In the prematch blog leading into yesterday’s Europa League kickoff match, I wrote about it being a real opportunity. An opportunity to send a message to the rest of the world, to control a match in an attacking fashion, to dictate the pace of play, and make Vienna uncomfortable in the defense.
It was an opportunity to show what Arsenal could do in a match when they weren’t up against the likes of Liverpool or Manchester City — two sides they have run into all too often under Mikel Arteta. I even went as far as calling out the fact that a poor performance on the back of the Ozil axing would open the door for many to continue their criticism of Arteta and Arsenal, while raising the level of fear over what Arsenal can achieve this season.
There are a multitude of ways a football match can leave you feeling. Elated and overjoyed or destitute and hopeless. Enraged, bored, confused, excited — cue the list of the dictionary’s finest adjectives. The match against Rapid Vienna left me feeling almost the complete opposite of how I felt after Manchester City. After Manchester City, I was disappointed in the result, but against a side like City, there were nuggets to takeaway.
Last night, Arsenal got the three points and started off their group stages with a win, which is absolutely the main priority, however, the performance was enough to leave any Arsenal fan concerned about how the remainder of the year is going to go. Slow, predictable, sloppy, and as though the team couldn’t get out of second gear. Were there positives? Yes and we will talk about them, but does it bode well for the rest of the year? Does it even bode well for Sunday when Arsenal play a much tougher opponent in Leicester City?
It was an opportunity to show everyone that they could play two styles of football based on their opposition. That they could demonstrate 90 minutes of stout defensive work to give themselves a shot against top sides like City or Liverpool, and dominate, control, and dictate against sides like Rapid Vienna. They did not.
Arsenal came out with a strong lineup selection. There was a fair amount of rotation, but Arteta did in fact stick with his M.O. of taking cup matches very seriously, and ensuring he has quality in specific areas of the pitch. This makes the result a little bit tougher to swallow. If the squad had been heavily rotated, you could convince yourself that it was the reduction in quality that led to the overall struggles. Not the case when 10 of 11 players have started within the Premier League this season.
Arsenal XI: Leno; Cedric, Luiz, Gabriel, Kolasinac, Saka; Elneny, Partey; Pepe, Lacazette, Nketiah
Leno stays in net, something that’s not surprising. Gabriel and Luiz retain their defensive partnership to offer stability in the back, while Kolasinac and Cedric get the start. Partey makes this first start with Arsenal, alongside him is Elneny offering a bit of consistency and predictability to for Arteta. Things got interesting when it comes to up top. Saka, Nketiah, Lacazette, and Pepe.
When the lineups were announced everyone tried to fit the pieces together into what may have appeared to be a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1, only to quickly realize that it was yet another game playing within Arteta’s 3-4-3 style. That’s not necessarily an issue given the versatility of players like Bukayo Saka who can move himself just about anywhere on the pitch and make an impact.
Early in the match, the writing may have been on the wall. Arsenal had the ball but were struggling to turn their possession into tangible results. Not just goals, but shots, chances, even half-chances. The attack funneled down the left, as it does, but with Nketiah out wide and in front of Saka, things just weren’t clicking. The movement was slow, the ball movement slow, and Vienna’s defense had little trouble shifting themselves around to close down the danger and limit chances.
Not that it’s the first time we have seen this, but Arsenal having nearly 70% of the ball in the first half and only producing 4 shots, 1 less than Vienna, tells you the extent of their struggles. While I appreciate Nketiah and understand why Arteta may be looking to him at times over Lacazette, it’s clear that he is not a winger. Why Reiss Nelson wasn’t looked at after putting on a fantastic display against Leicester City is a bit of a head scratcher.
The second half saw struggles continue. Arsenal were transitioning into the 2-3-5 attacking shape, but as Vienna turned them away time and time again their confidence grew. That confidence peaked and culminated in a 51st minute goal when Arsenal failed to recognize the danger in back and attempted to play themselves out of trouble. The ball found up at Leno’s feet under pressure. He gave the ball away and Vienna pounced.
