Arsenal finished out the first mini-cycle of Premier League games sitting pretty in the top 4 having taken 9 points from 12. That was the target for Arteta and his team and they will be very pleased they delivered on it.
The Sheffield United game basically showed off our glaring problems that are a hangover from last season, they also painted the way forward. The grim opening 45 minutes had us in complete control of the game, but at a very slow pace, with absolutely nothing to show for it. We had shots on target, but they were stat-padding shots, the chances weren’t good enough. It is worth caveating this with the exhausting reality that we played Liverpool back to back inside 4 days. It was a safe half though, Sheffield United, who finished one place behind us last season, gave nothing to the game.
My biggest worry was seeing Bad David Luiz show up. He nearly had himself sent off inside the opening 5 minutes with a shirt tug after he mistimed his control of a pass, only the footballing gods and quick thinking of Bernd Leno saved us. He really is an infuriating player. You always know whether it’ll be his day or not within 60 seconds, it was not his day and he was a shambles.
The 4-3-3 that we adopted looked good for shape though. Our defending was solid and moving Saka further up the pitch worked well. Also interesting to see Mo dropping in as a false right back.
Gabriel was very reassuring with his assertive defending. It’s extremely impressive how fast he’s adapted to the league, he feels like our best defender already, he’s rapid, his passing is getting better, he’s careful with his sizeable power, and he seems to have a good grasp on communication with the rest of the group.
The second half saw an early recognition that we needed more edge in the final third. Nicolas Pepe was brought on for the largely anonymous Eddie Nketiah and we moved Auba into a more central role after watching him die out on the left all game. The team also started to pick up the pace, the passing was more aggressive and there was more of a one-touch vibe to our play.
Pepe was involved in the first goal. A fluid move that finished with Bellerin finding Saka at the back post. The newly-minted England international guided a very clever header into the top corner. What a week he’s had.
The goal after was all about the Pepe magic (Hector assist), his driving run and placed shot was exactly what we wanted from him when we bought him. He not only played a huge role in speeding up our play, he also defended with dogged aggression. He really wanted to change that game and he did. The 19 pass approach to that goal was the largest of the season. We might be meek going forward, but when we do make it click, it’s glorious to watch.
We still let Sheffield back into the game. McGoldrick made some space on the edge of our box and curled a perfect shot past Leno. Not sure there’s much you can do with a shot like that. We defended erratically closing out the game, Hector tweeting that we love to suffer was spot on, but we saw out the 94 minutes for the win.
So what did we learn?
There’s a formation and selection in this squad that gives us a more free-spirited kind of football… and it probably involves Saka, Auba in the middle, and an interested Nicolas Pepe. When Arteta made those changes, the whole vibe of the game shifted. Everyone kicked their play up a notch, our attackers looked more threatening, and we took chances in the final third.
We need to see more of that a lot more often.
As it stands, we have a painfully conservative midfield. They are much more comfortable pinging it around our half than they are in the final third. Mo Elneny is a solid player, but his instinct is backwards or sideways. There is very little desire for verticality in his game. He’s not a risk-taker. Ceballos was much better in the second half, he took some chances and some of his play out of the back was daring. He needs to be more involved in our final third play. His one-touch pass that slipped Auba in shows he’s capable.
The bright spark in the game was Saka. He’s probably our second-best player. His movement out wide was great today, he worked nicely with Tierney. I thought he also looked impressive when he drifted in and played more through the middle. He has the tools to unpick defences and he has the awareness to move through tight spaces. If it all goes to shit with the transfer window, he’d be worthy of giving more time in attacking positions.
Pepe also showed there’s still fight in him. He’s spent a long time not delivering goals (12 games I believe). The talent is there, but he lacks belief. Yesterday, he flew out of the traps with a chip on his shoulder. He doesn’t always play like that. His instinct was always to move forward, he’s better when he’s doing that, too often he looks for the cut back instead of forward locomotion. Hopefully this can be the true start to his season, it needs to be, because our attack looked bland before his arrival. He lifted Willian’s game in my view.
Let’s also talk about Hector Bellerin. He’s getting back to something that resembles form. 2 assists today that were absolutely vital in a game that offered nothing; from a player that has struggled with fitness and end product. He’s really starting to look a player, long may that form continue. It was interesting listening to Arteta after the game, he basically said he gave it straight to Bellerin about what he thought of him, then the player came back and said he wanted to commit to the project. Some might not like that, but I think you need people that love the club to stay at the club. It seems fairly clear that though the Cedric deal was unsexy, it was done because both Bellerin and AMN weren’t committed to the project.
Also worth pointing out that Arsenal were perfectly boring today. No drama. A simple win built upon the foundations of good defending. That cannot be said for many other teams we’d like to consider our brethren.
Let’s talk about that…
It was a fucking delight to see United get an absolute pasting at the hands of Spurs. I’m not sure how much you learn from that game because United were utterly, utterly dreadful… but, as I said yesterday, spending a shedload of cash doesn’t equate to points. It was totally nuts to see Liverpool trounced by Villa 7-2, shock of decade there. Exactly the same thing over at Leicester who were beasted 3-0 by West Ham. City were held by Leeds, they look lost.
Football is played on the pitch. We overplay the noise and the micro-moments we dislike, often losing sight of the bigger picture. As Carlo said at the weekend, it’s a simple game. Great prep, good coaching, and some luck goes a long way. There is no reason we can’t be decent this season if we continue improving on the basics and slowly build on the process. There is a plan there, it might not be sexy right now, but that doesn’t matter if it continues to be effective.
Good coaching does have its limits though. The fastest way to shift our fortunes is signing new players that can already do the specialist things we desire. This group of players are largely Emery’s vision (or Raul’s). Someone asked what Carlo would do with our squad, the response from everyone was ‘buy a new midfield.’ We need square pegs for square holes. That means a Partey or an Aouar. If you can’t get them, find players that look like them on Wyscout but at a lower price point. We cannot see out this season without addressing the midfield. We cannot excuse doing nothing.
Arteta sounded bullish in the press conference after. He said we are in for multiple players. The club is backing him. They are charging ahead.
Plenty to improve on, but hopefully, we can do that in conjunction with some excellent signings. Today is a big day. Matteo is off to Hertha, expect a lot more action… hopefully with some fresh meat coming our way.
Over to you, Edu.