The new year for Arsenal kicked off in grand style as Mikel Arteta’s Arsenal squad won at home for the first time in a long while. With progress shown in all the 3 matches under the new coach, the win against Manchester United gave further hope to the Arsenal faithful that the Gunners are turning a corner under the former player turned head coach.
Arsenal are still a work in progress, but the direction is more positive, and it has the supporters hopeful for the remainder of the season and beyond. Let’s look at the three things we learned from this match.
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Unai Emery Was a Bad Coach
This may seem like a “pile on the rabbit” kind of statement or even an obvious observation. But with only 3 matches or 2 ½ weeks with the team, Mikel Arteta has the same group of players playing with commitment, determination and perhaps more joy than at any time under the former Basque head coach.
Ex-Manchester United defender, Rio Ferdinand had this to say about the team he saw today:
“They look like a different team. They are very intense and their structure looks very solid. All of the players look like they’ve tuned into this.
“In the performance today, we saw a discipline we’ve not seen on a consistent basis from this Arsenal team. There’s a structure and a confidence starting to brew within this team.
“They were quicker, stronger and more aggressive.”
It is the perfect summation of what we started to see in the first two matches and bore fruit in today’s win.
It beggars the question: what exactly was Unai Emery working on with these players? The answer may be simpler than you think.
When fans look at players we sometimes forget that they are human beings and like all of us require a connection with leadership, in this case, the head coach. If you are a leader in any organisation you have to get complete buy-in from those around you in order for any plan to get pulled off.
Under Unai Emery, you never got the sense that he had any connection to the players. In contrast, Mikel Arteta has made that connection and it shows – players no longer look devoid of ideas or commitment to a game plan. They no longer look laboured in their efforts and more importantly, they no longer look a disjointed mess.
And it shouldn’t be misconstrued that Arteta has come in to be their buddy or best friend. He’s made it very clear that not only is his job to create an environment that gets the best out of these players but he’s also made it clear if you’re not doing what he wants you to do, you aren’t going to play.
Arteta’s clean slate approach to every player is paying off and his clear communication of what he expects is coming across in the efforts he is getting from players Emery couldn’t get anything out of.
Mesut Özil is reborn and working his tail off. He is not only looking like the creative influence that Arsenal need him to be, but he is pressing, working hard and being a leader on the field.
Lucas Torreira is another one. Speculation is that things were so bad for Torreira under Emery that the Uruguayan pit bull didn’t even bother to say goodbye to him on his last day. Things had reached the point that before Emery’s sacking, it was widely assumed Torreira was gone.
And then there is Granit Xhaka. If any one player epitomized the chaos and mismanagement of the Unai Emery era, it was the Swiss midfielder. The culmination being his substitution brouhaha with the fans that ultimately led to his losing the captaincy.
It looked like there was no way back for Xhaka and reports were that he was hoping for a move back to Germany where he felt more appreciated. However, Arteta clearly has been talking to him and now it looks like he’s set to stay.
The key is not only believing in these players and letting them know it but putting them into positions that play to their strengths. With structure behind him, Mesut Özil is free to do Mesut Özil things. Torreira is playing as a defensive midfielder and providing cover to the back line. And Granit Xhaka is put in a position to be the deep-lying playmaker he is and that resulted in him having one his best performances in an Arsenal shirt ever.
Xhaka finished the night with:
- 100% final third pass accuracy
- 93% overall pass accuracy
- 8 ball recoveries
- 5/5 successful long balls
- 3 fouls suffered
- 3 tackles won
- 2 interceptions
Emery’s approach would’ve ended with more of necessary players alienated and likely leaving the club. With Arteta’s firm but friendly approach, the players look once again like they enjoy the game they are playing.
It’s a far cry better than anything that was seen in 18 months under Unai Emery
Press is Starting to Pay Dividends
Prior to the game, one of the areas that many were looking for improvement in is the pressing from the front. Under Emery, the press was ineffective with usually only one forward activating and no one in a position to play the second pass. This usually resulted in it being easy to play out of Arsenal’s pressure.
Arteta has come in and made little tweaks and already there is an improvement. He has identified cues as to when he wants to initiate the press. Arsenal’s forwards look to be coached to either wait for the ball to be played to an opposition’s wing-back or wait on an opposition’s centre-backs to carry the ball to around 10 yards from the half-way line.
The result is a much more organized and efficient pressing system.
Showing off his tactical nous, Arteta seemed to adjust this today, most likely due to the pace of Rashford and James on the flanks. Rather than initiating the press with when the full-backs got the ball, Maitland-Niles, Kolasinac, and Saka looked as though they were instructed to give the United’s wingers a little more space before they looked to play the ball.
Additionally, United are notoriously slow in their play across the back line. This afforded Arsenal the ability to regain their defensive shape quickly and keep play in front of them. The press would then be activated if a United centre-back lingered on the ball too long or if a bad touch was made by anyone across the back line.
The press was also activated deeper in the final third if the ball was played back to De Gea. With the entire forward line locking out the first pass, Lacazette was usually sent in to put pressure on De Gea.
Again, with a commitment structure behind him and extended through the 10 outfield players, options to play the ball were minimal and resulted in poor decisions in distribution resulting in turnovers.
There still remains work to be done in making it more effective but overall you are able to see an improved effort in this key function of the game become more effective with each game.
There will be peaks and valleys
Like the Chelsea match, the first half of this match showed an Arsenal totally in tune with what their head coach is asking them to do. The results were Arsenal, looking like Arsenal and more.
However, the system and style of play Arteta is looking for requires energy over the entirety of the match. And as David Luiz mentioned in the wake of today’s match, Arsenal aren’t fit enough . . . yet for this style of play.
“We have to be honest and humble to admit physically we are not ready. But where physically you are not there you have to put your hearts in.
“You can’t change from zero to 10 in one day, one week, one month, but it is beautiful to see how these kids start to understand their commitment, their behaviours of what they need to do for big things in life and big things in football.”
The lack of fitness is going to see Arsenal drop in their performances. Such was the case in the second half Sunday versus Chelsea and yesterday versus United. The difference between the two matches was that Arsenal managed the match better against United than they did against Chelsea.
Even with the feel-good factor of getting Arteta’s first win as head coach, there will still be moments of frustration as Arsenal try and fully right the ship. It will also experience highs as this talented group of players are once again put into positions to be successful and play to their strengths.
Regardless of the peaks and valleys of his early tenure, Arteta’s vision is there and the players are buying into it.
The Emirates today was as raucous a place as it has been in some time. Arteta has stressed the importance of getting the supporters behind the team and last night, we saw that with the crowd encouraging the players on.
Under Emery, seats were empty and the atmosphere was soulless. Last night was completely different and you knew that when they rose to give the team a standing ovation at the end of the first half, they were on board with what this Arsenal team were trying to do.
If Arsenal are going to push out of their rut, then the fans getting on board is going to be as important as anything Mikel Arteta and his players do.