Arsenal had to respond in the one way they knew they effectively could — sub on their stars. To some degree, it was nice to see Arsenal respond on the field by pushing more numbers into the attack, but 10 minutes after conceding to last year’s third place finisher in the Austrian Bundesliga, Arsenal bought on Hector Bellerin and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.
There’s a reason that those players are the big name players. They make big plays. But Vienna is far from a big name and needing that kind of firepower to squelch the hopes of Vienna, is not a comforting feeling. Especially as Arsenal’s rival had no problem dispatching Vienna’s rival LASK just a few hours after Arsenal’s struggles to start their own Europa League campaign.
Arsenal got their breakthrough when Pepe swung in a ball from the right side and Luiz got his head to it to glance it over the top of an onrushing keeper. Certainly a mistake from Vienna’s keeper who came out for a ball he had no chance to get, but Arsenal can hardly turn up their nose at a goal. Four minutes later, Arsenal would get their second and the eventual game winner.
Mohammed Elneny picked up the ball facing Vienna’s defensive block and threaded through a line breaking ball to Bellerin overlapping down the wings. It was the type of ball you applauded even prime Ozil for playing. From there it was a simple square ball from Bellerin and tap-in from Aubameyang. It wasn’t a glamorous finish like his Fulham goal, but after a minor drought, Aubameyang will hardly complain.
Arsenal ended the match ahead on the scoreboard where it counted, but in a match were many were looking for them to dominate and create chances and shots for 90 minutes, seeing them end with only 11 shots and less than Vienna is tough to swallow.
There were positives and worries, so let’s get into it.
Attacking play isn’t a light switch.
When Arteta walked through the doors at Arsenal, he had one job — stop the bleeding. Arsenal’s backline was porous, they were conceding what felt like 20 shots a match, and they had no identity capable of earning them results. Well, Arteta has helped solve that.
He righted the ship, he stanched their bleeding, and created a way for Arsenal to get results. Over the summer window, he began to install himself a new spine, but he needs to find a way to bring the team to the next level with more expansive play.
The problem is that Arsenal haven’t done that much in the last 10 months. Not only have they not done that as a team, they don’t have a singular player to fall back on that can come through consistently with 4-6 chances to carry the team. No, Arsenal will rely on chance creation by committee this season. In order to do that, you need to get a variety of people chipping in, on the same page, and combining, which takes matches — not just training.
Attacking play is certainly a learned trait. And while there are players that inherently get it and offer it, working in unison as a team to produce at the level needed takes work, and Arsenal have not had the match minutes to fine-tune. It results in slow play, a disconnected feel, players on different wavelengths, and team errors leading to goals.
While we as fans will need to be patient with them before we jump down their throats, Arteta will need to make the conscious effort to stick with this attack and give his players the opportunities in competitive matches to test themselves. We can talk about formation and players in specific zones all day, but if the midfield and attack aren’t pinging the ball around, making intricate overlapping runs, changing their pace, and playing at sharp angles, you’re going to get stale play.
It won’t happen overnight, but if this is where they are at, their work needs to start moving in that direction now to gain those skills as a unit.
If you are an Arsenal fan, you are likely familiar with the Arsene Wenger handbrake analogy. “The only way to score is to play with the handbrake off.” It’s a fantastic quote and one that Arteta actually referenced recently in his own post-game interview. The problem is, as Arsenal look to transition into a more attacking style, it feels like Arteta is keeping the handbrake very much on.
At the very least, it seems as though he is playing it safe, which is resulting in Arsenal half-going for it. There’s a half attempt to get attacking players involved, except always within their defensive shape, always with multiple people shielding the backline, and almost always through similar patterns of play.
I love a good pattern of play. You won’t find too many goals better from a team perspective than Arsenal’s goals versus Fulham, Liverpool, and Manchester City. Moving from back to front, stringing passes, stretching the opposition, and finishing immaculately. But at some point Arteta and Arsenal have to look themselves in the mirror and tell themselves to make the leap. Go for it.
