This weekend was fun. Going into this game with the knowledge that it was going to be a rotated squad, a small prize on the line to add a little edge, but overall was a game aimed at fitness took all the nerves out of it. I mean after the game Arteta told the media that David Luiz had trained just one day before playing 90 minutes. If that doesn’t tell you a bit about the situation Arsenal were in, I don’t know what does.
If I am being honest, after the high intensity Restart, where almost every game came with some degree of “must-win” stress and anxiety, being able to watch my Arsenal again with little attachment to the result has been a breath of fresh air. Literally. I mean, I was literally able to relax and breathe while enjoying watching the team play.
To make it even better, Arsenal not only won with a squad containing players out of position, some back from loans, and some irregular starters, they beat the champions of England who put out a nearly complete squad. Their front 3 was Mane, Firmino, and Salah. Their center back pairing was Van Djik and Gomez. Allison was in net, Robertson was whipping in crosses – 15 of them – and Fabinho, Wijnaldum, Milner, and Keita all played in midfield at some point.
I get there is an argument that that isn’t their strongest side without Alexander-Arnold or Henderson and that Arnold’s replacement Neco Williams was a bit at fault for Aubameyang’s goal, but compared to a Xhaka-Elneny midfield, an Aubameyang-Nketiah-Saka frontline, or a backline with Rob Holding – they were a bit more complete.
It makes the win all that much sweeter. And while it is important to remember not to take too much away from it all and remind myself that the team Arsenal faced and level they played at this weekend will be very different from what is faced in month when Arsenal travel to Anfield, it’s impossible not to combine it with the last month and be more than a bit excited. At the very least intrigued.
In the last month, Arsenal have beaten Manchester City, Chelsea, and Liverpool twice. To make it better, the night and day difference and growth from their last time out against Liverpool to their Community Shield appearance was obvious. From 30% possession, 3 shots, and scraping by on two calamitous mistakes, to 40% possession, 8 shots, 9 created chances, and only conceding 15 shots (versus 24 last time). What started as a rough outline, is slowly being fine-tuned, tested, and morphed into a legitimate blueprint for this team to compete well above its wight class.
We are seeing more intricacies within Arteta’s fluid 3-4-3 formation as comfort sets in and chemistry builds. Whether it was the way Arsenal handled a sitting midfielder – something that has eaten them up before with the likes of Jorginho – between the pivot of Xhaka and Elneny communicating with Nketiah and telling him when to go and pressure or when to sit, or the intricate exchange in positions between Tierney and Maitland-Niles to put each player in positions they are comfortable with on both sides of the ball, while maintaining defensive shape.
For those that didn’t catch this, we saw Arsenal take up their 5-2-3 formation without the ball with Tierney keeping a traditional left-center back role and Maitland-Niles as the left wingback. But as Arsenal collected possession and pushed into the attack, there was an exchange. Instead of bombing down the line, Maitland-Niles would slide central and join the midfield, picking and choosing when to get into the attack, while Tierney would switch into a forward left back position and look to overlap Aubameyang down the line. They exchanged seamlessly and effectively, including Tierney drawing Williams’ attention leading to Aubameyang’s goal. What it led to was a 5-2-3 without the ball and a fluid 4-3-3 with it. Very inventive from Arteta, in my opinion.
It is the type of play that gives me a lot of confidence as we head into the Premier League season. Not just because we won the match, but because in all likelihood, Arsenal’s transfer business will not be complete until late in the window, meaning any midfield overhaul may not be seen until mid to late-October at the earliest. Hello, 3-4-3 my fond friend. The 3-4-3 essentially lets Arsenal bypass the midfield in the attack, while putting Arsenal’s objectively better players on the pitch, instead of forcing a third midfielder and risking defensive exposure, and that is fine by me for the time being.
There is more to talk about surrounding what that 3-4-3 may mean and may bring for individuals – spoiler, it’s a ton of questions – but I want to swing back to something I think we can definitely take away from this last month.
While it is hard to make calls about tactics, the future of Arsenal’s goalkeepers, who is going to start coming September 12th versus Fulham, or if Elneny has actually just pulled of one of the greatest shocks of the year and won himself a spot back at the club, we can look at the results. More importantly than just the results themselves, the message those results send – externally AND internally.
Arsenal completed an impressive run in the FA Cup and gave Arteta his first trophy. They beat Man City, Chelsea, and Liverpool twice as I mentioned. They put out a side that on paper had no business beating a that Liverpool side and managed it. They capped it off with a second piece of silverware – put down the Community Shield all you want. I am actually worried Arteta will be a little sad when Arsenal go to Fulham to not be able to lift another trophy…when they win that is. But in all seriousness, the month of August sends a real message.
Arteta has been the manager for 8 month, but only 5 of that has been actually coaching the team. During that time they have progressed to this point, the club is pushing the message that they are backing Arteta, restructuring itself for a modern future, and making sure they do the right things this time around to set itself up for the long term future. Whether they are or not is up for debate, but when paired with results like this the message is that Arsenal are coming back and Mikel’s train is one players should want to hitch themselves to.
This window is crucial for Arsenal’s rebuild but a lot of their success may come down to the ability of Arteta and Edu to entice players to come. When attempting to do so, putting up a result like these may just go a long ways. Arsenal are relying on the little clout they have to make things work and if they can point to two successive victories over Liverpool, it will attract attention. It sends the message that Arteta is the real deal. That he is capable of taking players and getting more from them, of making them better, and of putting together winning tactics week in and week out.
Internally it is sending a blunt and obvious message – “Listen to Mikel, do what he says, work 100% every day, and good results come.”
“The spirit is one of the main things in the changing room, belief and spirit and we’ve got that, we’re building on it,” Kieran Tierney told Arsenal.com, “think that comes from the manager and the staff. It’s continued from what we’ve done last season and building on it.”
“It’s not by luck and it’s not by chance. It’s by hard work.”
It’s a definitive sign that Arteta has won, and continues to win, the hearts, mind, and belief of everyone in the locker room, which cannot be undervalued. From my understanding, many of Arteta’s methods or training and rebuilding the structure involve repetition, hard grafting, and the type of work that need to be backed up with results to keep players engaged.
It’s something that gets talked about with other strict managers as well. The Athletic wrote a great piece about Leed’s manager Bielsa, known as ‘El Loco’, who is notoriously hard on his squad including demanding strict weight ranges. It’s something he has been able to do because Leeds is seeing incredible results including promotion into the Premier League from the dogfight that is the Championship. In contrast, when Spurs had a falling out with Pochettino, there was a suggestion that many in the locker room were tired of his repetitive training sessions that weren’t yielding satisfactory results. He was fired.
The more buy-in that Arteta gets internally, the quicker, smoother, and better this rebuild goes and that starts with results. There are destined to be new pieces added to the locker room and there is no guarantee they will be as willingly onboard, but if you enter a cohesive team that is completely sold on what the gaffer is doing, it’s nearly impossible to not climb aboard – even if you are a star.
It’s this aspect that I am excited to see come to frutition. This level of respect for Arteta showing signs that he possesses the keen ability to adapt, alter, tinker, fine-tune, and nearly perfect his tactics to get a result. It’s a sign of a top manager, but few in the possess it. He is making it impossible to NOT back.
Well I will leave it there for now as we wait to see if we finally get an announcement of Gabriel or Aubameyang. With a toothy grin, Arteta said things were “close”. Enjoy the week!