It’s hard to believe that only 3 days passed between Arsenal’s dismal performance against Crystal Palace and yesterday’s man-handling. It was the perfect response and it’s not the first time Arteta has managed to drum up something new and functional when he’s needed it – I just wish Arsenal’s form didn’t look like an ECG reading.
After a false-dawn win against Spurs, Arsenal were undeserving benefactors of a point against Brighton and gifted Crystal Palace two goals to plate up another. On both occasions, Arsenal spent large portions of the game on the backfoot. Monday night at least has some cause for complaint thanks to Mike Dean’s knavish antics and you would hope Arsenal would have gone on to win that game given the would-be time of dismissal. Thankfully, McArthur’s assault wasn’t enough to rule Saka out and even though he once again had the ever-loving shit kicked out of him, Saka was his usual disruptive self back on the right wing.
Arteta’s other changes were less easy to make, but they worked on the day and reinforce the idea that the league’s youngest squad has more than just potential. Dropping a player like Kieran Tierney is never easy, especially when he’s been one of the few truly consistent performers in the last 18 months but his performances have dropped in recent weeks. It’s no surprise because he’s been run ragged since he joined the club, while also keeping up with the demands of his international duties. In Tavares, I didn’t know if he was quite ready for a Premier League start because his cameos, while lively, have all been “raw”. He likes to take a shot when he should perhaps pass, he bombs forward, he has a few misplaced passes in his locker. While we got much of the same yesterday, Villa simply couldn’t deal with his boundless energy and the signs are promising for what is ostensibly, a back-up left back (even if he doesn’t even see himself as a defender, primarily). In that sense, he’s a like for like replacement for Tierney and maintains the balance in having one flank pushing onward and another tucking inside – even if both he and Tomiyasu were a pair of marauding maniacs on the day.
After struggling to impose himself from the left side of central midfield, Odegaard was left out to accommodate Arsenal’s 4-4-2ish change in shape and with Lokonga and Lacazette coming back into the side, Arsenal managed a far more cohesive press, with the ball quickly won back all over the pitch. The first half was as good as I’ve seen under Arteta in terms of dominance and chance creation, and that’s largely thanks to the front-footed approach afforded by overwhelming the middle of the pitch. Given Lacazette’s recent impact and hunger from the bench, there reached a point where his involvement was more integral than worrying about the headache of playing him with Aubameyang but what we got was a fresh, functional approach. Neither was forced into unnatural (i.e. ineffective) positions and both had opportunities to score; Lacazette was unjustly punished in what looked like a 50/50 and the goal should have stood. It sullies the taste of VAR’s involvement, timely though it was, because I thought the first incident was far more deserving than the one actually given but inconsistency is the name of the game. Overall, he was a hugely important cog and despite burning out just after the hour mark, he made a strong case for his continued involvement.
The chances weren’t just reserved for the front pair either. Tavares still clearly has en eye on his first Arsenal goal and is comfortable shooting on either foot, he also put it on a plate for Saka who was only denied by a brilliant save from Martinez and Partey hit the bar before he scored. There was fluidity and variety, and it’s that move away from predictability that allowed us to have the highest first half xG of Arteta’s reign.
After the break, Villa were at least more competitive but the damage had already been done, and in chasing for a foothold back into the game, opened themselves up for some slicing and dicing. While the finish may have been fortuitous, the goal was all Smith Rowe’s own doing after he won the ball on the edge of our box and drove forward. In similar fashion to Arsenal’s second against Tottenham, Smith Rowe’s pass to Aubameyang was flicked on in what now feels like a signature move and the stars aligned for his shot to squirm inside the near post. I do feel bad for Emi because the penalty save was brilliant, as was his denial against Saka but he had his day in the sun last season. For Smith Rowe, it was no less than he deserved and after his delivery onto Partey’s noggin, he’s beginning to quietly add to the all imortant numbers. He’s still finding his way, which is only natural given his age and there are certain passes I wish he’d make more often but his trajectory is looking as fierce as Saka’s. There’s still a gnawing in the back of my mind over his fitness but Arsenal’s threadbare fixture list should go some ways in keeping him fresh.
Going forward, the challenge that persists for Arteta is finding a way to standardise this intensity; it’s not enough to start with intensity and defend a slender lead and look to hit teams on the break because young squads are inherently accident-prone. There needs to be a relentlessness as we saw against Spurs and Villa to put the game beyond doubt, so when the inevitable cock-up happens, the result is already settled. Had Arsenal beaten Crystal Palace as they should have done, they’d be sitting in 4th.
In fairness to the young squad, it was only half guilty for Villa’s late consolation. Tavares wasn’t close to his man and Partey’s limp challenge gave Ramsey an opening and there was no stopping it from there. Ramsdale was understandably furious having spent most of the game spraying passes like Pirlo instead of actually goalkeeping but White and Gabriel had another solid performance that leaves me confident that we’ve finally future-proofed our defence for the first time since Koscielny and Mertesacker. With any luck, a certain Frenchman will hopefully earn his place at long last which makes for some serious grit and quality.
While October may be a bit of a cheat code for Arsenal, Arteta has at least managed to steady the ship and climb the table but this was always the expectation given the standard of opposition. The bit-part glimpses into Arsenal’s ceiling have been enjoyable but it’s a break-even deal if we have to sit through any more dross like we’ve unwillingly done so against Brighton and Crystal Palace. The task remains the same for Arteta and that’s consistency.