t just been a case of playing players in their favoured positions. Aubameyang is still playing on the left, an 18-year old winger has been fielded at left-back, Lacazette’s form in front of goal is still questionable.
What Arteta has done is reduce the space between the units and he has tweaked players’ roles so that they can do more of the things they are comfortable with and less of the things they are not. This is a period of transition, so there will be some pain to come (not least the physical pain as players adjust to playing with heightened intensity).
Some players will be beyond saving and some will likely still look to the exit door in the summer. Arsenal never really finished their post Wenger transition when they opted to rebuild the squad with expensive, late-prime players and many elements of that squad will need turning over again.
Effectively Arsenal have swapped one transition for another, but this one feels like it might be moving in the right direction. The fans have bought into this one quickly because they perceive a positive energy in the players, which has transmitted back to them in the stands. It is still early, of course, but last night I was minded of the words to that old Thunderclap Newman song.
“Call out the instigators/ Because there’s something in the air
We’ve got to get together sooner or later/ Because the revolution’s here, and you know it’s right.”