“You Can Only Beat What’s in Front of You.”

And Arsenal Have Done Just That This Past Week.

First it was Liverpool.  That was Wednesday, when THE dominant club in world football got their hono(u)r guard as they entered the (empty) Emirates stadium for having won–in completely dominant fashion–the Premier League title.  Adding that to last season’s Champions League trophy and it is no wonder that Arsenal’s victory was completely against the run of play.  Two errors playing the ball out from the back, however, and it’s one that we were happy enough to snatch.

And, of course, it was the perfect rehearsal for the yesterday’s game at (empty) Wembley.  Defending–for the entire 2nd half–against a Liverpool team in midweek, even if it was missing a couple of its most important players, set had the plan for the FA Cup semi-final.

Manager Mikel Arteta said as much (after beating ‘Pool) and it’s exactly as last night’s match played out.  Manchester City also made mistakes playing out of the back, but this time they went unpunished, notably an early chance set up by David Luiz’ interception of a goal kick followed by a quick pass to Arsenal’s captain, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.  On that occasion, Ederson stood tall and PEA failed to beat him.  On two others, however, Aubameyang was more decisive, side-footing a delicious out-swinging cross from Nicolas Pepe across the keeper and onto the inside of his far upright in the 19th minute and then slotting between Ederson’s legs in the 71st.   This time, Arsenal didn’t concede and actually had more shots on target than City.  That’s not to say that the club where Arteta had been an assistant didn’t dominate, but more to suggest that solid and team-based defending resulted in countless shots blocked at the point, corners cleared and City’s expensively assembled group of very talented attackers rushed into missing the target.  Over and over and over again.

But maybe it’s all good for Pep Guardiola’s players who may have their sights more set upon the (bigger) tournament that awaits in August.  If they aren’t properly motivated when they face Real Madrid in the 2nd leg of their round of 16 Champions League match they might lose their nice advantage from the first leg (which they won, two goals to one) against the Spanish champions.  With Liverpool out of the CL, winning it would make dominance of English Football a VERY open question.  (Dominating–or flouting–Financial Fair Play rules, which might have kept City out of next season’s CL, is another question entirely.  Stan Kroenke could buy a decent amount of cattle with the paltry 10 million Euro fine Sheikh Mansour has had to pony up.)

Motivation IS a factor and–where ‘Pool may have lacked it on Wednesday and City may have yesterday–Arteta’s Arsenal (Arte-senal?…like that sourdough bread I more or less already knew how to bake–even before lock-down…) seem to have it.  The new manager is using this strange season to sprinkle (or maybe even flood…) his squad with young talent, much of it from Arsenal’s very own academy.  It’s probably easier for these players to shine in these closed door matches.  There’s still pressure but there’s no collective gasp (of hope and yearning) from a stadium of tens of thousands when a chance arrives and sometimes that’s the difference between taking the time to bury a shot (as you might on a training pitch) or snatching at it.

I’m thinking here about Reiss Nelson’s winning goal vs Liverpool in midweek, but the same goes for older players under pressure (even more extreme, perhaps) for not living up to expectations.  Alexandre Lacazette was equally calm scoring the opener in that match and Nicolas Pepe (Arsenal’s record signing) was clearly moving the ball more quickly and decisively yesterday and made both the assist (described above) and the critical back-pass to Kieran Tierney that led to the Scotsman’s inch-perfect ball over the top to Aubameyang.

Moreover, in these matches, players who have been scapegoated–at times mercilessly–in the media and by Arsenal fans (note, I didn’t use the term “supporters…”) have been rehabilitated.  Luiz, who was sent off in our first close-door match (at Manchester City, in fact) anchored the defense in stalwart fashion.  Granit Xhaka, who could no longer take the reprobations of the home fans for a slow walk off the pitch (and told them to f*ck off, losing his captaincy–which was sorta/kinda given to him by former manager Unai Emery) is now a stalwart–and real leader–in defensive midfield.  And then there’s Shkodran Mustafi, a player so full of mistakes that nearly every Gooner believed his only shot at redemption could come at a new club.  Those are really just the most glaring examples.  Others, including fullbacks, Hector Bellerin and Ainsley-Maitland Niles have been written off by more than a few keyboard warriors in the Goonersphere.

