As the transfer window looms, it was another day of tinkering, frustration and slivers of hope. Granit Xhaka, who is mostly undroppable if our last 4 managers are anything to go by (and saving times where he may have let slip to 60,000 people that they should kindly be quiet) was in fact dropped from the starting lineup. We also saw David Luiz deployed in a back four, which is always a dicey prospect.
Regardless of their form last season, Sheffield found themselves anchored to the bottom of the table and having failed to score in their opening three games, some of my fears of Luiz Luizing the place up were allayed. He even seemed tempted to do just that in the early stages with some questionable decisions but like an angelic overseer, Gabriel helped weather the storm.
In reality though, it was more of a light breeze and despite the early scares of VAR stealing the headlines with what was the tiniest of shirt pulls, the first half was about as uneventful as it gets. That still didn’t stop endless scrutiny and parallels being drawn to Sheffield’s grievance against Villa, but that’s to be expected.
Apart from Aubameyang’s audacious hit from well outside the box, we never looked serious or capable of threatening to score and Simon Wilson’s quip at the stroke of half time summed it all up:
“The best you can really say about the first half is it’s finished”.
What the game really boiled down to though, was B.P. and A.P. ( or Before Pépé and After Pépé). It wasn’t simply the nominal effect of introducing Pépé but the shift in tactical dynamics, which brought about a host of changes. With Eddie making way after a quiet game, largely thanks to a lack of service, we saw Aubameyang deployed centrally for what I think is the first time under Arteta with Willian dropping behind. He said when he joined he was confident playing anywhere across the front three and his performance after this change would suggest he’s a lot more comfortable – and effective – in a more central role. Similarly, while it didn’t materialise yesterday, I’m sure a centralised Aubameyang will be even more productive in front of goal.
I can’t help but look at players like Jamie Vardy, who even at the age of 33, was able to win the Golden Boot last year ahead of the likes of Aubameyang, Kane, Aguero and Salah. On the face of it, he has a similar profile to Aubameyang. Pace, guile and absolutely lethal with even the slightest whiff of goal. The difference is, Leicester’s balance in midfield enables them to leave Vardy to his own devices and centre their attack around his talents. For various reasons up until now, Arteta has been reluctant or unable to utilise Aubameyang in this way but given what unfolded – and the fact we were able to win a game without his goals – I’d like to think he’d be open to starting games with this approach.
It also saw Mohamed Elneny bombing forward when before he was shackled by his defensive duties, and he ended up being influential in breaking the deadlock. It was Bellerín and Saka who added the real gloss though, and it capped off a proper “Arsenal” goal.
The second was another touch of quality from someone who was probably in need of it. After a clever one-two with Bellerín, the only thought on Pépé’s mind was to drive forward, reminiscent of the highlight reels we pored over when he signed. The finish was tidy if he had time to place it. In actual fact, him being full sprint and weaving between players made the finish all the more impressive.
From there, the game opened up and there were some signs of actual fluidity to our attack, with the likes of Willian, Ceballos, Pépé and Saka all looking to get on the ball and make life difficult for Sheffield. For all of the “control” (read: possession) in the first half, it paled in comparison to the cohesion we saw in the second half.
It didn’t stop the inevitable scare from happening, and while some individuals were lax in closing down, the finish was absolutely top draw. That in itself is a nice change to our usual method of conceding, of individual mistakes and set piece frailty. The latter is something which has quietly been addressed by the introduction of Gabriel, who continues to dominate in aerial duels and as time goes by, I’m liking what I’m seeing more and more.
Another player who I’m delighted to see getting back to their best is Hector Bellerín, who, with 2 assists, is finally looking like the player we know. I never doubted he had it in him to return but it’s such an unknown with these injuries that you don’t believe it until you see it.
In the end, the win rounded off an ultimately promising performance against a stubborn side (who probably don’t deserve to be where they are, nor will they finish there). It was a reminder that even without signings, this squad still has quality tucked away and ready to spring. And now we wait to see what the silliest day of the season brings…