If seven wins from seven tries is what Unai Emery and this Arsenal team can accomplish while struggling to find their best form, fans should start getting excited about just what this team is capable of doing. The Gunners showed their mettle on Saturday against Watford, withstanding sustained onslaughts in each half to secure their second consecutive Premier League clean sheet, all while having yet to put together an entire 90 minutes of quality football. Emery’s Arsenal is rapidly developing an ability to win tough matches, and despite apparently being slower to grasp the finer points of their new head coach’s system as fast as Chelsea have done with Maurizio Sarri, the positive results keep coming. The Gunners will continue with their congested run of fixtures on Thursday this week when they travel to Azerbaijan to take on Qarabag FK.
Changing Of The Guard
For many Arsenal supporters, the signing of Bernd Leno from Bayer Leverkusen this summer meant the end of Petr Cech’s reign in goal at the Emirates Stadium. Despite arriving in the summer of 2015 with a sterling reference from then Chelsea captain John Terry, who claimed that his former keeper would be worth more than 10 points for Arsenal with his acquisition alone, the Gunners never quite got the same world class goalkeeper that dominated the Premier League for a decade in West London. His play continued on a linear decline until this season, when new competition in the squad and a new manager seemed to reinvigorate the former Czech international. His shot stopping this season had been as good as it ever was in his Arsenal career, and a summer focus on improved strength and fitness saw a much more aggressive Cech return for the new season.
Cech continued his excellent form on Saturday, keeping Watford off of the scoresheet in the first half as the team in front of him struggled to deal with a physical, energised opponent. Cech stood strong in his goal, coming for crosses to snuff out the danger and it was his presence of mind (and a strong wrist) that kept Watford captain Troy Deeney from poking a loose ball into the net following a scrum in the area. However, his stranglehold on the number 1 shirt may have been broken in the dying moments of the first half when, following another afternoon in which he played the ball with his feet more than ever before in his career (as has been de rigeur under a Unai Emery), Cech immediately clutched for his hamstring after following through on a deep kick, waving toward the sideline to make the substitution.
As Cech limped off and was replaced by Leno, one could almost feel that both men knew that this could be the changing of the guard at Arsenal. The supporters on hand bathed their new goalkeeper in warm applause, excited to see what the new arrival could do in Premier League action. After shanking his first kick of the second half into the stands, Leno settled in well and he preserved the clean sheet his teammate had diligently maintained. This included an excellent reaction save in which Leno was cat-like in getting down low to poke the ball wide. Bernd Leno may not be the starting goalkeeper at Arsenal strictly due to performance, as Cech shocked many by winning his place with a strong summer, but the job is now his to lose, and if Saturday is any indication, he is ready to seize it with both gloves.
Better Than Cannavaro…
Arsene Wenger knew. All the way back in August 2016, following a 0-0 draw with Leicester, the Frenchman apologised to the assembled journalists in his trademark charismatic sarcasm for Holding, who had played extremely well on the day, not costing the club £55 million. His point at the time was that he believed the club had found a young English player who could really succeed in the Premier League, despite not coming with the weight of expectation attached to an enormous transfer fee. Fans got to witness his ability for themselves at the tail end of that season when Holding stepped into a defence decimated by injury to help close out the campaign on a high, with the Gunners going on to lift the FA Cup.
While Holding looked a bit off the pace at times last season, rarely having the opportunity to find a rhythm without a consistent run of games, he had flashed once again this season with his play in the last 2 matches and is knocking on the door of Unai Emery’s first XI, even once Sokratis returns from injury. Holding looked confident and strong against Watford, handling the intense physicality of the wily Deeney with little trouble. Watford were a nuisance to the Arsenal backline in the first half, seizing on their struggles with playing out from the back and putting an uncharacteristic amount of pressure on Arsenal’s build up. However, Holding and partner Shkodran Mustafi were able to do just enough to keep Watford from scoring, bolstered as they were by the excellent team effort of Cech and Leno behind them.
