Gunner Thoughts

ARS – AVL Standouts, Worries, Over Criticized: Standouts and Over Critcized

Arsenal dominate the game but squeak by on the scoreboard. Looking at the standout performers in Arsenal’s 2-1 win over Aston Villa.

It was the first quick turnaround of the season for Arsenal and much of the conversation leading up to the match was centered around the early injury crisis created by Thomas Partey and Mohamed Elneny going down in rapid succession. Partey seems set to miss a few weeks and upward of five matches, while Arteta reports that Elneny’s injury is not looking good. With this in mind, many were wondering what to do about that defensive midfield role.

As I and many others said, it was Albert Sambi Lokonga who got the call. There was, and likely will be, consideration of Zinchenko in the future, but he too missed his second straight game with a slight knee sprain. He seems hopeful to return this weekend against Manchester United.

Arsenal dominated possession at home again. They had 68% of the ball in the first half and 60% possession across the full match. They also managed 15 shots and 7 on target in the first half, going onto accrue their second straight 22-shot match (9 on target).

You would hope that these statistics would result in an easy affair, but Arsenal only managed the one early goal from Jesus and it all got a little nervy after Douglas Luis bent in a goal straight from a corner kick. I’m not sure how there was no foul on Ramsdale as he was being pinned to his line and obstructed, but the precedent had seemingly been set much earlier in the game when Tyrone Mings wrapped his grubby paws around Saka’s chest from behind, physically picked him up, and tossed him. The ref called nothing, VAR didn’t overrule, and the Premier League maintains it’s ridiculous image of bad reffing meets “the most physical league”. Thankfully, Arsenal responded quickly to conceding a goal for the fourth time this year when Martinelli got on the end of a Saka cross and put it away.

Arsenal win 2-1. They absolutely deserved it. They go five-for-five. And they sit atop the table with all fifteen points to their name. Before we move onto Deadline Day and Manchester United this weekend, let’s look at a few of Arsenal’s standouts.


Gabriel Martinelli

Martinelli was my Man of the Match, although someone later in this article has a good case for it as well. What tips it in Martinelli’s favor is the influence on both sides of the ball then capped off with the game winner. Martinelli has started the season off the a bang scoring three goals early. He was a little quiet the last two matches, but yesterday he made a splash and got himself back on the score sheet as a goal scorer.

Offensively he did a lot of everything, but his production on both sides of the ball was admirable:

  • 1 Goal
  • 2 Created Chances
  • 5 shots
  • 3/4 successful dribbles
  • 6/11 ground duels
  • 2 Recoveries
  • 1/1 Tackles Won

Arsenal’s offensive production continues to be spread amongst each and every person within the front four, and it was fantastic to see Martinelli back in the spotlight and performing near his best. He delivered the ball for the game winner against Fulham, but it wasn’t his most comprehensive performance. Against Villa he put it all together and delivered the goal and win.

Granit Xhaka

Xhaka wasn’t my Man of the Match but if you want to build a case for the guy, you certainly could. With all the attention in the lead up to the match falling on who would replace Partey and Elneny, it may have been slightly overlooked how crucial Granit Xhaka would become. After all, it was clear Arsenal would shift towards their 4-2-3-1, double-pivot shape which meant Xhaka would be responsible for a different role. Against Villa, it seemed obvious that he was asked to stay connected to Lokonga to assist him whenever possible, but that didn’t take away from the importance put on his other responsibilities, seemingly it was just piled on top.

Xhaka stepped up, expanded what he does for us, and lived that box-to-box role. He was GREAT once again. He was on the ball progressing play, he was helping Sambi, and he was in the box causing problems. Truly all action!

Granit Xhaka heat map: Arsenal v. Aston Villa. Source: SofaScore

His heat map tells a good amount of that story visually. Immediately our eyes are drawn toward the red spot that denotes a deeper, central presence. This is an area of the pitch that we saw Xhaka take up a lot in recent years, but is considerably deeper than the spaces he has operated within this season. However, last season, rarely did we see Xhaka’s heat maps show that amount of yellow that far up the pitch, in and around the scoring area. It’s the best part about this game from him and one that was touched on above — “all action”. He is deep with Sambi, wide left to help Arsenal progress, he’s pushed forward to help sustain pressure, and he still manages to find opportunities to get into the box. Another great performance. I truly believe this may be the best Arsenal have seen Xhaka play in his time at the club.

Gabriel Jesus

Just a quick shout out for Gabriel Jesus who has started off on the right foot in the hunt to lock Arsenal’s Player of the Season before Christmas. He gets the early goal today bringing his tally to 3 goals, 3 assists, that’s 6 goal contributions in 5 matches. It’s just outstanding work up front, but you don’t need me to tell you that. What I want to talk about quickly is the the skill we saw once more of Jesus’ ability to use this body and physically move opposition center backs, especially when on the receiving end of a “route one” long ball. We saw this earlier this year when he man handles and turned the center back while receiving the ball only to have it taken off his foot when about to complete his hat trick. We saw it a second time against Bournemouth when he’s bodied the defender while simultaneously settling the pass and running at the defense to create one Arsenal goal. Yesterday, we saw it a third time, on a long ball when he times a perfect bump through Mings, completely takes the defender out of the play legally, and is away to create a dangerous opportunity.

I knew Jesus had an abundance of skills in his locker, but I cannot say I knew he was this physical in his play. It’s absolutely outstanding to see and so fun to watch. He could be a standout in almost every match, but this skill of his felt like it deserved extra praise.

Over Criticized

Every game I talk about standouts, I write about some worries from the match, and sometimes there is a player that deserves extra praise or something that stood out to me that I want to comment on. Yesterday, there was a lot of frustrated fans and fan reactions or opinions toward Bukayo Saka, saying he was horrible or worst on the pitch, and some other criticism that felt simply too far for the play he produced. Everyone wants to see Bukayo Saka produce goals and assists. Everyone knows what he is capable of — after all, he wasn’t the team leader in goal contributions last year by accident. With that production has come a rise in expectations. I think that’s fair, and I myself have commented on his play needing to rise with those expectations, especially if Arsenal are going to achieve what they are setting out to achieve this season.

Yesterday, I think it’s fair to say the right side did not click as well as the left side, nor as well as it has clicked in the previous two matches. It was a slight step back, but I thought Saka contributed really well for a good chunk of the game. There was certainly some points of frustration, only exacerbated by Arsenal’s inability to score a second goal and finish off the Villains. But looking at Saka’s stats and combining it with the eye test, or a rewatch of the match, should form a good picture. Saka contributed:

  • 26/28 passes
  • 3 created chances (tied for most in the game)
  • 3 shots
  • 5/5 successful dribbles
  • 3 recoveries
  • 7/10 duels

Oh, and he assisted Martinelli for the game winner. Not only did he get the assist, but I believe it was an assist that he has properly earned. He was carrying the ball and moving it around, working shots, taking his chances, and contributing on the defensive end as well. To suggest he was bad simply feels too far.

The right side was off the pace a little, it wasn’t clicking as seamless as we would like, and there is certainly room for improvement. It feels fair to suggest that Saka would benefit from rest and rotation, I would agree with that sentiment, but I can’t get myself to align with the notion that he was poor last night, beyond saying that the right side didn’t quite click and that his game was maybe not as proficient as his right-sided, attacking counterpart Martin Ødegaard. But overall, the criticisms of his play seemed out of proportion for what he helped the team achieve — a dominant game and a good win, even if the scoreline was too close for comfort.

Also a part of this series ARS – AVL Standouts, Worries, Over Criticized: Worries

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