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…