Crunch time for Arsenal and Arteta has arrived and the Gunners needed a full-blooded response. Coming into the match, you couldn’t help but feel the two losses to Wolverhampton and Aston Villa put Arsenal’s odd for top 4, or even top five, just fingertips out of reach. Even with 15 matches left to play and only 9 points difference, it becomes more about the six teams in between Arsenal and the top 4 that stand in the way.
That doesn’t mean that Arsenal have nothing to play for. As I wrote the prematch blog, Arsenal have another season-ending run like last year to build, and they have a certain amount of responsibility to uphold the reputation of the club when it comes to their table finish — even if that doesn’t mean achieving their goal of top 5.
It’s down to the squad and Arteta to find creative ways to put out a starting eleven in the league that can get them results, while saving legs for the Europa League push and building confidence in their ability to have a go at salvaging their season.
Yesterday’s win against Leeds was an emphatic performance involving four goals, three from Aubameyang, but could have been more. It had new tactics and team setup, two ugly concessions, some substitutions to talk about and scrutinize, and far too nervy an ending for what should have been a casual finish.
It was a lot, and a lot to talk about, so I am going to break this blog up a little bit differently. Let me know if you enjoy it this way!
Obviously, looking back at the lineup with the knowledge of how the game went is a little different than when it’s initially released an hour before kickoff. I imagine there were a fair amount of people who tweeted or responded to the lineup with anger, confusion, or responses like “there are no goals in this team” who are now left wondering how wrong they were or are going back through and deleting their tweets while holding their hands up.
That said, it seemed like the reaction to the lineup split people into two groups: those that believed the Europa League was a long shot and the Premier League top 4 was within reach, and those that believed the exact opposite. You can probably tell from my introduction, that I stand on the side that believes achieving our overarching goal of qualifying for Europe through the league is much more difficult than the idea of making a late season run and navigating through the Europa League.
People with my viewpoint saw the lineup and understood the rotation, understood the resting of Pepe and Lacazette, and were willing to take the gamble on today, with eyes on Thursday as the priority. Those that stood on the other side of the fight were outraged at the caution believing this spelled disaster.
In the end, every party walks away happy with the result, but it’s interesting to see how the Arsenal fanbase splits when it comes to prioritizing competitions and belief in which of the competitions have better odds, when neither are that great.
The first half was pretty picture perfect from an Arsenal perspective. Even beyond the fact that it ended 3-0, which is probably enough to call any half ‘picture perfect’, it was a scoreline that Arsenal deserved thoroughly.
Arsenal were prolific in front of net registering 3 goals of 8 shots, 3 on target, but it was the manner in which the Gunners imposed themselves on the game and dictated the play that stole the show.
Arsenal had answers for Leeds’ press — something that stymied them the first time around — and produced a press of their own. Both of these were made possibly by a youthful, rampant midfield and pair of wingers.
The creativity flowed through the side with Emile Smith Rowe on the left wing, Saka on the right wing and Ødegaard sitting behind them. Behind Ødegaard a solid Xhaka was partnered by a Dani Ceballos that looked a lot more like the Ceballos people hoped Arsenal would be getting this season, not the one they have gotten in most appearances.
Assists from Ceballos, Xhaka, and Smith Rowe, the five midfielders behind Aubameyang produced 8 chances on the day. This was more than enough for a Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang that has been starved for supply lines. With this rampant, swarm behind him and a steady rotation of players capable of shifting and flowing with the game, Aubameyang could stay high and play off the shoulders of Leeds’ defenders — exactly where Arteta will want his goal scorer to be.
Off the ball, it was that same front four asking questions of Leeds, helped by a backline capable of playing high and compressing the game to keep things on top of Leeds’ half of the field. Bellerin and Soares were noticeably pushed on top of their marks and sticking close to them, while Luiz and Gabriel did a great job of cleaning up anything that leaked through. In front of them, a steady Xhaka and a scrappy Ceballos supported a swarming front four.
Arsenal’s pressing numbers have left a lot to desire this season, but with Leeds keeper Meslier predetermined as a weak link within the Leeds side, Arsenal locked Leeds down and demanded that Meslier be involved. Meslier could have arguable done better with Arsenal’s first and third goals, while it was him that gave away the penalty. The fact that Meslier was forced to play 48 passes in this game and have 57 touches, tells you how involved he was and suggest Leeds were forced to retreat far too often. Something that Arsenal will have looked to force in when rehearsing this match over the last week.
