Another Europa League match, another comprehensive victory. 71% of the possession, 22 shots, 11 on goal, 19 chances created, 8 big chances, and 4 goals. It’s a commanding win, and yet, without putting a damper on the party, there is always going to be some level of reality check at the end. It was in fact Rapid Vienna facing Arsenal on the other end of the pitch at kickoff.
This year, Arsenal have only followed up a Europa League performance with a result once — win over Manchester United following Dundalk. Otherwise, it’s been a poor performance against Leicester following Rapid Vienna; a diabolical showing after the first match against Molde that saw Arsenal lose 3-0 to Aston Villa; and last weekend’s Wolves loss 2-1 following the second Molde match.
It encapsulates Arsenal’s struggles to find consistency and a working formula that translates to League success. With the North London Derby this weekend, now would be a very good time to break the rut, upturn the trend, and put themselves back on track in the Premier League.
If you’re an Arsenal fan, you are probably sick of hearing the fact that Arsenal are in 14th place. That Arsenal are a bottom of table team. That Arteta is only going to amount to a relegation scrapper. Let them talk. The fact that Arsenal are in 14th is true, yet they sit 6 points off third place. The table at this moment is congested and picking up minimal points has the ability to to catapult a team into a more comfortable spot.
It’s almost a guarantee that Arsenal are going to have a tumultuous season of ebb and flows and inconsistencies as they discover exactly where they lie amongst Premier League clubs. Their stats, almost up and down the board, suggest they are a middle of the table squad. Their player’s pay and names, and the club’s stature suggest they should be quite a bit better.
Arsenal won’t be the only side feeling the side effects of a more competitive Premier League at the moment. Both Manchester clubs sit middle of the table as well, but certainly the trio are the odd ones looking in, as their rivals sit atop the pile.
So how much will carry through from yesterday’s win? What applies? What are the takeaways? Great questions, in my opinion, and ones I think many Arsenal fans will be asking themselves today.
Let’s look at two of mine!
Arteta can coach attacking football, if he has the quality to carry it out
In recent weeks, Arteta has been under a lot of scrutiny and pressure from fans seeing Arsenel drop matches, results, and stinker performances. The attacking has looked stale, predictable, and non-existent at moments. With each 90 minutes that passes without the Arsenal attack making an appearance in the Premier League, the heat under Arteta’s feet raises a few degrees.
Personally, I find it premature and an example of modern football fans’ tunnel vision, but the frustration is warranted. Arsenal are in the midst of multiple major projects — not just a complete team overhaul — and it makes reactionary judgements like “Arteta Out” foolhardy, but fans often only look as far as the next month of matches, and it’s them who have their weekend moods ruined by poor results with no control over influencing them. That’s a tough spot to be.
One of the most common concerns is whether Arsenal have found a coach that wants to instill an attacking identity, or even can. The stats this year are enough to suggest it’s going to be a struggle, but last night told quite a different story.
Last night showed that Arteta is more than capable of instilling and coaching a team to play fluid attacking football, if he has adequate (or superior) quality in his team to execute on the pitch. We saw the attacking movements being produced, the intricate play and ideas, the identity, and the end product of a successful attack — something we just haven’t seen from Arsenal in the Premier League.
The concern? When it comes to the Premier League Arsenal are up against sides that have better midfielders, better structure, are well-drilled, and capable of punishing Arsenal for any little mistake or slow play. That knowledge has led to some degree of hesitancy from Arteta and him “leaving the handbrake on”, as many Arsenal fans have pointed out. However, it’s not just a matter of taking the handbrake off. A full release of the handbrake would likely see Arsenal ripped apart on the counter or dealing with many numbers-down situations. It seems it’s a matter of discovering internal solutions, raising the level of play, creating a structure with some fail-safes in place, and one that continues to get the right player profiles into positions on the pitch to succeed.
Arteta has made pleas for patience and understanding, and last night shed some light on why. When Arsenal have the quality, they need in the team to dismantle opposition, they can. But do they have that quality? Arguably not. That doesn’t relieve Arteta from culpability — he should be getting more from this side — but I think Arsenal fans should have gained some degree of confidence in their manager’s ability to breathe a bit of attacking identity into the team watching yesterday’s match.
Two outstanding performers, does it translate?
Yesterday’s match had its fair share of good performances as you might assume from a match that ends 4-1. It was great to see Pablo Mari back and contributing, Reiss Nelson was sharp yet again, and Pepe is responding excellently to his red card adversity — to the point that you wish he was available for selection this weekend. However, there will be two players on the tip of everyone’s tongue after last night — Alexandre Lacazette and Ainsley Maitland-Niles.
