Arsenal found themselves travelling to Goodison Park to take on Everton in Saturday’s early kick-off. In all honesty, they shouldn’t have bothered. With both side’s new managers in the stands to watch, many expected a pair of high-intensity teams eager to impress. This was not the case, however, as what unfurled was a game low on quality, far more memorable for Everton manager Duncan Ferguson once again subbing a substitute. Nevertheless, there were reasons for Arsenal fans to be positive, and this article shall take a closer look at these.
1. Defensive Solidity.
Although the game in itself was a dull affair, one huge positive was Arsenal’s defensive shape and solidity. In fact, Everton failed to register a shot on target all game, as they found it difficult to break down the Gunners defence. I for one was expecting little improvement on previous games, where Arsenal survive through a mixture of luck and Bernd Leno.
This was a different Arsenal though. Many will say that this was only because Everton were equally dismal, however, this is an Arsenal side that allowed bottom side Watford, who have registered just one win all season, take 31 shots. Even against Brighton, they still conceded 20 shots as they conceded twice and ultimately lost the game. Against Everton, the Gunners limited the home side to just nine shots, and more impressively none on target. A huge improvement on previous games.
This wasn’t pure luck either. There was clear evidence of improvement. Almost every player showed huge commitment, and the number of late blocks and general bodies-on-the-line mentality was something which had been severely lacking under Unai Emery. Quietly, Granit Xhaka and Lucas Torreira both had good games in the centre of midfield, albeit the Gunners were blunt in attack. To be clear, this is not saying that Arsenal are suddenly incredible defensively, but certainly I saw shoots of improvement, even in a dull stalemate.
2. The Youth
One of the biggest surprises of this fixture was Freddie Ljungberg’s team selection. He was certainly bold, relying on the players who he had already coached as head of the Under 23s side. Out went Ozil, a result of his dissent against Manchester City upon being substituted combined with his carrying of a “knock”. In his place, there was a first league start for 19-year-old Emile Smith Rowe. Similarly, star names Nicolas Pepe and Alexandre Lacazette both found themselves dropped to the bench, replaced by hot prospects Reiss Nelson and Gabriel Martinelli. The injury crisis at full-back meant that Maitland-Niles, still only 22, was reinstated at right-back whilst Bukayo Saka was fielded as a makeshift left-back.All in all, it was a very youthful Arsenal side, and one which acquitted itself well in difficult circumstances. All worked hard tracking back, something which again had been lacking under Emery, and the team generally offered more cohesion than we have seen previously. There is certainly huge room for improvement, but the youth prospects showed great promise which can only be a positive going forward, especially with Mikel Arteta’s notoriety for improving young players.
3. Bukayo Saka
For me, the standout player from either side was Bukayo Saka. This was not because he achieved anything particularly impressive, yet in a game lacking quality he was comfortable. This was especially encouraging when you consider the fact that the 18-year-old is a winger by trade, and yet was asked to play as a makeshift full-back in the absence of other options. This in itself was demonstrative of the trust that Freddie feels he can place in the youngster. Despite his tender age, Saka has shown great promise in the early parts of the season, and looks as if he could be a key part of Arsenal football club going forward.
Although early into the game, Saka received a yellow card (somewhat unfairly), he dealt with any threat on Everton’s right-hand side admirably, including one important block in the second half. He could be deployed there for the foreseeable future thanks to injuries to both natural left-backs, and on the basis of this performance, he could excel there.
In conclusion then, whilst at first glance Arsenal’s trip to Goodison Park was in many ways symptomatic of their season- dull, repetitive and frustrating- below the surface there were certainly shoots of improvement present. The defending was significantly improved from previous games, and there was definitely more heart in the performance of some players than had been seen previously. The youth prospects on show were promising, with the standout player being Bukayo Saka, whilst Martinelli continued to look completely comfortable at this level. Mikel Arteta has a lot to do, and the team will probably get worse in the short term, but already, there are small signs of improvement.