It does feel like a majority of Gooners are finally coming around to the idea that the weekend draw (reaction so bad I listed it as a loss yesterday by accident) wasn’t due to a shocking performance, but on the balance of play, down to two problems.
- We made two very dim defensive errors that received the ultimate punishment
- We didn’t perform to xG – which means the quality of our chances merited 3 goals and we only scored 2.
This tweet thread from @Bielsista summed up our first three games quite nicely.
Arsenal first 3 games of last season vs first 3 games of this season (on next tweet)
22/23 vs 23/24
5.28xG vs 6.11xG
50.7% average possession vs 67.3%
43 shots vs 48
22 shots against vs 28
9 goals vs 5 goals
2 goals against vs 3 goals pic.twitter.com/mSmarKfsDG
— Bielsista (@pedroelchileno) August 27, 2023
This new unpredictable system we’re playing is delivering more possession, more xG, more shots, but less goals, and one more goal conceded compared to the opening 3 games last season.
Performance ALWAYS catches up with expected performance. Overperforming like United has been is lovely in the short term, but for me, when you’re trialing a new system, it’s great that the underlying numbers point to it working (and it failing because of a fluke) – because our players are really good and it will bang. So in short, you might hate the system, but it’s doing its job, and the solves for course correcting it are simple.
I do want to double down on some details I think are missing from the conversation.
Now, I have no clarity on the plans of Gabi M. He might be out the door by the time I wake up – but I suspect it’s too late in the window for a move like that, though I can guarantee longterm, he’ll be out.
So why is Arteta benching someone he played every game last season?
Mikel Arteta said in February that Arsenal had faced 16 blow blocks.
“We have faced 16 low blocks this season and we have won a lot of those games. Then it’s about efficiency. When they block everything and the ball doesn’t go in the net, it’s great (for them). If you win 2-0, then you attacked the low block really well. Against Aston Villa it will have to be a really high level to beat them.”
That was match day 24 – 66% of games up until that point Arteta deemed we’d faced a form of low block. To double down on that, he recently said that we actually faced more low blocks than Manchester City last season. That has been a problem for us. Clearly, we’ve mostly beaten them, but when we don’t, everyone says we’ve been sussed. This season, we’ve faced Forest who played a deep-deep block, followed by Palace and Fulham who just played normal deep blocks.
The new system we’ve been trialing has been a tactic in unleashing more ball-playing players by taking out bodies we haven’t really needed against weaker opposition.
The complicating factor has been losing Jurrien Timber – a true unlock in this system. Thomas Partey is playing right-back because he’s unreal in possession – but he’s only there because Timber is out and Tomiyasu can’t match him on the ball. Kiwior started at the weekend for two reasons – Zinchenko is making his way back to fitness, and Kiwior has been excellent in training. The reality of Zinchenko is he’s injury-prone, so giving Kiwior minutes against weak teams gives him the chance to feel out the Premier League for real – versus waiting until February when it really means something and he has to come in against City.
You can hate the system, but if you think the game was lost because Thomas Partey was getting skinned for 90, you’re wrong. If you think Kiwior was getting brutalised on the left, you’d also be wrong. Were they as good as Timber and Zini? No. But they offered more to the game than Tomi and Tierney would have. A subjective opinion, but one shared by the coaching staff.
It’s also worth noting that Saliba has played on the right and left side of defence this season. Partly, because Ben White is better with the ball at his feet than Gabriel, but I also suspect Arteta might see White as the superior and more experienced defender – he’ll want him in the middle if Saliba gets injured this season and he might even want him to start if Gabriel picks up a knock.
There are lots of scenarios Arteta has been working through – and whether people like it or not, the best place to test these things is in a live environment. It allows players to get used to the pressure in a controlled setting – versus an emergency one. Arteta did not test these scenarios last year which led him to lean on less innovative ideas during the backend of the season. Thomas Partey at right back and Ben White at centre back might have closed the gap on City – but there was no muscle memory for that type of move. We opted for Rob Holding and the rest is history.
There also needs to be some recognition of the challenge Arsenal is taking on this season. The best coach that has ever lived, with the most expensively assembled squad of all time, all peaking as I write, with a freak of a striker on 1 million euros a week. We aren’t topping them doing the same thing we did last season. The club has to invest in better ideas and we have to take the pain bedding them in. If you want a progressive coach – you have to accept that they have to experiment and occasionally get things wrong. It’s the only way to learn.
Arsenal also wants to become a sustainable club, they aren’t betting on one season of success, they want to invest in players that can dominate for 8 years when they peak. We aren’t going to peak this season, but the way we’re building the squad, it’s clear that’s not the plan (focus on young guys). The club wants to peak when City takes a shock to the system.
Does that mean we can’t win the league this season? No. But I suspect the most pressing matter is sustaining what we did last year without crashing because we can’t handle 3 games a week from September. Just read what Martinelli said about CL this season.
“I think we need to prepare ourselves for the worst, we need to prepare ourselves for the best teams and the whole team is doing that,”
“I think we are ready for a new challenge.”
“It’s so important (our squad depth) because we have too many games in the season and it’s going to be tough again,”
When you read that, you can start to understand the magnitude of the challenge, and maybe why we’re testing the squad hard early on.
All these things are painful to read – but they are based on the reality of the Premier League and what we’re up against.
Again, I’m not ruling out winning it all this year – I’m just saying a lot has to go for us for that to happen.
What I do believe is when this squad of 23.75-year-olds peaks, playing an unpredictable style no one can suss, we are going to be unstoppable. I just don’t think we’re there yet. We don’t have a Haaland, we don’t have right-wing cover, we’re not experienced enough, and I think the Timber injury has put us back a few steps.
If you don’t like the approach, tell me a better one?
Spend £900m like Chelsea – what has that got them?
Invest in a more seasoned manager – like Ten Hag? Mourinho? Conte? Carlo? Are there even any ‘we should have’ names left at this point? They’ve all come and gone, tails between their legs.
Do a Newcastle? Sure. I like what they’re doing. But is it better than what we’re offering?
Try what Klopp is doing? Do they look close to winning the league? I’m not so sure.
I like our idea the most right now. Young, technically brilliant, with a very innovative idea that will make us extremely difficult to play against, trying ready before the big changes at City. The shame is we have to wait for another club to dip before we can reach the promised land… but that dip will come one way or the other. Then we’ll be ready.
Ok, shorter one today. See you in the comments. x