With the Premier League heading into the first international break of the season, Arsenal fans will have time to take a breather and reflect on what, on the whole, has been an unsurprising and a little uninspiring, start to the season.
After labouring two fairly routine wins over Newcastle and Burnley – playing well without setting the world on fire – the Gunners were soundly defeated by Liverpool at Anfield, before a 2-2 draw last weekend at home to Spurs.
7 points from 4 games is not a bad return, however, and several parts of Arsenal’s start will give fans cause for optimism for the rest of the campaign. Then again, Arsenal’s fanbase can be notoriously flaky, often resorting to thinking the best or the worst of the team off a small sample size.
With that in mind, here’s three ‘hot takes’ that Arsenal fans should avoid after the first four games of the season:
“The kids should start every week!”
A real positive out of the first few weeks of the campaign has been the performances of some of Arsenal’s younger players. Joe Willock, for example, started the first three games of the season and did not look out of place at the heart of midfield.
Reiss Nelson had a goal disallowed against Burnley and looked lively in the first two games of the season, while Matteo Guendouzi played perhaps his best game in Arsenal colours in the North London Derby, showing incredible composure and leadership for a 20-year old.
The integration of more young players has been a real positive for Arsenal this season but fans shouldn’t think that this will be the norm for the rest of the season. Experience will be a vital part in Arsenal finishing in the top four, while young players will naturally tire as the campaign wears on, particularly as the gruelling Europa League campaign takes hold.
It is also vital for a young player’s development that they are integrated appropriately: confidence is the biggest factor in development between 18 and 21, and this can be knocked back through a single poor performance more so than an experienced campaigner.
Expect to see the likes of Willock, Nelson and Guendouzi get more opportunities than last season, but also spend periods out of the side resting, recovering, and improving their game on the training ground instead.
“Granit Xhaka should never play another league game!”
Arsenal’s (probable) captain made a terrible, catastrophic error against Tottenham. The tackle to bring down Heung-min Son in the box was one of the most scandalous brain fades in the North London Derby since Francis Coquelin extinguished Arsenal’s title hopes with a second yellow at White Hart Lane in 2016.
This isn’t the first time – or indeed anywhere close to the first time – Xhaka has made an error leading to a goal against Arsenal: in fact, he’s now made 11 of them in his Arsenal career, the most in the league between 2016-19.
It is clear Arsenal have a player who will continue to frustrate, however, there’s also a reason that he’s never been dropped… in his entire career.
Xhaka is a superb passer who is vital to the way that Arsenal build-up. In particular his long passing allows the full-backs to take up extremely advanced positions, knowing it is unlikely there will be a turnover that exposes them positionally when the Swiss international is on the ball.
He also provides invaluable leadership in a team that is severely lacking in this area and has been known to mentor younger players on and off the pitch. These sort of qualities are absolutely paramount over a long season.
Arsenal will eventually need to upgrade on Xhaka if they want to challenge for the title, but right now, the Swiss is an important part of the Arsenal side, rated highly by every manager he’s ever played under.
He’ll be a key cog in midfield this season, and rightly so, because what Arsenal lose in attack without him is still significantly more than they gain in defence.
“Nicolas Pepe hasn’t scored: he’s a flop!”
The Ivorian will face massive pressure throughout his Arsenal career, as a club record signing always does. However, it’s important to understand that while he’s flattered to deceive in his first four appearances, his adaptation will take time.
Pepe previously played in a pure counter-attacking Lille side, using his pace, exquisite close-control and dynamic shooting to exploit teams who’d committed too many men forward. All of these qualities will translate into a possession-based team like Arsenal, but it will take time as it is a new and difficult tactical skill for Pepe to learn- how to play in tight spaces.
Pepe is also the type of player who will go up and down from week-to-week. He’s a player who shoots a lot, and when his radar’s off, this will frustrate fans. The same applies to his final pass, the failure of which cost Arsenal a number of attacks against Spurs.
Where Pepe stands out though, is his willingness to see and attempt what other players won’t: that killer ball through four sets of legs that puts a striker one-on-one with the keeper, or the shot from range that curls into the corner. He’s confident and knows he’s got the ability to pull these skills off.
Unai Emery and Arsenal signed Pepe because they don’t have a player like him. While his willingness to try things in the first four weeks hasn’t worked thus far (although he did get an assist against Spurs), it will turn for him, and once he gets confidence playing in tight spaces, Arsenal fans will see the Nicolas Pepe that is worth every penny of his hefty transfer fee.