“That’s what we wanted,” said Mikel after the match when asked about Arsenal’s reaction after PSV Eindhoven.
“Losing football matches is part of it. It will happen at certain stages and you have to react to that. It affects you just in the moment and then you move forward, analyse what happened and try to become better as a team. That’s what we’ve done. We’ve managed to win the last two games and now we have to go to Stamford Bridge.”
And no one can really call into question the cold hard facts that Arteta lays bare. Arsenal, after a slide of poor performances and a loss to PSV Eindhoven responded emphatically against Nottingham Forest and squeaky-bummed their way through another Europa League match. Really the most you can do is put a thumb in the air and say, “job done”.
To their credit, the job has been done and in a results-driven business, that’s not the worst thing to be able to say. In fact, “job done” is about the summary of Arsenal’s October onslaught, at least the second half. Go figure, Arsenal look a little worse in another second half.
A month many people thought would expose “who this Arsenal team really is” — although I have it on good account that that goalpost has been moved further out, maybe January — seems to have come to a conclusion and Arsenal walk away with 7 wins, 1 draw, and 1 loss. And while there was a run of five objectively poor performances… job very much done.
However after the game against FC Zurich, a separate answer from Mikel felt a little less confident. When asked about the nervy ending, he said:
“I expected it to be a tough match. I’ve watched them in the last few games – how they’ve changed since their new manager arrived, how they played against Bodo. You’ve seen it and it was really difficult to get any real momentum with the way that the game developed. We have to adapt to that. We had some big chances that we didn’t put away and that made the game more difficult in the last 15 or 20 minutes. We didn’t control certain situations and we had to dig in, which we did. We found a way to win and we’re top of the group.”
While I agree with Arteta that the match proved to difficult, and it was clear that Arenal struggled to find momentum, I’m not sure I can accept the idea it was always expected to be a tough match. Sure, Arsenal and Zurich both had things to play for; and yes, Zurich has a new manager to try and revitalize a team that’s underachieving as they rank bottom in the Swiss League, but the performance was pretty poor. It makes the second half of Arteta’s quote the more important part.
“We have to adapt to that. We had some big chances that we didn’t put away and that made the game more difficult in the last 15 or 20 minutes. We didn’t control certain situations and we had to dig in, which we did. We found a way to win and we’re top of the group.”
Why? Because while Arsenal have gotten the job done, it’s this part they have really struggled to get a hold of during the second half of October, especially in these Europa League fixtures.
I, personally, have been forgiving of this side during these group stages — afterall they have won. I have tried to put into context the matches, the run of games, the tactical testing opportunity, the travel… the list goes on. I even was willing to overlook the fact that the makeup of these team plays together very irregularly. But after yesterday’s performance made five, if not six, underwhelming group stage matches from the Gunners, and marked the fifth match many of these rotated players have played together in as many weeks — there might be room to ask a few questions.
How good is Arsenal’s depth really?
Everyone knows that Arsenal have room for growth in their depth. I believe most fans could rattle off about five positions where more depth is needed: LW, RW, ST, Xhaka backup, Thomas Partey backup, LCB. Just off the top of my head.
But that’s probably not going to be fixed in on January window. In fact, there are suggestions that Arsenal’s expenditure this January might be meager compared to the visions of those who want to see Arsenal “go for it”. But the club is prioritizing the long term project and this project is probably at a place in which meaningful additions come with both a hefty price tag, or hefty enough, and demand players that teams are unlikely to part with easily in January.
So we turn our attention to the depth in hand. Names like Vieira, Holding, Elneny, Nketiah, Sambi, Tierney, Tomiyasu, even Turner.
I’m actually quite pleased with the way Arsenal have invested in, and built up, their defensive depth. Tierney and Tomiyasu looked great and as a unit our depth in back looks outstanding. At 27, Holding may be what Holding is going to be, and Arsenal will have to address that, but the versatility and talent back there is really good. Less confident the same can be said further up the field.
Elneny looked alright on his return, but it’s certainly time to ask questions about Sambi, and even question just how far the gap is between those two and Partey, or even between them and the competition they may soon find themselves playing against.
If you asked me a few weeks ago, I would have told you I had all the confidence in the world for Eddie to step in Jesus’ shoes if and when Jesus is suspended a game. In recent weeks, I am far FAR less confident when that day arrives.