Gooners might have jumped the gun a little bit when, in 2016, they sang “Rob Holding, you know! He’s better than Cannavaro”, but perhaps we are now witnessing his ascension to becoming a vital player for this team.
Stuck On The Left
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette are both true strikers. Despite the former’s searing pace and ability to shoot from the angle and the latter’s close area control and tenacity in tracking back, neither player is particularly suited for the wing either. However, after 7 Premier League matches, that is exactly where last winter’s marquee signing, Aubameyang, finds himself. The Gabon striker started the season through the middle, but following some incohesive attacking displays and a couple strong cameos for his best friend and teammate Lacazette, he has become the preferred starter on the left flank.
When both players still get their goals, as was the case last weekend against Newcastle, everybody is satisfied, and the smiles are endless. However, when it doesn’t work, it is painfully obvious that both Aubameyang and Unai Emery’s philosophy are suffering to make it work. Aubameyang isn’t a selfish player, but he is a goal scorer above all else, and his place on the wing is a detriment to the team’s defensive shape without the ball. He has not showed the consistent desire to press and track back and help his full back as the situation requires, and with Mesut Ozil presenting similar issues on the opposite flank, the Gunners have looked exposed and stretched at times when the opponent attacks.
Further complicating the situation is young Alex Iwobi and Danny Welbeck, who have both shone in their appearances this season. Welbeck has looked strong and quick this season as ostensibly the third choice striker and Iwobi offers far more of the defensive strength and creative attributes that managers tend to prefer out wide. Their strong showing and Auba’s struggles to perform at his best in his new role could give Emery one of the most surprising headaches of his first season at the club.
Rambo Struggles But Leaves to Warm Applause
Heading into the weekend, there was one story that dominated the Arsenal news cycle following a bombshell report immediately after the Carabao Cup triumph against Brentford on Wednesday. In it, it was revealed that contract negotiations had broken down between the club and Aaron Ramsey, even going so far to say the club took a largely agreed upon offer off of the table following apparent discussions between the club hierarchy and Unai Emery.
While it is impossible to say whether or not the negotiations have weighed heavy on the Welshman’s mind, Ramsey has nevertheless not looked himself so far this season. His 2 assists last week merely obscured the fact that he has been largely ineffective as Emery’s principle number 10, despite his presence forcing Mesut Ozil to the right flank.
His performance on Saturday was more of the same, moments of the old Rambo mixed with a lack of cohesion in transitional phases. Despite being a true goal threat from the midfield, moving Ramsey closer to the opponent’s half has neutered the most effective weapon in his arsenal; those late arriving runs from deep that are nearly impossible for opponents to track. By the time he was hauled off for Alex Iwobi in the 63rd minute, he had failed to produce a shot on goal or key pass in the final third, and his slow walk, stooped shoulders and shaking head revealed exactly how he felt about his own performance. However, in what could be seen as small consolation, the Emirates faithful acquitted themselves well (let’s be honest, an increasingly rare occurrence these days), warmly clapping off the man who has served the club so faithfully for the last decade.
Qarabag Match Presents Unique Challenge For One Player
Arsenal will be looking to make it 8 wins in a row on Thursday when they travel to Baku, Azerbaijan to take on Qarabag in the Europa League Group Stage. While the match isn’t seen as a serious risk to the Gunners’ impressive run, one player may be forced to miss out on the match due to a situation that is well out of his control.
As those who follow the world’s politics are no doubt aware, people of Armenian descent are not currently allowed in Azerbaijan, a ban serious enough to extend to those who merely possess an Armenian last name. Despite having absolutely no role in the current conflict, Henrikh Mkhitaryan could likely be barred from competing with his teammates. For a player who was forced to miss out on the all-important Europa League campaign last season and watch his team fall to an impossibly resilient Atletico Madrid, the potential exclusion has to be frustrating. Luckily for Arsenal and Mhkitaryan, the issues involving his admission into the country of Azerbaijan are not likely to factor into the later stages of the competition, in which the club will rely on the deep and versatile squad to help distribute the workload across all competitions.