Slow, Steady, and Ruthless Wins?

Arsenal clinch their way out of the groups. My thoughts on their win plus a quick player performance review.

Arsenal clinch their way through the group stages with two games to spare, just like that. Not really with the bang one might expect for a team still having two matches to play, but with a slow, steady domination of PSV Eindhoven. They haven’t yet guaranteed their way through the groups as the first place finisher, something that Arteta and Arsenal have spoken about treasuring very much, but yesterday’s win means even a draw next week guarantees a pass through the next round and straight to the round of 16.

For those unaware, this year, the second place finishers in the group stages will play an extra round against the 3rd place clubs that drop down from the Champions League.

That round occurs in February, meaning Arsenal wouldn’t have to cater to mid-week knockout matches for Europa League until early March. Given the midseason World Cup that carries an unknown effect, this value can’t be overstated.

To get there, Arsenal welcomed PSV Eindhoven to The Emirates and delivered them their first loss in the group stages. And for a game that was so uninteresting to view, the reflection on the performance is interesting in a conflicting way.

Everyone wants to see the Arsenal side playing that high-flying, fast-paced football that split open teams like Chelsea in the preseason and dominated their way through the opening stages of the Premier League season, but the recent level of play has simmered. Arsenal’s last two performances weren’t at the level fans have become accustomed to this team performing at and many were desperate to see a little bounce back. The energy against Eindhoven felt low, but the dominance and control that was missing at the weekend versus Leeds was very present.

It was a sterile, Europa League feeling domination as Arsenal held onto the ball for 62% of the match, plugged 25 shots toward frame, created 2.71 xG and 5 big chances! But… only 8/25 of those shots were on target and Arsenal failed to convert any of the 5 big chances. It was clear in the first half that a few things weren’t clicking and much of it could have boiled down to the shortened turn around, and again, some Premier League regulars not really needing to leave second gear to demonstrate their superiority.

At the end of the first half, Arsenal had 65% of the ball, 9 shots, 0 on target to PSV’s 1 shot, 0 on target. It was a team not clicking to convert versus a team unable to play, or maybe unwilling at times. In the second half, Arsenal seemed to put it together a little better in terms or steering efforts on target, but I don’t think you will find many fans calling it electric. It wasn’t until Xhaka’s incredibly impressive finish on the half-volley — truly applause worthy technique — found the back of the net that Arsenal got their payoff.

Because there was little payoff, and the performance wasn’t spectacular, and the lineup was half-filled with Arsenal regulars, and Bukayo Saka played 85 minutes even after he went down with a knock after a dangerous dribble drew a lot of contact and created an awkward shooting position, it feels as though fans are critical of the evening. Many will criticize Arteta for selecting strong players again, but yesterday I wrote about the stakes of this match and the introduction of this article was about what Arsenal achieved by winning it, so it shouldn’t have been a surprise to see a strong lineup.

After the match, Arteta was asked if he was tempted to rest Saka and he was frank in saying, “Look at the top players in the world, they play 70 matches, every three days and make the difference and win the game. You want to be at the top, you have to be able to do that.

“And if we start to put something different in the mind of a young player, I think we are making a huge mistake because then [he would] be like ‘no, I don’t play now, on astroturf I don’t play’. I don’t want that. I want them to be ruthless every three days. I want them knocking on my door [saying] I want to play, I want to win the game.”

No one can argue the boss is beating around the bush with that answer, and it’s a direct comment on a change in mindset from what many fans may be used to. After the Leeds match, I wrote a little bit about Arsenal needing to re-learn, or learn for some young players, what it takes to play every three days, and here Arteta is confirming these young stars need that in their career thus aligning with the idea that fans may be more wrapped up in this past ideology of “off days” and full days of rest than the team is.

This a “no sympathy” stance from Mikel, and it’s one fans should get behind. It’s a little trial by fire, and certainly fans will sour on it if it starts to feel like it is costing Arsenal points in the Premier League, but this team keeps winning. 13 wins in 14 games across all competitions and an October that felt daunting but has turned into a serious sign of just how good this team could be as they navigate it with nothing but wins.

Player Reviews

From a player perspective, there are a handful that played solid games and felt like they were on the brink of a ‘standout performance’ but very few seemed to tip into that category. Certainly there is a grading element of “by their standards” that sways this a little, but maybe that’s my own fault.

I thought Tomiyasu was solid and spectacular again. He pocketed Gakpo, he gets the assist to Xhaka, he switched back to right back, and he showed how solid he is once more. Very similarly, I thought Granit Xhaka showed that “career best” level we have seen all year. He gets the goal, created 3 chances, had 4 shots, moved the ball nicely, controlled the tempo and played like the rock-solid veteran he is. These two competed for Man of the Match and I would probably give it to Granit Xhaka.

Maybe not outstanding, but Rob Holding was solid in back and looked far more comfortable back on the right side of the center back pairing. In a team of versatile defenders, Arteta may have to accept Holding is the least versatile and really only can contribute at an acceptable level on the right. A good game from him, Gabriel, and Turner as they rose to the occasion the few times they were called upon.

Then there are a few players that fall into a grey area. It’s hard to say that Bukayo Saka or Gabriel Jesus weren’t good, they were. Jesus won the most duels (8), Saka created the most chances (5) including 3 big chances and completed the most dribbles (5). These two were the catalysts for Arsenal’s attack but that is to be expected. They made some mazy runs, they worked their shooting opportunities and they created. Yet I think some people may have split opinions of their performance. In a game where they are given and creating chances as they were, many would expect them to convert one and get on the score sheet, they didn’t. Personally, I think they were a good duo showing they were better than those around them without having to kill themselves ahead of Southampton. Solid day.

Albert Sambi Lokonga will split opinions as well. He’s fresh of an angst filled interview that laid bare his frustrations which understandably will heighten the microscope he is under. The distance between him and Thomas Partey, probably isn’t doing him any favors either. The performance was a Lokonga performance and depending how you feel about those, you will feel the same way. He’s solid on the ball and was controlled again last night. He sometimes is a little lost or floats when it comes to his defensive positioning and reading of the game, and he did that a handful of times against PSV. He only gets 67 minutes of play, and Arsenal did finally click when Partey entered the game, but that feels a little harsh in a match with a game script that saw Arsenal pressure until PSV broke, almost as a matter of time. Overall, a decent day with some good things, but still plenty of room for growth.

Two players that felt a little over their usual mark were Fabio Vieira and Eddie Nketiah. Both had a few bright moments and Vieira demonstrated once again that he can really pick out a ball if he’s given time and space, but neither looked as dangerous or game-changing as they have or can. Eddie will feel he was up against it with Jesus getting more looks central while he was reduced to the wings, but Fabio is likely a little frustrated on the evening.

All in, it was a good evening to see the Arsenal train keep chugging… even at a turtle’s pace. It’s another win, another short turnaround win, and seemingly everyone escaped healthy. On to Southampton at the weekend!

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