On the Vieira front, the talent is obvious. Sadly, what also seems obvious is that things are still clicking into place. I thought he was decent against Zurich, but maybe not the dominant presence we wanted, or even expected. Which is an aspect that may be becoming more clear. Vieira doesn’t seem to be a like-for-like swap with Ødegaard, and each game he plays we seem to see that more and more. He’s not an engine, he’s a creator and play finisher. He wants the shots, he wants to get into the box, he wants to score. One one hand that’s great because he’s good at it and it suggests he and Ødegaard can fit together given the overlaps and differences in how they play, but it might mean our rotational depth with Martin isn’t as clean as once hoped.
But when you see Arsenal struggle through and skate by in at least five of their six group stage matches of a competition they usually waltz through, we have to wonder if our depth and rotational players aren’t at the level we once perceived them to be. Which is a problem because…
The Premier League Season is Long
Arsenal are just beginning to enter the period in which their depth are more likely to play a role. There will of course be a lengthy break in matches for the World Cup, but that leads into a long, shrouded second-half of the season. If there is one inevitable, it is likely that depth is needed. Can Arsenal count on it?
In less than a week Arsenal will begin their EFL Cup campaign against Brighton. It’s not the easiest draw. One could imagine that Arteta turns to a lineup similar to yesterday’s. If Brighton go strong and view this competition as a real opportunity for a deep cup run and chance at silverware, how do Arsenal reserves fair?
Beyond that, Arsenal are likely to have a few players go to the World Cup and when they return, Arsenal are right back in the thick of navigating toward a potential title challenge — even if not those heights, they will want to push for second place — plus they will have additional cup matches, more difficult Europa League matchups, as the Premier League continues to pour down on them. It’s likely many of these rotational players step in for semi-significant Premier League minutes if Arsenal manage to make a deep run in the Europa League.
There’s a whole bunch of contingencies and unknowns —January window, injuries, cup matches, player fitness — but the Premier League season is long, are Arsenal built to navigate it and achieve the goals they want?
Upside: Injury Return, Downside: New Injury
While we question depth, we have to acknowledge the major bump that comes with the return of Elneny and Zinchenko. I put Elneny on my list of questionable depth — and I do believe he belongs there for certain reasons — but he is still a step up from Sambi at the moment. He puts a cap on Arsenal’s ceiling, but he does the job consistently and is capable of helping Arsenal win games… some games.
The most exciting return was Zinchenko. The profile he carries is pretty clearly Arteta’s preference given he also also opted for Tomiyasu’s technical ability in lieu of Zinchenko’s at left back. I will say that Tierney looked incredible against Zurich and while he has to continue to grow in his technical abilities and comfortability to in the midfield, if he does, he will be in a strong position to compete comprehensively with Zinchenko. He offers the ability to attack down the line, he defends better than Zinchenko, he can serve a cross, he has a very clean strike to offer a goal threat, but his abilities centrally aren’t there. It’s a big ask for him to grow those skills, he’s never been tasked with them before last year, and it’s not just about performing them at a viable level — he already is — it’s about performing at a Premier League level where every mistake is punished. There is a large gap between the two and that takes seasons, not months.
But with Zinchenko’s return, Arsenal can look forward to raising the level of technical ability they deploy within their starting lineup, and hopefully continue to recapture the fire the left side of the field demonstrated at the start of the season when Zinchenko made a lot of things tick. Sadly, Tomiyasu went down injured, and while we don’t know the capacity of that injury, it feels like one step forward, one step back in that department.
I don’t want to end this piece on a bad note. The job was done, it was successfully navigated and in this business the ends often justify the means. Arsenal take first place, they navigated October very well, they started November with a win, they get the break from Europa League after the World Cup and head straight to the round of 16, and Arsenal should feel confident. Winning is a habit and they have made a habit of it.
We may be at risk of looking too deep into these group stage games, we may be at risk of not reading the writing on the wall. Chelsea lies on the horizon and this side needs to be ready to go into enemy territory and find a result — win or draw. And you can’t let Auba score. The team seems to carry a “only look as far as the next game” mentality as they get the job done, but there certainly feels room for questions.