Three games into his reign, I think that it is fair to say that new head-coach Mikel Arteta has restored Arsenal fans’ love for football once again. Just hearing the atmosphere as Arsenal shut out Manchester United was sufficient evidence for this. Having the fans onside was always going to be the easier battle though, gaining the support of the players thought to be far more tricky. Arteta has handled this with aplomb, and the team finally seem to be pulling in the same direction. This article will look at three players who may finally be able to thrive under the Spaniard’s rulership.
It is clear that Granit Xhaka was chronically misused by Unai Emery. He is not a defensive midfielder, and he never has been. At the beginning of the season, I wrote of the importance of dropping the Swiss international to conform to Unai Emery’s system. Emery’s insistence of a defensive shape featuring a double-pivot simply did not play to Xhaka’s strengths and highlighted his weaknesses.
Under Arteta however, early performances suggest that Xhaka will be a key component of Arsenal’s midfield. With Arteta opting for a 2-3-5 or 2-5-3 formation in possession, Xhaka is quite literally the fulcrum of the Gunners side. His defensive shortcomings are less exposed by his deployment as a no.8 rather than a no.6, whilst his exquisite passing range can be fully utilised.
This new-found freedom was clearly visible against Manchester United. Granit Xhaka produced a flawless performance, one which left Arsenal fans roaring in support- a far cry from the reception he received under Unai Emery, demonstrated by the Crystal Palace affair. In both defence and attack, Xhaka was instrumental, winning the ball back all over the pitch and completing 93% of his attempted passes. A stark contrast to his perceived performances under Unai Emery’s leadership.
Amidst rumours of a January return to the Bundesliga, Mikel Arteta has since come forward and suggested that he expects Xhaka to stay, and wishes him to do so. If the Swiss international can regularly contribute with that sort of performance, he will prove integral to the side moving forward.
How nice is it to see Lucas Torreira back in his usual role? He was bought with the intention of shielding the defence, playing at the base of the midfield. Indeed, he did this so effectively that he drew comparisons to the best in that position0, N’Golo Kante. Emery clearly cottoned onto this, choosing to follow in Mauricio Sarri’s footsteps and play his ball-winning midfielder in an advanced role. This was an unequivocal failure, the mere thought of shooting seemingly causing Torreira to panic.
Arteta has returned the Uruguayan to the no.6 position in which he belongs, and he has once again begun to excel. His bullishness was demonstrated late in the game, when rather than being substituted as had once looked likely, he instead took on an energy shake and chucked himself back into the fray. This attitude epitomises everything good about the new-look Arteta Arsenal side, and at 23 years old he is able to make himself a mainstay in this refreshed side.
Arsenal’s defence has been largely shambolic in recent memory, and regularly labelled ‘uncoachable‘. David Luiz, signed on deadline day, largely flattered to deceive under Unai Emery but has put in performances of the highest quality. Despite conceding twice against Chelsea, the Brazilian looked far more comfortable and commanding than he has seemed previously against his former club. Three days later, he once again provided a performance that any defensive leader would have been proud of against another top club, Manchester United. Within just two weeks, Arteta has proved that he is not uncoachable.
Of course, there will still be mistakes, characteristic of David Luiz’s entire career. However, he is a huge beneficiary of Arsenal’s fundamentally changed outlook. Under Emery, they would seek to defend on the back foot, attempting to absorb a great deal of pressure, all too often too much. Under Arteta, defending from the front has become a key philosophical aspect, and Luiz is perfectly suited to this type of defending. It does of course raise the question of why he was bought in the first place, yet for the moment he could well become a bastion of Arsenal’s defence until the summer arrival of William Saliba.
It is difficult to name an outfield player not seeing instant improvement under Mikel Arteta- in less than three weeks he has managed to totally transform the atmosphere in and around the club, and the players have shown what we all knew- that they possess quality well above their bottom half position. It is now important that Arsenal fans maintain a sense of reality; the new manager bounce has hit north London, but there will certainly be more down moments before the season is out, even if on the whole the club is moving in the right direction in Arteta’s early days as manager.