As soon as there was a turnover or Arsenal won the ball they were looking to beat the initial pressure, assess the press, and drive the ball forward. Luiz and Bellerin did a really good job managing to pick and choose their moments to do it with the ball at their feet, although at times their passing let them down. In the front half of the pitch, it was a glimpse at the fluid football Arteta could possibly bring to Arsenal when he gets all his personnel in.
Arsenal’s third goal is a snapshot of exactly that. Bukayo Saka, an absolute menace for Leeds’ defense with and without the ball for 90 minutes toyed with defenders; the composure from Arsenal to switch the ball from inside the box; Bellerin to cushion a header and Smith Rowe to hold defenders off. All capped off by a sumptuous little slip ball from Ceballos into Bellerin who smashes it in at the near post. Everyone was moving, trying to draw defenders or get their own space, no one ball watching or caught flat-footed. All things you could say about the entire half of play.
3-0 at half time and the fact that Arsenal had a penalty snaked away from them somehow felt like water off a ducks back. Outstanding.
The second half left me with conflicted feelings. Arsenal came out of the gates with an intent to put the match away early and achieved just that. Aubameyang got his third goal, Arsenal went up 4-0, but there were still nervy moments… right?
Up 4-0, even conceding the two goals Arsenal did, shouldn’t make a team overly nervous. Arsenal let off the gas, there was a clear sense of ‘job done, time to relax‘, which isn’t something a team can do, but Arsenal had done the job. The fact that we were nervous about them potentially conceding 4 goals in a half, however, tells you a lot about the lack of faith this Arsenal side has earned themselves. That they would be capable of such a self-destruct seems impossible, and yet when Leeds scored in the 58th minute, followed by a second in the 69th minute, you couldn’t help but groan a little and wonder what fresh hell this Gunners side had in store.
I thought both goals Arsenal conceded were really poor on their part. The first goal comes from a corner. Saka loses his mark far too easy in the box and Luiz is left to deal with an attacker that has the moment in his favor. That’s how goals get scored on corners, so maybe that’s just the way the game works, but for a side that has been so good defending set pieces this year, showing remarkable improvement, it’s a shame.
The second one is much, much worse. Hector Bellerin completely turns off on the play. His mark drifts wide to the touchline and Bellerin follows him far too tight. He’s disconnected from his backline and it leaves an avenue to play a ball in behind, wide enough to march a parade through. If you’re gonna do that, you have to be ready to stick with you mark, but Hector is caught ball watching, completely flat footed and his mark gets in behind. From there it’s a simple cutback and goal.
Perhaps it’s the fact that both of these goals felt far too easy and the second one came off the back of a questionable substitution — something we will get to in the takeaways — that the whole situation felt far to nerve-inducing. In hindsight, Arsenal scored four, hit the woodwork twice, should have had another penalty, and if you offered me a world in which Arsenal left off the gas when they get themselves up by four goals every game, I would be an incredibly happy Gooner.
A creative front four and a pure goalscorer works out pretty well
Whether it was because Arteta was looking to rotate players out, because he felt like Ødegaard offered him an extra creative force he didn’t used to have, or the combination of both, Arteta took just about every ounce of creativity his side has to offer and shoved it into a 4-2-3-1 formation. The result? One of Arsenal’s best performances of the year.
Upon reflection, this makes some sense. In many ways, Pep’s philosophy and parts of Wenger’s philosophy revolved around the idea of getting as many creative, ball-playing players on the pitch and giving them a structure and tactical plan that allowed them to freely do what they do best. This concept has not always been available to Arteta with the Arsenal squad he has at his disposal.
Between a weak defense that had more holes to plug than a sinking three masted schooner, not enough creative quality in the right areas of the pitch, and a formation and attacking plan still coming together after needing to urgently address the defensive issues, what we saw yesterday was hardly an option.
Now we see a culmination of the work to shore up the back, the benefits of Smith Rowe and Saka’s immense growth, and what this Arsenal side could look like when they do in fact add another creative force to their hurting midfield. All of this without the rock solid play of Thomas Partey.
That front four exchanged places, supported Aubameyang and peppered him with service, they pressed and pushed the tempo, and they drove at the backline. They looked to do things differently and their freedom to break from the mold was a breath of fresh air. Pepe and Lacazette have been great lately, but there was something about the way yesterday’s front four was capable of interacting with one another that was scintillating.
