It was a cagey match built for the spectator with 20/20 vision. Not because of the fast-paced action, as much as the blue on blue uniform selection. No, the match itself was not one that many people would have called ‘scintillating’. In fact, the second half of the match seemed to simply plod along more than anything, as the two managers locked themselves in a duel built on respect for one another’s deep understanding of their opposition’s tactics.
What it produced was a match that will divide opinions when it comes to reviews. Boring? Enticing? Cagey? A snooze? Survey one hundred people and you’d probably split 50/50. What we got was two managers that came into the match with a plan and they were more or less sticking to it through thick and thin.
In the end Arsenal didn’t get the job done. Whether it was an improvement or a disaster, at the end of the year it tallies as zero points. It’s a harsh way to look at this, which is why we will get into the takeaways, but Arteta set out a line up, selected his tactics, and stuck with them to no avail. I wouldn’t go as far as saying “he got things wrong” or that it’s his fault, but it seemed like much of what the team carried out will have been in line with his vision, which does mean some fault lies with him.
Arsenal were very defensive, they were cautious, but they did produce a few really good chances. It seemed as though those few, golden moments were what Arteta was hunting for with his tactics, rather than forcing the attacking point and risking his backline being exposed to poor situations. After all, we saw in the 22nd minute what it looked like when Arsenal did have their backline exposed and it wasn’t pretty.
Some will argue that Arteta’s tactics are like those “playing not to lose”. A lack of creation, a lack of fluidity, a lack of adventure to The Gunner’s character. They looked to defend, they looked to make City’s life difficult, and they attempted to make the best use of their 30% possession and sparing opportunities to shoot. It didn’t come off, and with only 6 shots in the game and only 1 in the second half, it may be fair to suggest a more drastic change should have come earlier in the half when Arsenal were down 1-0.
It’s an improvement over the type of results that Arsenal had grown accustomed to when they played away from home against bigger clubs in the Premier League. I mentioned in my match preview that Arsenal are 0-7-2 against Manchester City in the Premier League in their last night, and they have conceded 23 goals during that stint. To make matters worse, 3-0 or 3-1 has become a regular scoreline in these matches. So, not conceding 20 shots and 3 goals, and staying in the fight for the full 90 minutes is a baby step in the right direction, even if there are some constructive criticisms, we can lob Arteta’s way.
There seems to be a minor contingency of the Arsenal fanbase that are worried Arsenal are sitting on the edge of another bubble like they were with Unai Emery. Results early, not great performances, obvious issues, and then a complete self-destruct. On one hand, I don’t blame them for the thought. Having a manager for 20 years, followed by a situation like Emery’s will leave a bit of scar tissue.
However, while on Twitter, I stumbled upon a very interesting factoid about Arteta’s tenure as manager, clearly aimed at the #ArtetaOut contingency. From @afcjxmes, Arteta has now played 19.4% of his matches against Liverpool or Manchester City as Arsenal’s manager. Out of those 7 matches, he has won 4 and lost 3 for a 57% win rate.
Wow. Talk about a difficult beginning to a tenure as manager. 1 in 5 matches are played against the two top teams within your league. The end goal of Arsenal’s overhaul is to be at that level, but Arsenal are not there. Yet, Arteta has found a recipe that keeps us in those games for the time being.
No, it is not lovely to watch. No, it is not scintillating. No, it’s not the way I want to see Arsenal playing two or three years from now when the project is complete. But if it keeps us close with top talents like Man City, if it keeps the xG close like yesterday’s 1.4 – 0.9, then I can rationalize the thought. If Arsenal put one of their chances away, this blog is about the importance of that one point.
Though that thought is always the case. If you get the result, the narrative changes. Arsenal didn’t, they should be analyzed for it, but it’s shouldn’t be enough to send you into fits of anxiety or rage
Manchester City win 1-0, let’s look at a few takeaways.
A tough time to transition
A lot of teams would be forced to struggle their way through this period in Arsenal’s schedule. Leicester, Liverpool, Liverpool, Manchester City, Leicester, Manchester United in just over a month, along with a few other matchups. That is a tough gauntlet for the month of October, and yet I struggle to sympathize entirely.
Everyone knew that this period was on the schedule since August 20th when the fixtures were released. It is because of this period that many wanted to see Arsenal’s business in the transfer window done early. It wasn’t possible, or it was and it wasn’t completed, and now Arsenal find themselves trying to transition in new players, new tactics, new formations, and hybrid, in between tactics during a period that will without a doubt be their most difficult.
It’s unfortunate because with Manchester City’s press, Arsenal felt like they could use a central midfielder that offered a strong, athletic, technical, box-to-box presence. Know any? Yeah. The game felt like a perfect fit for what everyone is hoping Partey brings to the side. It’s understandable that he wasn’t selected for today’s starting lineup, the guys has had less than 3 training sessions with the team, but what he could have offered Arsenal, could have unlocked Manchester City’s press and opened up more opportunities to attack.
