Are Arsenal at it again? Yes, they are.
It has no doubt been a positive start for Arteta. He may not have revolutionised the club, the team, the results, but there is certainly a different feel these days. Late Wenger and Emery brought performances that were too painful to watch. Defensively naïve and tactically poor, it was hard to enjoy watching. After all, and I may only be speaking for myself here, but that is all I want from my team – win, lose, draw, I want to enjoy watching Arsenal play.
Arteta didn’t exactly pick up an easy first job in management. Yes, he knew the workings of the club (a clear advantage), but Arsenal needed work, there is no doubt about that. And Arteta’s work has been solid. Better performances against those of the top six, including victories over Man City, Liverpool and Chelsea in the FA Cup final have led to a better feeling going into the “big games”. Even the defeats to Liverpool and Man City earlier this season showed signs of progression; Arsenal stayed in these matches and were simply beaten by better sides.
This isn’t the time to lose patience, to fly planes over the Emirates.
There clearly seems to be much thought, preparation and work put into these important fixtures. Arteta wants to prove his worth as a manager and mix it with the big boys. But the problems seem to be coming in the games that, on paper at least, seem a little more straightforward. Arsenal’s recent loses to Leicester and Aston Villa at home are strange bookends to the victory at Old Trafford. Arsenal’s first away victory against a top six side since January 2015 (and their first at Old Trafford since 2006) showed a clear sign of exactly what kind of progression Arteta has made with the squad; free flowing, defensively sound and tactically aware, all the things Arsenal haven’t been. Playing in what has become the trademark 3-4-3 formation, Arsenal soaked up pressure and won the game in the midfield with Elneny and Partey putting in equally impressive performances.
And so, going into the Villa game, the starting eleven stayed the same, a seemingly obvious choice. But when you consider the demands of these two games, they can’t be the same. It was clear very early on (in fact for many games) that the shape was limiting its players and failing to put pressure on the opposition. In the first half, Arsenal held 61% of the possession before Villa’s first goal but had completed fewer passes in the final third (thirteen) than Villa (fourteen). In fact, Arsenal have completed the second most passes of any Premier League team in their own defensive third this season (151.7 per ninety minutes). This isn’t necessarily a problem; it can point to controlling games and is clearly a consequence of Arteta’s and Arsenal’s newfound confidence with playing out from the back. But when contrasting this to having completed the twelfth most passes in the final third this season (64.3 per ninety), it is evident where the problem lies.
Joe Willock’s recent performances in the Europa League throws another cloak of confusion over Arsenal’s latest Premier League line-ups, with a constant, energetic, driving force on a Thursday, to sitting at home on a Sunday. Look to the bench for some attacking flair in the midfield? Only Granit Xhaka and Dani Cebellos greet you. The gap for a creative midfielder is glaringly obvious on the pitch and there is no one on the bench to fill it. The shape stayed the same for the full ninety minutes against Villa and only like-for-like substitutions were made. Even more of a concern is the fact that Arsenal have not scored from open play in the Premier League in over a month (not since the 04 October versus Sheffield United).
It would be criminal of me to write this without a reference to the irresistible performance of Aston Villa. They played with a boyish charm that was a sight to behold, with Grealish and Barkley at the heart of it. The pair of them took the piss out of Arsenal’s left side for the first goal, and it didn’t stop there with Grealish bullying Bellerin for the third. These two are the old cliché of playing like kids in the playground – a true throwback to where we all fell in love with football. With things a little stale on the national front, I’m sure Southgate will be keeping a close eye on this newly flourishing partnership. This being said, being battered by Villa hasn’t necessarily worked out too badly for other teams this season, with Liverpool having won five games in row until their fascinating draw with title-contenders Manchester City.
Ultimately, Arteta is a new manager and he will make mistakes. This isn’t the time to lose patience, to fly planes over the Emirates – but if Arteta is to continue making progress with this half-decent Arsenal side, he needs to learn to adapt.