With Smith Rowe on the left wing, Ødegaard in the 10, Saka on the right wing, and Aubameyang leading the line, all four were capable of playing multiple spots across the front. Ødegaard was seen dropping deep or shifting wide right. Smith Rowe would vacate the left wing and come central. Aubameyang could shift left and find that space between the center back and right back, and Saka, well, Saka can play just about everywhere to great effect.
It’s still to be determined if this hypothesis will prove to be true consistently, but the equation more creative players + prolific goalscorer + ability for all involved to play everywhere = more goals is one that everyone should be excited to test out.
Arteta getting all of the initial tactics so spot on makes it more disappointing that we once again are talking about his usage of substitutions. Obviously, it’s quite a bit more forgivable given the end result, and because he created a wonderful set of tactics to beat Leeds, but in a season where Arsenal fans should be looking for progress and learning, this needs to be talked about.
Arsenal’s bench consisted of: Willian, Elneny, Holding, Ryan, Chambers, Mari, Lacazette, Martinelli, and Pepe.
Up 4-0, I think it’s completely understandable that we didn’t see the likes of Pepe or Lacazette. Both of them will be in the running for a starting spot on Thursday against Benfica, and both have played their fair share of minutes. What is surprising, is that Arteta didn’t look to use a single one of his three substitutions on youth or players returning from injury.
Personally, I though this would be a perfect game to see Chambers, Mari, and/or Martinelli. Instead, Arteta began with Willian, Arsenal conceded their second goal to make it 4-2, and suddenly Arteta feels the need to protect the three points by bringing on Elneny and Holding.
Look, Elneny and Holding are quality players. Elneny’s engine was great in those closing minutes as he pressured and hassled a tiring Leeds teams, but it’s probably overkill. Not only is it probably overkill, the decision to bring on Willian first — or at all in many people’s minds — is all the evidence you need to see Arteta continuously returning to the exact same player that has failed him time after time after time.
A week ago, I wrote that Arteta has to mind the company he keeps down the final stretch unless those players become the rocks used to stone him at the end of this campaign — and Willian is the largest most damaging of those rocks. The signing of Willian already is one that will be used against Arteta and Edu over the next three years, that’s a given, but Arteta can soften the blow by turning to other players that have shown an actual ability to contribute with their time. Instead, Arteta is choosing to try and soften the blow by having Willian turn out to be something he has shown he isn’t, which is simply doubling down on the damage done.
Everyone is looking for signs of improvement. Looking for signs that suggest Arteta is learning and gaining experience over the course of the season. Searching for signs that he is a manager that can lead this club back to the heights it once deemed as standards. Instead, on a day where we saw how good Arteta can be at identifying and communicating a brilliant tactical plan, we are left concerned about the same issue that has plagued Mikel since early days. A beginner’s mistake. And while Mikel is still in his first season, he must demonstrate he is not a beginner anymore.
Take the goods with the bads and figure out how to build a late season run
There were good aspects to yesterday’s match and there were worrisome signs. There was brilliant attacking play and a few goals conceded far too easily. Improvement in the pressing game, new options and weapons for Arteta to dial up in his arsenal, but a few of the same suspects producing the same mistakes.
Goods, bads, goods, bads.
Last season, Arsenal went on a late run. The damage was done early in their season and when Mikel came in to right the ship, the team went on a late-season tear to end on a high and salvage the season to some degree. It didn’t come in the Europa League where Arsenal were knocked out early, but it suggested that this squad is capable of recognizing when their back is against the wall and doing something about it. Well, they will have to do it once again. Better late than never.
The FA Cup isn’t an option which means Arsenal will need to climb the table or make a run for the Europa League trophy. In either situation, it’s going to require everyone find a way to click themselves into form.
So Arsenal must take the goods with the bads and progress. Ceballos was good. The entire front four was dangerous. Bellerin and Luiz had some lovely carries with the ball to break the press and get into dangerous areas, but they also had problems on both of Leeds’ goals. How do you build on this? How do you involve Nicolas Pepe or Lacazette? How do you bring Partey back in when the time comes? Who takes over at right back when Tierney is fit?
Some questions are easier than others, without a doubt, but with Benfica up next, Arsenal have to find a way to get it right once more. In Arsenal’s 2018-19 Europa League campaign, they struggled early in the knockout stages to get themselves off to good starts in the first leg. They made up for it, they stayed afloat, but this side doesn’t strike me as one that is quite as resilient. How do they take the goods and the bads from this and make that first leg count?