Instead, this closed-door (end of…) season has led to opportunities and a sense that a true team ethic is building at Arsenal.  Soon to follow will be the close (or transfer) season and some players will surely be gone.  Mesut Ozil (injured, perhaps?) and Matteo Guendouzi (speculated as part of a swap deal with Barcelona for the player whose sale helped finance the current glory at Liverpool, Phillipe Coutinho) seem likely candidates.   I’ll believe those stories when they happen (and I’ll lament over others if/when they go down).  For now, however those two seem excess to (what can only be described as) Arteta’s success.  (As too, sadly, due to injury, are promising guys like Gabriel Martinelli and Pablo Mari.)  There are still three matches to play.  Two will close out our PL season against relegation fighters Aston Villa and Watford (and these are never easy matches, we should remember) but then we’ve got a final to which we can look forward.  And there should be plenty of motivation there too as it will be against our South London rivals, Chelsea, and a rematch of last season’s Europa League final–the debacle in Baku (Azerbaijan).

As such, it will NOT be easy.  The difference however is that Arteta, a character who knows the traditions of our club and seems to take (rather than shirk) responsibility at every turn, has built (the beginnings, at least, of) a REAL team.  In fact, I’d dare say that it’s no easy task to pick who Mikel will put out when we return to Wembley.  There is competition for places AND the camaraderie of a shared vision.

And still there are other players (I have yet to mention) who have made key contributions.  The biggest (and actually current “longest serving Gunner”) is back up goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez who seems to have only allowed goals that no other keeper could have prevented (including injured Bernd Leno) and may be even calmer and more decisive when it comes to orchestrating his rear-guard.  At the other end of the scale (in both size and age) Bakayo Saka, I believe, is one of the most impressive young players to emerge from Arsenal’s academy (in years if not decades) but was an unused sub last night.  Instead, to shore up the match, Joe Willock, Rob Holding, Sead Kolasinac and Lucas Torreira were brought on, all of whom seem improved under Arteta.  Eddy Nketiah (currently serving a three match ban for a lunge vs Leicester before he was up to speed in that match) might also feature in the final and seems a positive spur to Lacazette’s resurgence.  Then there’s Cedric Soares who is pushing Bellerin at right back and Dani Ceballos, on loan from Real Madrid, who seems to have forged a solid partnership in deep midfield with Xhaka.  Both Iberians have the technical skills and seem eager to do the hard work of keeping possession in dangerous parts of the pitch against these outstanding teams employing the new(ish) style of immediate and extreme pressing when the ball is not clearly under either teams’ possession.

Which, actually, seems the exact sort of football Arteta wants to play–and has been able, by and large, to get his players to buy into.  Our forward press won us those goals vs ‘Pool and put the seeds of doubt into City, creating the space for winning contested balls in midfield, advancing them quickly and then putting them into the opponent’s net through the brilliance of the captain with the star shaved into his hair.  It may not be the swagger of 80% possession and “walking it into the net” (with goals from all over the pitch, i.e., a more “total football) that Gooners came to love when Arsene Wenger’s team were in their full pomp, but it’s how you simply MUST play when the opponent is capable of doing the same.

So, between motivation, taking responsibility (which is really the same as embracing your own power), inclusive team-building and pursuing an actual playing style (not unlike what England’s–and the world’s–best teams are currently playing) Arteta has got his train headed on what looks to be a nicely laid track.  Or maybe the (very leaky) boat (onto which Mikel invites his players and which) he inherited from Unai (“La culpa no es mia”) Emery is (finally) floating once again.

Whatever the vessel, at least a (small? or maybe large?…) head of steam is building and we need to finish out these few matches.  All, of which, again, will be played behind the closed doors of the moment–you can also only play IN FRONT of what’s in front of you–so, in my opinion, and as I hoped, Arteta has taken advantage of the unique conditions the global pandemic has placed at his feet–unlike a lot of leaders, with far more important things at stake, I hate to say–with nothing short of aplomb.  I have my doubts about bringing in the “world’s greatest fans” (again, please note, I didn’t say supporters, but we are strong–at least from behind a keyboard, and, occasionally, in joined voices in the stadium too…) but, so far, with a few hiccups from which Arteta-senal have seemed to learn, so good.

Thanks for reading and, as always, I’m curious what other Gooners have to say?  So, don’t be shy… (In other words, feel free to rip me a new one in the comments… I can take it, I think…)

Go on then…

by 17highburyterrace

 

 

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15 Responses to “You Can Only Beat What’s in Front of You.”

  1. Wedge says:

    In the last 20 days we have beaten Sheffield utd and wolves away, Liverpool at home and Man city at Wembley. That is an incredible achievement considering where we were just 6 months ago. Full credit has to go to Arteta and his staff who have done an amazing job. Can you imagine if it were Chelsea or Man utd who had done that, the media would be losing there tiny minds.

