Are the Young Guns Bringing Back Big Match Confidence?

This weekend’s North London Derby produced another dazzling result for this young Arsenal side. But beyond the result, it was Arsenal’s seventh comprehensive performance of the season. Only their season opener versus Crystal Palace has felt like a let down in terms of performance and Arsenal got the win at Palace’s ground 2-0, but it was the only match in which the Gunners didn’t feel in control of the ball — a critical component if you want to call yourself a possession-based team.

If you haven’t read yet, feel free to check out my post-derby articles.

As a fan it has been a revelation to see this team take such a giant leap in how they dominate games with and without the ball. Not only are their possession stats incredibly impressive, their ability to pen teams into their area and sustain pressure has progressed leaps and bounds. Much of this growth has come with the team aging another year, additional time for Mikel to install his vision, talented additions to the squad, and the specificity in personnel that allows them to play their preferred 4-3-3 shape and progress into an attacking shape that caters to quick counter pressing.

At the moment, the whole side feels versatile in the way they attack, mature in how they manipulate and control space, and confident in their abilities and knowledge that they are better than their opposition. At the very least, confidence in the fact that they have the talent and skill to play their game without changing the plan entirely, simply to accommodate for the opposition. It’s a “play our game” mentality, not a “adjust to counter their game” view.

What’s been fantastic about this, besides the joy it has been to watch Arsenal this season, is that that this confident, dominant team hasn’t found a ceiling. They haven’t backed down on the road, they didn’t back down when they walked into Old Trafford, and they didn’t flinch in the face of a major derby against Spurs with the top of the table on the line. This isn’t intended to make it seem like Arsenal have been flawless, there are kinks to work out, but that level of confidence is being transferred to fans and is translating to energy.

You won’t have to search long to find a fan that remembers the, rather recent, days of struggling through matches against the other ‘Big Six’ clubs. The years of dominating our way through the rest of the league, picking up what we could against larger teams at home, but floundering against the teams we claimed we were competing with. Sure, to some degree this feels hyperbolic, but there often felt like this underlying expectation that Arsenal would put a team on the field, show up flat, and walk off with the same message and platitudes for the fans as explanation. And while the team was managing the impressive feat of being perennial Champions League qualifiers and top four finishers, it felt like a significant barrier to Arsenal reaching the next level.

An article from a few months ago by Nathan Evans talked about Arsenal’s record against the big six over the last decade and it’s not pretty.

Manchester City3514-26

When you stare at that table, maybe saying we “floundered” against big teams doesn’t feel so hyperbolic. This table is enough to send you into a pit of depression. It’s almost enough to make you look back and laugh at yourself for believing Arsenal were ever really that “player or two away from completing the puzzle”. Whatever that meant, it was never found.

Whether a fan was acutely aware of these numbers or not, I think every fan had a sense for them deep down. And while Arsenal have many more challenging fixtures ahead of them this season — 8 more against these teams alone, including this weekend versus Liverpool — the performances against Tottenham this weekend and Manchester United at Old Trafford should give you reason for confidence.

Not only SHOULD it give supporters confidence, I thoroughly believe they ARE giving fans confidence. Throughout the early stages of this season, people have wielded Arsenal’s fixture list as weapon, and casted it as a stone to try to challenge and damage the validity of Arsenal’s success. But what’s interesting is that week by week, Arsenal’s beaten opponents seem to look better and better. And other Premier League teams seem to be dropping points to the same opposition.

Here’s the list of Arsenal opponents and their table position when Arsenal played them:

  • Crystal Palace – N/A
  • Leicester City – 11th
  • Bournemouth – 11th
  • Fulham – 7th
  • Aston Villa – 15th
  • Manchester United – 5th
  • Brentford – 8th
  • Tottenham – 3rd

It’s not as poor as people would lead you to believe. While many can admit it’s not as difficult as some team’s start, the talking point may have been blown out of proportion. Out of fairness to the argument, it seems disingenuous not to report where those teams currently sit.

As of writing this, after seven or eight matches (depending on opponent), here is where those same opponents sit in the table:

  • Crystal Palace – 17th
  • Leicester City – 20th
  • Bournemouth – 13th
  • Fulham – 8th
  • Aston Villa – 14th
  • Manchester United – 6th
  • Brentford – 10th
  • Tottenham – 3rd

The positions aren’t great, and it does show a few opponents finding themselves in dangerous territory early. However, almost all of these teams have punched above their perceived weight to beat an opponent or been shocked by a team and dropped valuable points. The sentiment of “there are no easy points in the Premier League” has never felt more true. Ask a Liverpool side that looks entirely susceptible at the moment.

Every match is worth the same amount. They are all worth three points whether you beat the best team in the league or relegation fodder. Yet it’s the tight margins and differentials that often dictate whether a team finishes mid-table or in the running for top four. They are the difference between being in the top four or in the title race. And again, ask Liverpool about differentials. They are the difference between winning the league and second place in a race in which neither team loses more than three matches. Those differentials are seen most clearly in the big games, in the games when you play the teams you’re competing with over tight margins.

You can’t fault fans for bringing more energy to the big matches, but maybe you can’t fault Arsenal fans in the past for having a side dose of pessimism when it came down to brass tacks. But the page has turned this season. At least it feels as though the page has been turned. It’s been a long time since Arsenal have seemed so in control when it comes to imposing themselves against fellow Big Six clubs, and it’s a credit to these young Gunners — young manager included.

As Liverpool looms, they feel vulnerable, like prey injured and trying to find some form of salvation. It’s a situation that feels both fortuitous and dangerous. They are desperate for points after their slow start, desperate for something to jumpstart their season and give them a lifeline of hope to cling to, and wounded animals have a tendency to lash out unpredictably. But the way Arsenal have performed in the major moments, now feels like a real opportunity to add another statement win the CV.

It’s a confidence that Arsenal fans haven’t been allowed to feel in the last decade, but the young guns are bringing it back!

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