Arsenal continued their new campaign’s winning form with a convincing 4-2 home opener win against Leicester City. Even that scoreline could have been different as many fans will have walked away feeling as though the Gunners left a few real good goalscoring opportunities on the board while gifting Leicester at least one, if not both of their goals.
Its Arsenal’s seventh straight win if you count their preseason, and don’t count the heavily rotated, “B-squad” match played behind closed doors in which they lost — which you hard can for either account. But more importantly that marks seven fantastic opportunities for fans to see how this team is coming together, and really witness the next successful stages of this plan coming together.
One of the most promising aspects of this early success is the fact that there has been an array of standout performances from different players, Saturday being no different. Let’s take a look at some standouts, identify a few worries, and discuss what they could mean moving forward.
Gabriel Jesus – 2 goals, 2 assists, could have had more!
It would be impossible to start this article without commenting on the fantastic performance of Arsenal’s new number nine, Gabriel Jesus. While no one will be surprised that his presence marks a serious step up in that position matching the specificity Mikel Arteta has spoken about needing, some like myself may be surprised at the all around catalyst that presence has become.
Striker was the most needed position, but after a tough slog away against Palace, Jesus rolled into the Emirates and immediately escalated the level of fluidity in attack, the devastation our transition can create, and showed some absolute class in the finishing department — an area people worried about when he was initially linked.
His first goal was finished by a shot nothing short of ‘special’, but began with him getting on the ball out on the left touchline, beating Jonny Evans 1 v. 1, and combining in tight triangles with Martinelli and Xhaka. Then, his second goal comes from a devastating set piece delivery from Martinelli showcasing his ability to score as a poacher on the back post, his first assist showed a ‘fox in box’ element to his game to clean up a mishandled ball and touch it to Xhaka; while his second assist sees him pick up the ball in a little pocket of space, drive at the the defense to draw them in and lay it off to Martinelli for a spectacular finish.
Without casting too many stones at Lacazette or Aubameyang last year, you can’t help but compare and notice he is already creeping toward their goal tally. Four goal involvements, each showing an different aspect of the complete striker he can be — finisher, poacher, fox in the box, and great link up play — and THAT is a promising early sign.
At a time when every supporter is staring at Arsenal’s depth chart at the left center midfielder role and calling out for a more attacking presence that can do the job on defense, at times calling out for a Xhaka upgrade, Xhaka’s performance against Leicester City certainly makes the conversation more interesting.
On twitter, Xhaka was a player that not only earned a spot in section “standouts”, but also was nominated for “extra praise”. With a goal, an assist, and a real box presence in the attack including a shot off the post, fans got a glimpse on the day a new-ish side to Granit.
As the final whistle blew, I found myself thinking, ‘now that is a real #8 performance’. Two shots, two created chances, two goal involvements, a good amount of progressive passing distance with a high passing accuracy percentage, Xhaka was an offensive force. All of this is also backed up by his heat map on the day:
Certainly plenty of presence in the midfield area, deeper than a heat map would show Ødegaard of course, but those flashes around the penalty spot and six-yard box as well as the a concentration at the top of the box shows a real advancement in his attacking game.
Where this position lands at the end of the window is still anyone’s guess with continued, swirling rumors around Youri Tielemans and a real mystery surrounding Fabio Vieira’s position, but that is a good problem for Arsenal and Mikel Arteta to have.
When Martinelli first arrived at Arsenal he was an instant hit and a goal scoring machine. Between injury and Arteta’s demand that he improve his technical tidiness, he took a backseat until later last season. Now, the twenty-one year old Brazilian star is starting this campaign with a venomous purpose. He was outstanding in preseason, one a few bright spots in the attack in the win over Crystal Palace, and he’s continued this run of form with a menacing display against Leicester City.
If anyone had questions about how he would fare against the Foxes’ highly-rated Fofana, that question was answered early. Fearlessly running at Fofana, Martinelli was an absolute menace and thoroughly rewarded.
He ends this game with just a goal to his name, but he’s unlucky to not get the assist on the second goal, he’s involved in the first goal, and he flashed that excellent finishing ability from outside the box for the devastating fourth goal, less than a minute after Maddison scored at the other end, putting a comeback out of reach.
As far as weapons go, Martinelli is strapped with a Batman-esque utility belt. His set piece delivery is hit with incredible pace, whip, and accuracy; he’s beating defenders off the dribble (3/5 successful dribbles); and he’s creating a lot of dangerous moments in the attacking third (4 created chances, most in the game).
But what was the aspect of his match yesterday that impressed me most? His physicality. Whether he was challenging for ground duels or shrugging off defenders to retain the ball or beat the tackle, the combination of his speed, technical ability, and now growth in physical play could foreshadow an incredible attacking package. Wouldn’t it be just fantastic if found ways to reap the same benefits Aubameyang had from the left wing when he won his Golden Boots, with the added element of intense defensive work rate? His career growth could ‘bang’ to use a Mikel phrase.
Sometimes the shine of new players can prove to create a bit of blinding light in football, especially when Kieran Tierney has been a huge part in helping Arsenal play up to their potential, despite too many injury problems, but it’s hard to walk away from this weekend’s win without feeling like Zinchenko provides another major step toward positional ‘specificity’.
The Left Back role at Arsenal is a complicated one at the moment, and for a fan base that hasn’t had too many examples of ‘too much talent’ at one spot, wading through the Tierney v. Zinchenko conundrum might be confusing, or even frustrating depending on how you feel about the two. But it’s important to remember that this is a great problem to have from a club and fan perspective.
On Saturday, it was abundantly clear that Zinchenko made our left side tick when he said ‘tick’, and tock when he wanted it to ‘tock’. His ability to tuck into the center of the park seamlessly and provide technical abilities on par or beyond many midfielders in the Premier League is quite clearly what sets him apart. As Mikel looks to create that 2-3-5 attacking shape, Zinchenko is excelling as the left side of the ‘3’.
Paired alongside Partey, Zinchenko’s skills on the ball allow Granit Xhaka to push into the box, allow some incredibly fluid exchanges to happen between Xhaka, Martinelli, and Gabriel Jesus, and Zinchenko the opportunity to really pull the strings, despite being a left back. Additionally, his defensive nous — albeit maybe the weaker side of his strong game — allows him to help keep the ball in the opposition’s half as he reads the game and cleans up anything that goes beyond Arsenal’s frontline press to help recycle the ball and maintain possession.
Kieran Tierney came into the match as a sub, he played a hybrid of the Zinchenko role and his preferred overlapping style which offers Arsenal options in terms of changing the game or selecting based on opposition exploitation opportunities, but it feels clear that at the moment that the spot is Zinchenko’s to lose. He was outstanding and has really shown the Arsenal fan base what his quality on the ball can provide for this blossoming attack.
Also a part of this series: ARS-LEI Standouts and Worries: Worries
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