Whether that’s a shift in formation to add an attacker, an alteration to a few people’s roles and responsibilities, a midfield pushed higher, even at risk of some potential exposure of the backline, an effort to press teams more frequently, something!
Things did not click today on many levels, in many moments, but 70% possession resulting in 11 shots, only 2 big chances, and a come-from-behind win tells you it was a lot of stagnant side-to-side passing and little presence in dangerous areas.
Take the handbrake off and go for it Mikel. Yesterday was a real opportunity to do it, and it became an opportunity missed. Leicester City present another opportunity to play a team Arsenal can get after if they choose, but Arteta will need to commit himself. Otherwise we will see another defensive-minded, 3-4-3 performance as we clutch at a few chances and hope the likes of Aubameyang or Pepe can spin gold with a moment of individual brilliance.
Arsenal’s new £75m spine
If there were two major positives for Arsenal fans to be excited about, it’s the dream of drooling over more performances like yesterday’s from Gabriel and Partey. The two were incredibly impressive.
From the whistle, you could see the type of progressive play that Partey is going to bring the midfield. Nearly every first touch is positive. His eyes are scanning the field ahead of him. His turning ability when receiving the ball is quick and effective, and it allows him to shake danger if pressured, turn them, and get into the attack. He carries the ball through the midfield incredibly well, he has a knack for picking and choosing when to keep it or when to force the issue, and your eyes alone tell you he is something Arsenal just do not have in the midfield from anyone else.
On the defensive end, he thrives as well. He made tackles in the midfield, tackles in the defensive third, pressures high and immediately, or reads the game to drop in and cover.
After the match Arteta had this to say: “I think he held the midfield by himself in the second half when we were a little bit more open and started to take more chances attacking certain spaces with some players. But I think he was fantastic tonight and there is much more to come from him obviously.”
Does this suggest Arteta will be turning to him to hold the midfield by himself in order to enable the likes of Ceballos and Willian and Saka to get into the attack? Possibly! Time will tell. But for now, an absolutely smashing first start for Arsenal.
We are past the honeymoon period and into a phase where consistent performances like this tell us he is a good player. 4 interceptions, 5 clearances, 8/13 long balls, 4/4 aerial duels, 6 duels won in total. He won Arsenal 6 fouls throughout the game which helps give us chances or relieves pressure. He did it all and then some.
If you are Arteta and you are looking for defenders to step up and show you that they can handle their 1v1 challenges, win their duels, read the game well, and demonstrate skills that translate into four-back system, Gabriel is doing it. He has shown that he is a player that cannot be removed from line if Arsenal want success and everyone is rightfully applauding him for it.
Another class performance from Gabriel, and between the two, Arsenal will be feeling like the spine of their team is in a great place for years to come. £75m? Well spent by the looks of it.
The guy is a class act. He is a fantastic player. He turned things around, demonstrate his value, but you have to start to wonder what his future at Arsenal looks like when he is once again denied time by Cedric and Kolasinac. To make matters worse, those two were hands down some of the worst on the field tonight.
I wrote an article a few weeks ago about my concerns over AMN’s future. The issue is not that he is the worst on the team when it comes to those spots. No, hes much better than the two selected tonight, but he envisions himself a great role down the line and you can’t fault him for it. Why he wasn’t selected tonight likely has to do with Kolasinac and Cedric playing in Arsenal’s win over Liverpool, something I also mentioned in the prematch blog before this game, but that doesn’t make them the right choice.
When it comes to the future though, it is hard to see Maitland-Niles getting into the first team either. Tierney and Saka will almost always be chosen over him, as we saw against Manchester City, and Hector Bellerin has just recorded his 4th assist in 7 games from the right side. AMN is a great player, but one to keep an eye on when it comes to his future fit.
Alright, that was a long one. Thanks for reading. We will talk about other performances and news as we get ready for the weekend, a return to the Premier League, and a matchup with Leicester City!
At the very least, enjoy the win and 3 points in European competitions that were very nearly weren’t a part of this year. Bye now!