Woulda, coulda, shoulda. No doubt. It’s easy to say the new player would have made all the difference, but I genuinely believe it would have helped. What Arsenal did have were two systems and formations we have hardly seen the team play, but will likely continue to see in coming weeks. We just saw the 4-3-3/4-2-3-1 formation last time out against Sheffield and attempted to employ it on the attack yesterday, while dropping into our usual 3-4-3/5-2-3 shape without the ball, but the transition between the two seemed sloppy, and players seemed to be on different pages at times.
Every transition and change is going to have some degree of growing pains. This is just a tough time in the schedule to be going through them. If you want to see a breakdown and analysis of my thoughts on those two formations, read my thread on Twitter.
A bit too much respect
Everyone can understand giving a large degree of respect to Manchester City, or any side managed by Pep Guardiola. The man has earned it time and time again. He puts together a well drilled side, and their willingness and ability to get players behind the ball and press when they lose it, yet break out into a fluid dynamic attack when they win it back is incredible.
There were moments in yesterday’s match that I found myself wowed by how quickly City dropped after losing the ball to deny the quick counter, and how high up the pitch they pressed in numbers. There is a lot to be impressed by, but it felt as though Arteta paid City a bit too much respect in his unwillingness to change things up as the match progressed.
Arteta had a plan, he stuck with it, but by the 70th minute, it seemed clear that Arsenal were in need of an injection and a change to the tactics to initiate more attack. It’s always easier from the sofa, but I thought bringing on Lacazette for Willian, bringing on Partey for Xhaka, and shifting Saka more central may have done wonders. Arteta eventually made similar moves, but it wasn’t until the 83rd minute, giving them 10 minutes to make a difference.
It seemed as though Arteta was holding out for that golden moment to present itself so that Arsenal could return to their defensive shape on it’s own, but it simply wasn’t coming. I don’t believe this was a case of Arteta losing himself in the match either. I simply think he saw glimpses of what he wanted throughout both halves and that if we made the switch to inject more attack, it came with the very prevalent risk of leaving the backline very exposed.
If that was the thought process, he is probably right, a switch like that does run the risk of exposing Arsenal’s still improving backline. However, after only registering 1 shot in the entirety of the second half, it felt like a risk worth taking in pursuit of a point away from home against top competition.
Gabriel and Saka are the real deal
This won’t be revolutionary to many who have been seeing it and saying it for a while now, but that boy Bukayo Saka can play. He is now joined by new Arsenal player Gabriel who has also established himself as someone who is truly the real deal. Both of these two were the brightest players on the pitch for Arsenal.
Saka has successfully transitioned out of the left back, defensive role that he first bloomed in and shown just how crucial he could be to Arsenals attack. In the last month he has shown it against West Ham, made appearances for England’s national team, and now shown he can do it against a side that will likely challenge for the title.
He’s good off the dribble, he’s tidy with his feet, he moves the ball along, he works shots, he creates great 1-2 opportunities, he can whip in crosses, and he can defend. If there is still a competition between Saka and Maitland-Niles in Arteta’s mind, yesterday was another check in Saka’s column. He needs to be starting in almost every match Arsenal play this year in the Premier League.
Gabriel. What can you say? I realize that his success is on a small scale, and if we are going to hold that against Emi Martinez it needs to carry through to others as well, but the skills Gabriel has shown suggests he will be a difference maker for Arsenal’s backline for years to come.
Before the season started, I wrote an article saying that the battle for left back would be the best watch all season. I was wrong. Much of my article was founded on the thought that Saliba would be an improvement over the current right center back options we have, but that looks to be the case when it comes to Gabriel. His one-v-one defending, his aerial ability, the ground he covers, his passing range —albeit a few wayward ones today— and his presence suggest he too is approaching the point of being irreplaceable.
It’s these skills that also seems to carry though and suggest he will play a key role in Arsenal’s transition to a 4-back system. He has yet to play a match in which I have not said “wow” about his performance, and he has shown he can do it against a side like Manchester City. The left center back role looks more locked up after each performance.
Both Gabriel and Saka are here, and Arteta needs to find ways to make sure they are some of the first on the team sheet for every match.
Alright, leaving this one there. There are a few other things worth talking about — Aubameyang’s lack of service, Pepe and Willian struggles, Partey’s first few minutes, and Ceballos being the one to partner Thomas — but we can save those articles for a different day.
Arsenal drop this one. Plenty of things to improve on, but it was not a performance that I am overly concerned about. There were good moments, poor moments, cagey moments, and stale moments. It wasn’t a thrilling match, but we move to the next one. Rapid Wien next and the beginning of our Europa League campaign. Enjoy your Sunday!