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.

And lastly!

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.



  1. You can tell when the handbrake is on because all of a sudden the fullbacks…. especially on the left hand side stop bombing forward on every possession.

    It probably wouldn’t feel quite so dire to watch if we could have any confidence in the ability to control either space on the defensive side or possession on the offensive side. That said it’s extremely funny teams don’t just automatically set up as a 4-2-3-1 against Arsenal. Utterly incapable of playing decently against that formation.

    Idk it’s progress I guess, but it keeps feeling a bit jammy.

  2. Its amazing how much impact Ramsdale has had to the team. He’s so dominant in box, makes incredible saves (that one from the free kick was just insane) and organises the defence so well. To think he’s only 23 is nuts.

  3. Everyone raved about Toreira and about how wonderful he was after a few games in the team.

    The same applied to Guendousi.

    Now look at where they are.

    The gloss tends to to rub off very quickly.

    How much longer will he survive as the hero when his defence continue to allow the opposition to have so many meaningful shots on target.?

  4. Stats favour the team that scores first. I like seeing the team bust a nut to score first. The passive defence? Makes for a nail-biting watch. I wonder if Arteta has instructed them not to make tackles (coz we get so many cards)? I’m sure you’ll tell us tomorrow.

    This gameplan works when we score first. We can move to a counter attacking formation (which this side is well set up for). And when out of possession, block well and hope Ramsdale has a worldie.

    We’ve seen this season Arteta is not wedded to a style or formation. The latest 4-4-2 was a reaction to seeing Lacazette’s impact as a sub against Palace. It’ll be interesting to see if he settles on this team and tactics when we don’t get the first goal.

  5. I’d love to hear someone with a better tactical understanding than me break down what it was that Brighton and Leicester did to exploit Arsenal’s right flank. It seemed like a systemic issue to me rather than a problem with individual defenders, but because of the way the cameras follow the ball, that’s naturally what we see. I did watch the highlights of Liverpool’s 2-2 draw with Brighton and they caused the Scousers similar issues as well, so I don’t think this is just us. Is Andy Clarke still doing the Breakdown on If not that’s a huge loss, I always learned so much.

    I have two comments on the handbrake. One, it takes intense effort to dominate a PL match and it’s only natural that that effort gets reined in after the team takes a lead. We reined it in too early against Palace and were punished, so the team has been pushing for the second goal before proverbially putting their feet up. The second point is that we used to get so mad at Wenger’s teams for not having the know how to control games with a lead. You’re not always going to score 3-4 goals and when we threw bodies forward at 2-0 in search of a third we would just as often concede and let teams back into the game. So I don’t mind a more cautious approach especially if we are a real threat in transitions.

    The third thing is that nobody thinks this team is the finished article. Arteta was at pains to emphasize that the team has accomplished nothing yet and I think that’s the perfect attitude. We have all these new players that the PL hasn’t seen much of yet but very soon teams will begin to game plan against Arteta’s system and against the individual weaknesses of every player at Arsenal (to a greater extent than they have already done). The exciting thing is that we have so many players who are already performing well but still have untapped potential and room for improvement. If they keep the right attitude and keep applying themselves and striving to improve as individuals and as a collective then there are no limits to what they could achieve.

    1. “especially if we are a real threat in transitions”

      We aren’t. No one is against a cautious approach, what I’m against is the anti-attacking football we deploy when we have the lead. We need to be more aggressive more often and go for the kill.

    2. I get the argument against passive football, and definitely think we sat off too soon against Palace, but I agree with the doctor’s view here.

      I think Arsenal fans define dominance/ambition a certain way – relentless forward play over 90 minutes – that has been counter-productive in the past. It seems more realistic that against decent sides – which Leicester are (Palace less so) – you should expect to not be in control for some phases of the game. Successful teams see out those phases, including by good goalkeeping, which is not a failure of defending, but part of defending.

      Evans should’ve been sent off yesterday, btw, which would’ve made it a 3 or 4-0.

  6. I don’t think it’s either/or cautious v aggressive. When they go in front, the very best teams can control the game with or without the ball, and choose the right moments to increase the pace or the intensity. Seems to me we haven’t found that ability yet, we’re still a bit dependent on individual misses, saves, blocks and clearances to stay in front and that’s what I read into Arteta’s comments about there being more to do.

    We can be more creative and aggressive with the ball (Tim’s point I think), but also we need to be able to get it back when we don’t have it (more pressure), and in the moments that we can’t do that, we need to be in better defensive control. And over and above we need to develop the on-field wisdom to know which mode we should be in.

    I’m happy with the progress, don’t get me wrong.

  7. I thought it would take another manager to get the most out of this young team, but Arteta may prove me wrong. I keep reminding myself of just how young Arsenal are – and that 6 new acquisitions were on the field (again) to finish the game. I am trying to bear in mind that our youth and relative inexperience playing together have a huge impact in our ability to manage games. When LCFC began to gain control, I was fully prepared for Palace redux. Credit to the team – and Mikel – that we found some degree of balance and possession late in the match.

    Our opening style of play is very intense, as you mentioned. I think we get tired, and pull back a bit to catch our breath after taking a lead. That gives the other side a way back, and once we lose the initiative it gets harder to regain it, as we tire even more from chasing the ball out of possession. With maturity and more games together, this should naturally improve.

    Agree with Doc that we had the same problem killing off games under Wenger from time to time, and there’s the old adage about a 2-0 lead being the most dangerous. We got some good defending, excellent goalkeeping and a few fortunate bounces. A clean sheet away to LCFC is hard to nitpick. We will never have a perfect performance, but for this young a team, with so little time playing together, we have to be pleased. There is upside, and it sounds like Arteta is very aware of that based on his post-match comments.

  8. Absolutely spot on analysis, Tim. Well, at least to me that is. And I, too, am very underwhelmed so far by Ben White (especially given his price tag). Frankly, I didn’t even recognize the name when we just got linked with him in the summer. I watched plenty of Brighton games last season, and I knew/know who Dunk is. I know Duffy. I know Bissouma, Gross, Lamptey, and the majority of their squad. I had no idea who Ben White was so at first I thought it was just media making stuff up. Well, imagine my surprise when we did sign the “unknown” Ben White for 50 effin million pounds. I hope he’s gonna prove me wrong (just like Ramsdale is doing at the moment as he already made me eat a couple of slices of humble pie) but I have a feeling this is one very expensive signing that is not going to work out.

  9. I too am happy with the upturn in form but the handbrake on sections of the last match had several heart-in-mouth moments, many of which associated with Ben White. Maybe he is just an expensive home-grown bandaid until Saliba returns?

  10. Thanks Tim. I’m seeing what you’re seeing and feeling much as you do. I have an unpleasant feeling the last few games that, great and all as it is to win, there is a fragility there camouflaged by good luck, and excellent goalkeeping. Still worrying about Auba, started to worry about Saka and White. Perhaps what I’m responding to is the exuberance and audacity of youth. In which case bring it on. Our next five games will tell us so much about where we truly are. Plus, we need goals and more goals.
    Otherwise, keep on keeping on. It’s called life. Scratch that itch to write more.

  11. At the risk of repeating myself (again), I’ve always thought ESR was capable of giving us goals from midfield. It looked like an easy enough chance, but there were a couple of things to note. Firstly, he arrived “late” into the box, in much the same way Bryan Robson used to. Those sort of runs are rarely picked up by defenders. Secondly, he didn’t panic and just blast the ball like a few Arsenal players I could mention. He “passed the ball into the net”, which is something good strikers do. Ian Rush was a good example. If you’re particularly ancient, then Jimmy Greaves and Gerd Muller.

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