With last years’ youngest team in the Premier League falling just short of their top-four mission, and falling apart in the fashion they did — sorry for the reminder — every fan waited on pins and needles to see how they responded. From a club perspective, the window has been filled with, what I will call, “appropriate responses”, although everyone is aware that the window feels incomplete with holes in the depth to be filled this week. Tick tock.
But as a team, the early season has come at this young crew with questions to be answered, and answers have been served. And while there is credence to those that all too willingly point out the ease of Arsenal’s start to the season — and deny as some might, it probably has been the easiest in the league on paper — that doesn’t mean that there haven’t been questions that have demanded answers.
As the world has seen, winning points in the Premier League is a difficult task, even for the top teams that suffered no more than a few defeats last season. Liverpool had to wait until game week four to get their first three points this year, while Manchester City have had to mount two major comebacks in a row to stop themselves from losing against Newcastle and Crystal Palace. Furthermore, Manchester United have struggled, Leicester City sit in last place, Wolverhampton has yet to win a game, West Ham are in sixteenth place having lost three games already, and only Arsenal have yet to drop points.
This last weekend, while not the toughest test the team will face across their nine month campaign — a fact that they do no play a part in deciding given they have no control over fixture lists — certainly presented a few questions that many fans will have wanted answered in these early stages. Here are just a few that caught my attention.
Can they overcome a low block?
If there is one type of system that a possession-based team, and one of relatively high skill, will face the most, it is the low block. The fact that the Premier League is rising in talent up and down the table suggests that more teams are becoming capable of playing Arsenal without such a reliance on “anti-football” tactics — as some may put it — is true, but doesn’t change the fact that Arsenal will face their fair share of low block systems.
During Arteta’s time with the team, we have seen Arsenal get better at this, but it has remained a point of frustration in previous seasons. Sure, Arsenal have been able to dominate the ball, move it side to side, create a few half chances, but there have been plenty of occasions they have walked off the field stumped — and a few they have walked off defeated.
This last weekend? Arsenal walked off 2-1 victors with 22 shots, 72% of the ball, 8 different players contributing shots (6 of them putting shots on target), and 10 of them tallying Shot Creating Actions. Only Tomiaysu, Rob Holding, Aaron Ramsdale, and Mohamed Elneny did not — three of those players a goalkeeper or subs in the closing minutes. It wasn’t a flawless performance, there is more progression to be had, but that fills me with excitement at this stage more than fear.
Can Saliba (and Gabriel) handle a physical forward with aerial presence?
Ah, the ol’ proverbial “physical Premier League”, historic tangible intangible. The one that forces fans to argue amongst each other which player can and cannot handle the Premier League and its grueling play for thirty-eight matches. I think, sometimes, it’s over embellished. Not that the league isn’t physically demanding, but the idea that top players wont transition might be a little overdone.
Having said that, it’s fair to wonder if your 21-year-old, new center back can handle the fight. This weekend, he and Gabriel went up against Mitrovic, arguably the most physically demanding challenge of the year. Overall, I would say they passed in good form. Mitrovic still won a lot of duels, but they dealt with him and Fulham comfortably which is a fantastic sign for this budding duo.
Can Arsenal recover from an error and come back from behind?
Granted this question was also asked and answered against Leicester City, Fulham demanded a very different type of response from Leicester simply pulling a goal back. Fulham took the lead, in the second the half, and Arsenal were forced to overcome as a good team should — not something this team has done a lot of. In fact, Arsenal wrote that this is the first time since 2013 that the side has conceded the first goal in the second half, trailed, and come back to win.
Last year, Arsenal only managed to win one game against a team they trailed to. One. Seeing them rise up this early in the season and persist until they got the goals they needed is an incredibly promising sign. After all, as I wrote in yesterday’s blog, great teams overcome.
Can they handle rotation and injuries better?
Last year, Arsenal’s dreams crumbled at the finish line. To make matters worse, they crumbled against teams this young side should beat, even with the pressure to perform. A huge factor in this? Injuries.
Key injuries to Thomas Partey, Tomiaysu, and Kieran Tierney derailed Arsenal’s season late and left everyone demanding the depth improve over the summer. This weekend was the first glimpse as how the team handled injuries to key players and, fittingly, they were injuries to Thomas Partey and the starting left back — now Zinchenko.
The play was of higher quality than last year’s finish, but probably not as good as it has been the last two matches. A little less daring, a little slower, and at certain junctures felt more rigid. Facts that could be expected when you remove two key ball progressors and technical engines. In the same breath, it should be mentioned again, the side put together 22 shots and had 72% of the ball. I think the best part for me, besides the win, was that one of the roles saw Arsenal’s starter from last year be placed back into the starting lineup. To have someone of Kieran Tierney’s quality be your depth, is undoubtedly a step in the right direction when it comes to handling rotation and injuries.
Is the 3-back system a viable option?
Coming into the season, the debate surrounding Saliba, Gabriel, and White raged. How would Arsenal use them, who would take a seat on the bench, and, in unjustified cases, why would the club have spent £50m on White when he stinks? Massive eye roll.
The question that I, and many, were asking as these questions were debated was ‘is the 3-back system a viable option’? It’s probably not a formation many want to see regularly, Arteta included, but in a pinch, as a change of pace, or when the opposition calls for it, can Arsenal look toward a back three of White, Saliba, Gabriel?
This weekend, backs against the wall and in need of an injection of change, Arteta brought on Eddie Nketiah to play alongside Gabriel Jesus, took off Kieran Tierney, and switched Arsenal to a 3-5-2 shape. Maybe a 3-4-1-2, if you want to get fancy and call out Ødegaard’s placement. The whole change went off with a bang. Arsenal looked dangerous, the extra body in the attacking area was more than Fulham could sort out amongst themselves, and Arsenal quickly leveled the game.
After the goal, Arteta changed formation again to put Saka at left back and play the usual 4-3-3 shape. When that wasn’t quite cutting it, Arsenal once again pushed onward, back in their 3-5-1 shape and carved out a game winner for themselves. It’s a formation we saw used in preseason, but that’s hardly the same. And it was played by many rotation players in a competition that had nothing at stake. After seeing it this weekend, it’s a system I, personally, would love to see make a few appearances this season. Even if the intent were to be more defensive, Arsenal brought on Tomiyasu and Rob Holding to lock things down. All in all, question asked and emphatically answered.
The league will continue to ask questions of this Arsenal side. I mean, that’s what it does. It’s the Premier League. I don’t know if you’ve heard but it’s incredibly demanding (and physical), but it’s through these questions that we will continue to learn more about this Arsenal team. And they will continue to grow and learn more about themselves. As much as people may be sick of hearing it, this is still the youngest team in the league. BUT after watching them asked these questions and serving up the responses they have, things feel a whole lot better moving forward.
Aston Villa tomorrow, at home, our first time to seeing this side handle a midweek contest. More questions to come. Enjoy the day!
I live for feedback, tell me how you felt about this article!