  2. jw1 says:

    ♫♪ Was in the spring
    And spring became the summer
    Who’d have believed you’d come along… ♪♫

    We’ve had a glimpse this week. Seeing Mikel Arteta’s vision in a pair of snapshots. In glorious living-color, we saw what this man could do. To motivate a group of players, instilling them with his sight. Infusing them all with his seriousness and steely calm.

    We’ve rekindled a feeling this week. It is as close as the team and the club have come to emulating the best of Arsenal– in perhaps a decade-and-a-half. The spark. The one impossible to recapture was there. Is here. Whatever must be done to keep it lit, to keep it kindled and fueled, then burning, must be done.

    Everyone who wears the shirt. Who love the club. That bleed Red & White. Knows. This is the time and place we’ll remember as the touchstone. The starting point. Where Arteta’s Revolution began.

    The man has a plan. Needing only the means and our unequivocal support.

    ♫♪ Sweet Caroline
    Good times never seemed so good
    I’ve been inclined
    To believe they never would… ♪♫

    ====

    Nice piece HT. Your voice makes this place more complete.
    I’ll pine for your being here more– than less.

    jw1

  3. njk84sg says:

    17ht, welcome back. Missed your thought provoking posts man..

    Anyway, a good review of the tactical nous of Arteta and the team, and I still believe that Ozil should play some part in this season. We need his technical abilities.

    We beat Liv without their 12th man (the fans). We beat citeh by pressing up high and they struggled to find spaces. That was the Arsenal that we had won FA cups with. The next goal is to win the Premier League with this exact team.

  4. LE GALL says:

    very interesting part about the good playing in crowd-less stadiums may have done to us, 17HT; although kind of depressing to admit, when you think of it
    you seem to rate emi slightly higher than bernd, and i would tend to agree with you – i won’t want to be in mikel’s shoes when bernd’s fit again, that’s for sure
    well, mikel has already done a tremendous job preventing the arsenal boat from capsizing; it’s not plain sailing yet though, it’ll be if we pocket number 14; our state-of-the-art headcoach will be able to freely implement his ideas then, and i, for one, am expecting to be very pleasantly surprised

  5. pbarany says:

    Nice post, 17HT.

    “Moreover, in these matches, players who have been scapegoated–at times mercilessly–in the media and by Arsenal fans (note, I didn’t use the term “supporters…”) have been rehabilitated.”
    This is spot on – on every level.

    I think the main difference between the win against Liverpool and against Man City, is that if we were stuck in a time-loop (good old Groundhog Day setup – meaning that we would replay these games countless of times without the ability to reflect or adjust strategy and line-up from both teams) than we would lose 90% of games against Liverpool and win the 70% of games against City. So basically the first victory was plain luck, and the second was flawless line-up, tactics and execution.

  6. GunnerN5 says:

    Hi Guy’s i was going to post a PM on the Villa game today but we have a family medical issue going on and I won’t be able to concentrate on writing a post.

    Sounds like you wrote a good post 17HT but my head is elsewhere right now.

  7. njk84sg says:

    No worries GN5. Family matters always comes first

  8. jw1 says:

    Positive energy from over here GN5.

    jw1

  9. jw1 says:

    So pb?
    If we were caught in a Groundhog Day time-loop?
    Why wouldn’t we win both games 100% of the time?
    You know. Until either/or Klopp and Guardiola realized it was a time-loop?
    Then either figured out a way to break the loop.

    Perhaps you were thinking of game simulations run tens, or hundreds, or thousands of times.

    jw1

  10. MA08 says:

    Vintage 17HT, a great summary of key developments in the Arteta era. Sorry to hear you had some sad family news. I sent you an email.

    GN5, hope you’re OK and the Fam health situation comes good again. I sent you an email.

    My dad is hanging on in there. Baby steps forward but still delicately poised.

    Still glowing from that Arteta victory.

    Keep your chins up fellas. 👍👍👍

  11. LE GALL says:

    GN, matchday without your preview is very unsavoury indeed
    come back soon – with good family news

  12. allezkev says:

    Thanks for the post HT, lack of fans, water breaks, it all helps with the coaching.

    I hope everyone is well out there, stay strong and stay healthy and Foward Arsenal

  13. Hi guys. Sorry for being a day late with my replies… A couple of folks had responded by (my) Sunday evening but then I had to (actually) go to work on (my) Monday (trying to finish a project for our architect–in exchange for some design work…) and that turned into a LONG day…(and I wasn’t even able to finish!!)

