Mikel Arteta’s new Arsenal foundations face Liverpool litmus test

After a chastening start to the season, a resurgent Arsenal have won six of their last eight games

Miguel Delaney
Chief Football Writer
Friday 19 November 2021 13:45
Liverpool Players Train Ahead of Arsenal Clash

At the very least, nobody’s laughing now. Back in mid-September, after Arsenal had finally won their first game of the season with a narrow 1-0 victory over a pitiful Norwich City, Mikel Arteta described it as “the best week or 10 days of my career in this industry”.

Some within that industry reacted with mockery, comparing it to some of Roberto Martinez’s more outlandish comments. Arsenal had after all been dismal in the first three games of the season, and external pressure was growing on Arteta.

Jurgen Klopp wasn’t one of those laughing, though. He’s had respect for Arteta since the Basque became coach of Arsenal, and is currently preparing for what he believes will be a very awkward game at Anfield this weekend. That feeling is all the more pronounced since Liverpool, for once, need a result much more than Arsenal.

Klopp’s side have dropped to fourth in the league, just two points ahead of Arteta’s, having failed to win since that 5-0 demolition of Manchester United. They’ve since let a 2-0 lead slip to draw with Brighton and lost 3-2 to West Ham United.

There is none of that porousness at Arsenal. They haven’t been beaten since their own 5-0 defeat to Manchester City before that September break, and have won six of the last eight.

While performances are naturally down to much more than that “week to 10 days” – not least a fair element of luck – Arteta does genuinely believe much of that period was important.

First of all, it marked a boundary in the campaign, after which he was able to bring his full team together. Some around the club have even referred to it as Arsenal’s “true pre-season”. It was then that Arteta put Aaron Ramsdale in, having specifically pushed for his signature. The young goalkeeper is a big character, and has been an influential one, both in terms of dressing-room mood and tactics. The defence has been reshaped around him, with all of Ben White, Gabriel and Takehiro Tomiyasu brought in. The lack of European football has helped all this, allowing Arteta to hone the tactical work done since that break.

The team now has a deeper understanding of what Arteta wants, and that is also true in a few senses. The two forwards, who are the two most senior players in the squad, now really “get it”. Arteta had productive meetings with both Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang over that September break, particularly with the latter and how he wears the armband. Arteta wanted to ensure Aubameyang was actually comfortable with his role as captain. They had a productive chat. Something has “clicked”.

Those at Arsenal’s training ground no longer see the disaffected star who previously had a reputation for falling asleep in team meetings. Back at the start of the year, Aubameyang was especially irritated by how isolated he was on the pitch, and how few chances came his way. That is something else that has had a double effect.

With Bukayo Saka and Emile Smith-Rowe growing into their own roles in the team, Arsenal’s attacking feels less prescribed. The creative players get it more and aren’t constantly concentrating on replayed rehearsed moves. Quite simply, much more is coming Aubameyang’s way. That has made him more invested, to only increase the effect of an improved physical conditioning.

Aubameyang’s movement has in turn created more space around the box, which has allowed Smith Rowe to show just how much he has worked on his finishing. Ian Wright, a friend of his father, has even offered advice there. The effect is Smith Rowe going from two goals in 2020 in the league to four in 11 already this season.

Mikel Arteta has eradicated the pressure that built at the start of the season

The faith Arteta has shown in such young players is now being rewarded with a deeper devotion to his management. There’s a willingness to fight for him. Saka and Smith Rowe certainly don’t see Arteta as “arrogant”, in the way some around the club did when the team were losing. They see him as authoritative. Others are taking their lead, now that the team is winning. That difference does emphasise how much of this mood, and these perceptions, are dependent on performances. And these are the big questions. Is this form actually sustainable, or is it even illusory?

For all the players are willingly talking about how much better they understand each other, it hasn’t yet translated into goals. Smith Rowe’s four form 31% of Arsenal’s goals in the league, with just 13 in 11. West Ham United have hit 23. Crystal Palace have scored 15. Even Newcastle United are just one behind them with 12. That is despite Arsenal enjoying a relatively favourable run of fixtures, a far remove from Chelsea and Manchester City in those opening games. Taking the table as it is now, the average position of Arsenal’s opponents in the last eight matches has been 12th.

The worry is that a match away to Liverpool reveals the reality. It’s all the more dangerous since it is a Liverpool who are desperate to prove a point. There’s nothing like a Mohamed Salah run to disabuse a defence of the idea it is durable.

The argument from those within London Colney is nevertheless that Arsenal still had to go and win the more forgiving games, and that they were important to building up confidence. In short, they set the team right. Arsenal are certainly in a much better state for such a game than they were in August. They would also point to how the recent 1-0 win over Watford could easily have been 4-0, and that their backline is resolute. They have the sixth-best defensive record in the Premier League, with just 13 conceded, despite losing one game 5-0.

It is one of the more interesting things about Arteta’s time, too. For all the expectations that he would follow Pep Guardiola in terms of philosophy, there are many occasions when his team look more like another of his mentor’s. Arsenal often play like the best of David Moyes’ Everton, and that is meant in a positive sense. They have a solid foundation and attack in spikes.

There’s also the fact that, like that Everton team, Arsenal are still some way below the big clubs. Their wage bill is considerably lower than the new big four, and some estimates have it at half of Manchester United’s. That reflects how the squad was shredded in the summer, but also that Arteta currently lacks the true elite quality of the new big four.

Most of their best players remain so young. Arteta knows that will lead to some erratic form. That’s what happens with youth. It is why he isn’t yet hailing this as any kind of turnaround. He’s just insisting it’s another step, and the team keep looking forward. That will be the message even if Liverpool bring defeat. The belief is that this Arsenal won’t again need a period like September.

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