As an homage to Sergio Leone’s epic western I should keep the sequence in the order above, but if I end this post on a negative note you might disregard the positives from the beginning and will consider me a killjoy or call me Pessimist Pete (if you ever wondered what the first letter in PB stood for). So let’s start with the sad parts and work towards the good.
While Arsenal fans are rightfully happy after an away win against a strong and high prestige opponent, independent supporters didn’t particularly enjoy the game. Gary Lineker tweeted it to be „dreadfully dull”. It might have to do with the amount of shots on goal (2-2) and the key passes (MU: 8, Arsenal:5). These figures are indeed low, especially compared to Everton-Liverpool (11:14) or Fulham:-Crystal Palace (15:11), but far from being the worst as Brighton-WBA (4:5), Liverpool-West Ham (6:1), Tottenham-Brighton (6:4).
Rob Holding said in the interview that „we could have won by three or four”. And while I love the guy I don’t agree with him. We had about 3 half-decent chances. Saka might have hit the target with his header, but that was not a foolproof goalscoring opportunity – probably not for even Giroud himself. Similarly, Willan wasn’t unlucky that the bar saved de Gea, rather lucky that he managed to hit the target with his weaker foot. Furthermore, Auba’s curl from outside the box could have gone in but only about 3 times in 10 attempts, definitely not 9 of 10. And when Bellerin was fouled inside the box he was as far from creating a goal-scoring opportunity as one can get in the penalty area. I’m not saying that a 0:0 draw would have been more fair though; my point is that despite our midfield dominance (which didn’t materialize in possession stats) and defensive stability we couldn’t translate our superiority into clear chances, thus we weren’t particularly unlucky that we needed a penalty to break the deadlock.
Let’s move to the independent area. Modern football doesn’t really care about the number of shots to be enjoyable, though. We had many ’almost’ and ’soooo close’ moments, while Manchester didn’t. So our win is completely justified. Mike Dean was refereeing in a decent manner. And our opponent wasn’t particularly bad either. They are a bunch of skilled players trying to pursue a sub-optimal strategy. We were lucky only from the perspective that MU had Martial suspended, and OGS experimented with the formation (and I don’t see scary when Fred and McTominay playing in midfield together), while we – despite our long injury list – didn’t really have to make compromises from our best XI.
I am probably hopeless for wanting to see games like our 4:1 win against Liverpool (2015) or any of our 5:2 wins against Tottenham, but my enthusiasm is at bay if the keys to victory are „controlled hostility” and „smothering the opponent”. Nevertheless this was a fixture where we haven’t won for the last 14 games, so I don’t mind making a compromise here. But I hope that our scoring statistics will improve, as we scored 4 goals in the last 5 PL games losing 3.
And the good part: Arteta also experimented, but not with the formation, rather with players. And he succeeded; both the last minute inclusion of Holding and the equally improbable and unforeseeable pairing of the forgotten Elneny with the new guy Partey proved to be masterstrokes. However – as it was correctly pointed out by many in the blog, this performance was particularly strong from the team effort point of view. We didn’t have any weak contribution on Sunday night, and we had quite a few really strong ones. I won’t go into details, as TA and others have already been singing their hymns, especially on Partey and Elneny. (I don’t remember the last time when Adrian Clarke awarded split Main Man prizes before this weekend.)
But I cannot overlook the process that transformed a shaky error-prone defense into the best record in the PL. There are several reasons behind that – probably asking for a dedicated post – but the here are my key explaining factors:
- Changing formation to 3-4-3 with 3CBs and 2 wingbacks
- New Players of the highest quality (Tierney, Gabriel, possibly Mari, Saliba and Soares)
- Extreme pressing from the top, notably Lacazette and Nketiah
- Emerging leaders such as Luiz (short term) and Gabriel (hopefully long run)
- Removing Steve Bould from the first team coaching staff…
We are paying the price for the 5-defender line-up resulting in fewer chances, less goals and some boring games, but this is a price many of us were willing to pay. Arsenal now has a solid, reliable, talented (and mostly young) defence, and a lot of capable and experienced players – along with gifted and success-hungry youngsters – in midfield and attack. Now Arteta needs to find the best formations and tactics to maximize the chances and goals. He might need a creative midfielder, but we probably have the right players, just need to find the best way to utilize them.