Both of these players were excellent, and both of them played in positions that could be considered unusual for their senior careers. Lacazette played as a number 10, attacking midfielder with Eddie Nketiah staying high, while Maitland-Niles made his way into the midfield three. What this created for Arsenal was almost a 4-3-3 formation, 4-2-3-1 at times, and a midfield box at other times (images below).
Lacazette offered impressive linkup play from a deeper position, he offered a midfielder that is more than willing to take shots, — 3 in the match including that strike for a wonder goal — and an attacking body. He had a few wonderful balls including a splendid through ball that split the lines, however on the stats sheet he has registered zero chances created. It moves Arsenal back into the territory they had with Mesut Ozil, minus the shots.
That’s not to suggest Lacazette nears the talent and skill that Ozil offers —please, set down your pitchforks — but we are talking about a player coming very deep to get on the ball, link up the play from central areas, and ideally distribute it through the backline into wide player’s feet or the central striker. The fact that he statistically created 0 chances, yet scored and had a few nice balls that led to chances reminds me of the shift in Ozil’s play that forced him to get on the ball much deeper. This obviously opens a can of questions for a different day.
When it comes to Maitland-Niles, we essentially saw a player inject pure athleticism into a generally slow-moving midfield. In his own words, after the game, he put “more legs into the midfield” and it’s an aspect that has seemingly been missing from Arsenal’s side this year. Looking back at last season’s late success, it was Ceballos who suddenly was all over the center of the park, making recoveries, causing problems, and driving things forward. This year, that hasn’t happened.
Niles is an above average dribbler, he can carry the ball through the midfield, we know he can make a tackle and defend, but it’s fair to have question marks around his end product or technical quality. He produced a lovely assist for Emile Smith Rowe, but he also had a few wayward moments in the final third that lacked technical quality and consistency. With that said, he absolutely offers legs and mobility. Next to a much more technically secure player like Partey, maybe that’s good enough.
Maitland-Niles had 2 shots from the midfield, created 3 chances, had his assist, but also had 2 big chances missed. When you look at an Arsenal team that preaches the need for efficiency, that last stat misses the mark a little bit. So, what to make of it?
If I had the exact answer, well, I would be standing alongside Mikel on the touchline every week, however, I can offer this thought. Last night, the amount of pressure Lacazette and Niles received when they were on the ball was minimal. The oppositions quality in the midfield was certainly poor in comparison to what they will face from 80% of the Premier League, if not more. Lacazette was given the ability to turn without hassle and run at the opposition, a luxury that not many 10’s are given in top-flight football.
So, the question has to be, could they do it on a cold rainy night in Stoke? I jest, but actually, that is essentially the question. They can do it against Rapid Vienna, but does it work when the opposition’s midfield has higher quality, better technical skills, players tighter to them when they get the ball, forcing quick decisions with tighter margins for error?
Personally, I’m not convinced they can, BUT that doesn’t mean you stop the project, stop the progress, or trash the movement. It doesn’t even mean you don’t try it at opportune moments in the Premier League. A matchup with Burnley looms large, maybe it’s a better first step.
Since the major solution to Arsenal’s problems is “buy better players”, which isn’t an option at the moment, Arteta needs to find internal solutions. This set up could be one of those internal solutions. Will it be an issue after January? Depends on what Arsenal can do, but in the meantime, this has to be a potential problem solver that Arteta explores fully. While we as fans may not be privy to seeing that exploration, as I imagine much of it will take place in training, up against our own Arsenal side, I imagine last night’s performance gave Arteta plenty to think about.
Arsenal rolled to another big win in the Europa League. It was a boost in confidence, it showed a team that is capable of attacking play, and it offered some time to younger players. Not enough time for my liking, but that’s how it goes sometimes. Arsenal have 15 points in 5 matches and continued their perfect group stage record. Is this what it’s like to play in leagues where only a few teams compete with you for the title?
A major game is taking place at the weekend and you can count on a heavily changed side. It likely won’t even be the same formation, but we will see. Thomas Partey is supposedly back training with the team, but it’s yet to be seen whether he is a realistic option for the weekend. We know Jose will have plenty in store for us to deal with, and his side is in much better Premier League form, but when the whistle blows, form can go out the window. Fans will be in the stadium, pride will be on the line, and an away result with a quality performance would raise everyone’s spirits.