For the second game in a row Arsenal started a League match with a high pressure, high energy style, and scored the opening goal off a set piece. And also for the second game in a row, Arsenal pulled the handbrake from the 30th minute and looked to hold on to their lead.
Arsenal actually have a stretch of matches where they jump out to a big start going back to the 1-0 win over Burnley. And after Arsenal take the lead in these matches, they have been content to sit back and try to soak up the pressure. They have been content to do this, but I have to say that I haven’t been content to watch it!
Don’t get me wrong, I love the winning! Arsenal are in
5th place 6th place right now and looking more and more like a team that will get back into Europe at the end of the season. Personally, I’ll take any final table that puts us over Spurs but I think the club’s goals are to get at least Europa League this season and build toward Champions League football again.
And the form table (last 6 matches) looks lovely. Arsenal are 2nd only behind Chelsea, we’ve scored 11, and conceded 4. That’s the 3rd best attack and 2nd best defense in the League and third best goal difference in the League.
And if I look at expected points and non-penalty expected goal difference over that same period, Arsenal are 4th. That means that both the actual points and the so-called “underlying metrics” suggest that Arsenal are in the midst of a great run of form.
And we can’t even say that we should beat the teams we’ve faced. Well, we can but it would be a bit spurious to do so. We’ve played Spurs, Villa, Brighton, and Leicester in this run and they were all clubs above Arsenal, all had been in good form, or expected to finish above Arsenal this season.
All of which is to say that we are playing well. So, why do I feel miserable watching us sometimes?
That, I think, goes back to last season. We have effectively spent two years playing a stultifying brand of football. Arteta sought maximum control, forced his players to play conservative football, and it was gross to watch and got us poor results. The specific trigger for me is when we play the ball wide on a counter attack only for the wide man to turn around and pass the ball backward. We did this because we didn’t have players making runs, no one overlapped, and our game plan was to build possession in the final third so that we could maintain our defensive shape.
So, now when we stop pressing and revert to that form of football, I get flashbacks to that football. And let’s not make any bones about it: we were a bottom third team when we played that way too often.
I understand if you like it. It is defensive. It is a different form of football (somewhat) from the Emery approach. And when it works, we hold on to leads and win games. I guess it’s something that I will have to get over. But for right now, whenever I see us applying the handbrake, whenever I see a break on and we have to play the ball back to a fullback because we don’t have any runners, I literally groan.
And we did that for long periods against Leicester yesterday. So, I sat here on my couch, watching Arsenal play defensive football for most of the match.
That’s not all I saw, however. That first 20 minutes was dazzling. Arsenal’s midfield duo of Sambi and Thomas were perfect in my opinion. They showed for each other, covered for each other and for the rest of the team, and they were able to break pressure. They are also able to pass to each other under pressure because they have such good touch that when they are pressed they can either pass quickly out or hold on to the ball and break the pressure themselves. And they are quite a mobile duo in midfield, Sambi in particular reminds me of a player like Ndidi with the way he’s able to cover ground defensively. And with Thomas in midfield we seem to have someone who is powerful and aerially adept. This is the best midfield I’ve seen Arsenal deploy since Cazorla/Coquelin.
I’m not saying that they are at the technical level of Cazorla, nor the defensive destroyer that led Thierry Henry to call Coquelin “the policeman”. But there is a lot to like about Thomas and Lokonga and I also think they have a high ceiling. Lokonga in particular could grow defensively which would make him one of the hidden gems in the League.
I will also say that I worry a bit about Arsenal’s defensive approach because Ben White has been poor defensively for Arsenal so far this season. In yesterday’s match against Leicester he was beaten far too easily by Harvey Barnes, who had a number of chances in White’s channel. He also gave away two stupid direct free kicks to Maddison, one because his tackle was bad and the other because he’s so bad at headers that he just shoulder charged into Maddison.
Now, before you get all worked up that I’m “savaging” Ben White, it’s not that I hate him. I also don’t have expectations that defenders are going to be perfect. No player is perfect. All I’m saying is that he needs to work on these things or we are going to get punished. And if that happens too often, the supporters will sour on him, no matter how good he is at passing the ball. After all, we still need defenders who.. defend.
For right now, he’s lucky that he’s got Aaron Ramsdale in goal cleaning up his messes. Ramsdale made 8 saves yesterday, three of them top quality or against big chances – two of those big saves were a direct result of Ben White’s poor defending. The first was against Barnes, who just walked by Ben while he was dreaming of new tattoos or something. And the save he made against the direct free kick was so spectacular that it covered up the fact that Ben White gave away that kick for that stupid foul on Maddison. If Ramsdale doesn’t make that save, I think a lot of fans are angry with Ben.
Arteta has done a good job improving Saka, Smith Rowe, and getting Aubameyang’s mojo back. So, I think he will improve Ben White’s defending.
But for right now, he’s got a flying keeper to help him out. It’s not an exaggeration to say that Aaron Ramsdale won two points for us.
Two more points and then I’ll let you go.
First, Arteta alluded to a change he made in the final 20 minutes of the game and Doc asked what it was. I went back and watched the final thirty minutes this morning and the answer is “pressing high.” Arsenal don’t play much proactive defense, so when we do it’s fairly noticeable. And in those last 20 minutes, we pressed them when they had the ball in their own half. We also tried to limit Tielemans’ touches with a player (usually Sambi) waved on to pressure him when they did get him the ball. And we used the forwards (like Auba) to shadow the passing lanes and limit reception in that deep lying midfield position.
Overall I thought Arteta had a good tactical match yesterday. The approach from the start was exactly correct and yielded results. From there, we probably needed to take our foot off the gas a bit to recover from the exertion, so Leicester got back into the game. Then Brentan made a change at half-time to a 4231 which Arsenal have struggled to play against. Arsenal couldn’t get the ball out of our half for the next 25 minutes or so and Arteta needed to make another change to open things up. He brought on Odegaard who didn’t have a great game (at one point Auba actually yelled at him for a bad pass) but did provide energy in the press and did a little to help us in counters.
Also, huge credit to the coaching staff for working on set pieces and set play delivery. Arsenal now lead the League in goals scored from set plays with 6 and it’s clear that we are working on a number of different approaches to set plays. We could have had more goals from them yesterday, by the way. I think that Auba chance which was just saved from 1 foot was a set play.
Saka and Smith Rowe assisted and scored goals yesterday. That takes Smith Rowe’s total goals assisted or scored this season to 5, 1 fewer than last season. That also means Saka has 3 goal-involvements this season (last season, 8) and had two decent chances yesterday. As I said at the start of the season, I expect these two players to break 10 goal-involvements (each) this season. But if Emile Smith Rowe keeps up his current pace, he will easily break 15. This is HUGE for Arsenal. We need goals from midfield, desperately.
I love watching these two play, BTW. They are my favorite thing about this team right now.
Ok, that’s it. I’ll be back tomorrow with a post about penalties, red cards, and why Arsenal supporters feel like the refs have been against us the last few years.