    Anyhow, none of that today and I’m trying to catch up now… Also, I think I can write up a little match preview/live-blog thing in a bit, though I will have to watch the 2nd half of the Villa match on tape.

    It should be noted, I think, that this post has received just about NOTHING in the way of substantive responses…so, after a brief pop-in, it might be best if if I disappear (again). Just saying… (GN5–and everybody else with more important issues on their plates–gets a pass…and maybe that includes TA too down there with his father…)

    So….

    Responding to Wedge, JW, JK, PB and LeGall…

    I think (and the whole point of the post is) that we need to give credit where credit is due (to Arteta and his coaching staff AND the players who have bought in and gotten on board the ship–which really seems like everyone, except the curly-headed kid and maybe Ozil, but at least Mesut has been “credited” with an injury)… AND we must temper expectations for the future. These ARE unique times. Don’t let those (fake) crowd noises fool ya…

    Glancing at the PL table we sit in 10th place… TENTH PLACE(!!!)

    Mathematically, we could still finish ahead of Spurs, Wolves, Sheffield United and Burnley BUT (realistically…) our only way into any sort of European football for next season (which surely will also at least begin behind closed doors) is by beating Chelsea at W-empty-ly in the (asterisk-required) final of the FA Cup. I’m hopeful, but frankly, I think Lampard has done a very good job with his (South London) club and they should rightly be seen as favorites in that game. We’ll have to defend (again) and (mostly) play on the break, but (esp. if we can get the first goal…and having done the deed vs ManCity…) we certainly should have belief on our side…

    Lampard came in AFTER Chelsea crushed us in Baku…

    …Which (more than…) begs the question: Why didn’t Arsenal cut ties with Emery after that game (and our ABSOLUTE collapse in the PL), get Arteta in as manager and give him a chance to help with transfer business AND have a pre-season with his squad? The answer is patently OBVIOUS to me–Ownership (and upper management–I’m point at you Raul…) have other priorities in mind (and it’s all about the $$, Euros and Pound Sterling, I hate to say)…

    But, that’s a discussion for another time, I guess…

    Finally it happened and Arteta and his players have used this strange end of season in fantastic fashion–and despite those hiccups (notably at Brighton and Totts–and maybe with some questionable reffing vs. Leicester) Gooners SHOULD be able to see the progress. From rock-bottom we have had our bounce and much is in place for continuing upwards…

    If you’re still reading–Wedge, J-Dub and JK–I think you guys are correct to be enthusiastic, but–“my god”– (that’s a political reference, JW–you picked JB correctly, now who will be his missus?…) how low must we go in order to create hope out of a REALLY bad situation. There’s simply no excuse for the woeful situation which has allowed Arsenal (or–for J-Dub again, ‘Merica…) to fall so (so, so…) low… BUT, Arteta is a strong leader BECAUSE he takes responsibility, AND, we (as supporters, note, I didn’t say fans…) have to do so likewise…

    So, no Sweet Caroline for me. (Instead, I choose Neil Diamond’s phenomenal drinking song “Red, Red Wine,” because, you know, “Memories won’t go…”) And (JK) “The next goal is to win the Premier League with this exact team” (because the cup’s already in the bag, I assume…) is a lovely sentiment but I’ll stick with Mikel who is (not so timidly…) already pressuring Raul (and any Kroenke who might be listening) to be ready for SERIOUS action in the transfer market. Some of that might be in making loans permanent (Injured Mari is already in, but Cedric and Dani are important things) and getting something (anything?…) for our talented (but oh-so-sensitive) creative MF types (Guendouzi and Ozil) seems VERY important. Then there are our (Francophone) front-men, (PEA, Lacazette and Pepe), a three-some that will be very tough to keep intact. I won’t even mention the defense (and there’s at least a lot of bodies there) but sometimes it’d be nice if we didn’t need QUITE so many (5 at the back is for underdogs–and teams so brittle that only results matter)…

    But, maybe that’s for the another time too… (like while watching the CL “tournament” games in August…maybe?…) We can relegate our hosts today (Aston Villa) so I should probably try and put up a preview or a live-blog or something.

    Or maybe write an e-mail to TA… (Cheers, M8, for giving me this venue…)

    Back in a bit…

  14. 17highburyterrace says:

    TA, you’ve got mail…

    Otherwise, I guess this ^^^ (too) went over like an almost radioactive dirigible (or lead zeppelin)…

    One last coffee and I’ll put up a (crappy little) preview…

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