Sunday, April 21, 2024

The next phase

Since a drab 5-0 defeat to Manchester City at the end of August, Arsenal are unbeaten. With a trip to Anfield on the horizon on Saturday, it’s unlikely that that sentence will hold truth for too much longer but, for the time being, it is a fact. Losing to Manchester City is a tediously regular occurrence for most Premier League teams.

Losing heavily to Manchester City is a ritual humiliation every team has to experience at least once (even Klopp’s Liverpool took a 5-0 pasting in Manchester a couple of seasons ago). It was the listless manner of the defeat that raised alarm bells for Arsenal, however. It looked, for the first time, as though the players had either lost faith in Arteta or else didn’t understand what he was asking from them.

Fast forward eight weeks and Arsenal have taken 20 points out of a possible 24 in the league and are in the Carabao Cup quarter-finals. Arteta was somewhat derided on the back of that hazing at City for describing the fallout as “the best 10 days I have had in football.” He was loose on the details but most concluded that he realised he still had the backing of the players and the club.

The subsequent two months have borne that impression out. So what has changed since then? Well, most of the team, for a start. Thomas Partey missed those first three games, Pierre Emerick Aubameyang missed the first one and a half, Martin Odegaard was not able to take part in the first two while the singings of Tomiyasu and Ramsdale were not confirmed until late August.

Gabriel and Ben White were also not available during that period. The back five that started the Chelsea defeat was Leno; Cedric, Holding, Mari, Tierney. For the win over Watford all five players were different. (Obviously Tierney belongs in a slightly different category to the other players listed). Ramsdale; Tomiyasu, White, Gabriel, Tavares.

There is a sense that Arteta has drawn a line in the sand about who his guys are and who they aren’t. He did this last season too, albeit in more acrimonious circumstances- Guendouzi and Ozil were more contentious, even confrontational scenarios. Side-lining Calum Chambers, Mohamed Elneny, Pablo Mari and Bernd Leno was never going to cause as much of a frisson.

The omission of Leno might have stoked more conversation but all the subsequent noise has been about his replacement Aaron Ramsdale, who has quickly become one of the darlings of the Arsenal crowd. Arteta now has a defensive base that he trusts.

He bought White, Gabriel, Tomiyasu, Ramsdale and Tavares and he gave Tierney a new contract. (For balance, he also bought Cedric and Mari and gave Holding a new contract). As a result, Arsenal have committed slightly more to attack this season, though, for better or worse, they have also been happier to sit back when in a commanding position and soak up pressure.

Not only do Arsenal have a taller, more physically commanding set of defenders (compare how Arsenal were bullied by Brentford’s aerial bombardment on the opening day of the season compared to the accomplished manner in which Tomiyasu, White, Gabriel and Ramsdale controlled Burnley’s ‘up and at ‘em’ approach) but Arteta has the build-up players that he wants now.

With the increased focus on pressing in the Premier League, there is also an increased focus on more direct play. In Ramsdale and White, Arsenal have players very capable of going over the top of the press with line breaking, or long diagonal passes. Thomas Partey’s disguised line-breaking passes are also a valuable feature of the build-up.

In recent games, we have also seen Ben White’s ability to dribble past pressure and into more advantageous zones. (Lokonga can do this too). For Emile Smith Rowe’s winning goal against Watford, White is on the edge of the Watford area winning the ball back with an aggressive interception. When his passing lanes are blocked, he can manoeuvre up field with the ball at his feet, either dragging opponents out of position or, more often than not, winning a foul.

This fits very much with Arsenal’s new 442 / 4411 / 4222 system adopted in recent weeks, which has helped the team to press opponents higher up the pitch. Saka and Smith Rowe move in-field while Aubameyang and Lacazette form the first and second lines of press, forming a kind of pincer movement as the opposition play out.

Lacazette has proved to be a neat exception in the squad during this period because he is an older player whose future is not at Arsenal. This recent run has largely been built on the backs of new, young, hungry players who are, hopefully, on an upward trajectory in career terms. Lacazette doesn’t fit into at least two of those categories but has forced his way back into the reckoning through sweat and toil, firmly leading the charge in that high press.

In his recent interview with Amy Lawrence, Arteta talked up the importance of unity, “Without unity, you can’t achieve what we want to achieve,” Arteta says. “Unity means every person that works in the organisation. It’s our way of playing, it is our way of transmitting our values, our way of connecting with our fans, our ownership.

“Everybody, uniform, thinking in the same way, with the same purpose, without any individual agendas, without any egos, just ‘That’s the task’. That’s what we want to get, and I am going to push the boat very, very fast.” Signing a cornucopia of young, hungry players has aided that vision but Lacazette has made it his business to haul himself back onto the boat.

Of course, the other notable thing about Arsenal’s recent run has been the relative ease of the fixtures. Norwich, Spurs, Crystal Palace, Aston Villa and Watford at home and Burnley, Brighton and Leicester City away has been stretching but not as stretching as the fixtures on the immediate horizon.

A big development point for this team will be how they fare away at Liverpool, Everton and Manchester United and, assuming there are disappointments along the way, how they react to them. I would also like to see Arsenal finding more of a balance between counterattacking teams when in leading positions and simply camping on the edge of their area.

Arsenal have moved to a point where they can play in bursts effectively but they need to be able to control games even when they are not dominating from an attacking perspective. The 442(ish) formation is also quite new and the more Arteta uses it, the more opponents will be able to probe it for structural weaknesses. Arteta and the team deserve credit for the recent turnaround. The next phase starts now.

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