First we saw the defensive side rise to the occasion, keeping Palace at bay, and fans called for the attack to show everyone what they had done in the preseason when Premier League points were on the line. Then the attack ignited as it did in preseason to come to the aid of two soft goal concessions that made a match tighter than it ever should have been. On the third try, Arsenal put it all together and dominated on both sides of the ball, for a full match.
Yes, we could get nit-picky and call out the fact that the first half performance was better than the second half’s, again. And that is something Arsenal will have to address when it comes time to play the Citys and Liverpools of the league, but for this moment we can enjoy the fact that we may have caught a glimpse of just how good Arsenal can be.
Over the last twelve months, the “fast start” has become a dominant feature of this Arsenal team. An essence of the Mikel Arteta philosophy — or so it has seemed. Yet again, Arsenal came to play from the whistle and dominated the opening twenty minutes, a crucial step in beating “weaker” teams. Many teams that are worse than Arsenal will set out to weather the early storm, stay in the game in the opening stages, settle in, and then try and find ways to counteract, frustrate, and poke holes in the Gunner’s attacking plan. What’s the best way to stop that? Arsenal would say, ‘don’t give them the time to settle’.
In the first twenty-five minutes, Arsenal had 72% of the ball, six shots — as many as Bournemouth would have all game — and were ahead by two goals. They came out of the gates with a purpose, and didn’t take their foot off the gas until the halftime whistle blew. They ended the first forty-five minutes with 70% of the ball, eight shots, and had conceded zero. Not a sniff of opportunity. In fact, 78% of the game was played in the middle third or Bournemouth’s defensive third.
But, of course, there is not value in dominating if you aren’t going to stick the ball in the back of the net — a failure Arsenal felt the repercussions of far too often in recent seasons. So far this season, the Gunners have seemingly made it all click in the attack, averaging three goals a game. In my opinion, a lot of this can be attributed to adding Gabriel Jesus, an inspiring playmaker who brings a relentless mentality surrounding scoring goals and winning. He is a player that seizes opportunities by the scruff of the neck, regardless of how small, and seems to create a moment of magic or openings for teammates.
This time around it was Martin Ødegaard benefitting and getting himself on the scoresheet, twice, but this season’s attacking contributions are evenly distributed amongst Arsenal’s front five — and even boasts support from the back with Zinchenko and William Saliba contributing to the cause.
But what are a few things that happened to allow Arsenal to dominate like this?
I’ll have a go at point out a few that I believe are contributing.
- Start with Arsenal’s 2-3-5 attacking shape.
Football doesn’t change all that much and this shape isn’t revolutionary but with the physical, composed pairing of Saliba and Gabriel sitting as Arsenal’s foundation, Zinchenko and White step into the midfield with Thomas Partey and create a very athletic, mobile, defensive wall, all of whom possess excellent skills on the ball as well. On countless occasions this has helped our attack build and stay fluid, while keeping opposition teams pinned into their defensive third. It can’t be understated what this frustration and pressure must feel like for opponents unable to break out and relieve pressure. The easy resort? Long clearances cleaned up by Gabriel and Saliba and put right back into the attacking half thus maintaining the pressure further.
- Xhaka’s flexibility paired with Zinchenko’s technical ability, supporting Martinelli’s pace and skill.
Arteta has long stated that his system isn’t built on positions but on getting players into specific areas of the pitch at specific moments. Two players who have been key to getting our left side of the attack flying are Zinchenko and Xhaka. When Arsenal are trying to push the ball up the field, Zinchenko joins Thomas Partey to overload the middle and Xhaka moves wide left. This leaves opposition defenders stuck choosing which avenue to close down. If they close Zinchenko, Arsenal either play through Partey or skip Zinchenko and play through Xhaka who pushes us up the field. If defenders are kept honest and stay with Xhaka, Arsenal often outnumber the press in the middle and play through Partey or Zinchenko, two very talented, technical players. Finally, if defenses push up and try to shut down both Zinchenko and Xhaka, Arsenal have defenders and a goalkeeper capable of hitting the long range pass to Martinelli who finds plenty of space and seams with Xhaka and Znichenko occupied.
There is a chance I do a full piece on this aspect of Arsenal’s play, but Xhaka’s comfortability in three areas of the pitch — picking up the ball deep, picking up the ball on the wide left touchline, and a growing skill in and around the box — allows him to use his skills as a progressive passer to push the transition and attack in a variety of fashions. Combined with Zinchenko who has been phenomenal, and Martinelli who has sprung from the gates in a sprint of attacking prowess, Arsenal’s left side is humming. It was too much for Bournemouth who had few to no answers.
- Growth from a rigid to fluid style of play
Arteta has now worked with these young players, bringing in key players to further the growth, and with it has been a monumental shift from rigidity to fluidity. In his early days, Arteta was constantly berated for enforcing a rigid, inflexible structure and style of play, especially in the build up and attacking thirds. For ninety minutes a match he would stand on his touchline barking orders and berating players for putting a toe out of line. Many voiced concerns that this rigidity was causing more problems than it was fixing.
I firmly believe this season, especially matches like Bournemouth, we are seeing the results of this work. Arsenal have reached a point in which the structural basics and positional aspects of their play are firmly ingrained. Once that hurdle was overcame, it opened the door for improvisation, fluid movements, and intricate attacking patterns. Hand in hand with point number two, and the fail-safe structure in point number one, Arsenal are putting on comprehensive attacking displays. Now when they push forward, it’s not with one option at their disposal, but a plethora of tools, weapons, and patterns at their disposal to break down opponents.
These are three simple, large components I have identified here. And, frankly, you could go much deeper into each of those components if you wanted, but better left for another day.
Now, as Arsenal look to move forward, we must acknowledge that there will be far more difficult matches ahead. I don’t think it’s a stretch to suggest that Arsenal’s first six or seven matches are the easiest of any team’s start to the season, which provides a real opportunity to create a foundation of points. Last season, after losing the opening three matches, it constantly felt like we were battling to punch upward and make up lost ground on the teams we wanted to be competing with. This year, Arsenal have an opportunity to start the season ahead of the pack and brimming with confidence. If they can find a way to have ~20 points through their first eight games, heading into a TOUGH October, they will thank themselves.
It’s a long, long season, but with a start like this, confidence has to be sky high. And when you catch glimpses of just how good this team can be, you start to wonder where the ceiling is on this incredibly young team’s potential.
Or, in the words of Michael Scott, “you have no idea how high I [they] can fly’. Enjoy the week!