Just How Far Can Arsenal Go?
In the midst of the first international break of the season, Arsenal have enjoyed their best start to a Premier League campaign since 2004. The Gunners are playing with the sort of swagger that comes with the territory of top of the league. The fans have generated a party atmosphere worthy of the performances they travel across the country to watch. The symbiosis of the relationship between the two has been a cornerstone of the team’s successful start this season.
Despite this, it feels like the footballing world outside of the Arsenal bubble (and even the more pessimistic of those within it) are waiting for the inevitable collapse. The scars of Villarreal and Oympiacos are deep wounds that have faded into the subconscious. Arsenal’s dismantling against their rivals from up the road will be carried bare by players and fans alike for years.
Memory in football is unforgiving. One bad result, one shaky performance can shape the narrative around a team or player for years to come. There are countless examples out there to draw from, but from an Arsenal perspective you need only cast your mind back 12 or so months to the furore surrounding Ben White’s competitive Arsenal debut. Playing for the first time in Arsenal colours, in certainly extenuating circumstances, White was one of many to have an off day. The discourse surrounding the English international since has been wildly unjust and puzzling. The defender has delivered exceptional performances for Arsenal since his debut, with his quiet diligence being underappreciated by all but those who watch him every week. Yet still, the media use a few lost duels to one of the league’s most physically proficient forwards in Ivan Toney as a stick to continually beat him with.
As the old adage goes, every cloud has its silver lining, and football remembering the bad stuff is no exception. This year we’ve seen Arsenal approach games with an unrelenting and merciless decisiveness. Against Crystal Palace on the opening day of the season, Arsenal took control of the game from the first minute. The Eagles didn’t have a kick for the opening half an hour. Arsenal’s performance against Brentford two weekends ago was one of the most dominant displays the team has produced in recent memory.
Within two minutes Arsenal had produced a sweeping passing move that very nearly ended in a Martinelli goal. Martinelli may have slipped at the crucial time, but the move was indicative of the performance to come. The Gunners took a hold of the game with a vice-like grip, suffocating what can be a dangerously lively Gtech Community Stadium, as Arsenal discovered last season
At the heart of those performances comes the pain of how last season ended, and the effect that this has had on the squad’s mentality. Learning the hard way can be invaluable to development. Transforming just one game’s worth of dropped points last season would have seen Arsenal finish, above all expectations, within the Champions League places. A ruthlessness within games against Burnley, Southampton, Brighton, Everton – all of which Arsenal would expect to win – could have seen things turn out so differently.
Aaron Ramsdale, the Arsenal (and hopefully England) No.1, has said as much. A young player himself, unused to challenging for the sort of goals Arsenal routinely set, acknowledged just how motivating that painful end of season run-in has been in the wake of Arsenal’s 3-0 win at Bournemouth in August:
“It’s crazy how our mentality has changed from what happened at the end of last season to now, we’re just more ruthless.
“We saw how close we came last season and what happened at the end.” (The Athletic)
It’s natural for humans to avoid replicating circumstances which cause significant pain. Arsenal fans felt the sting of humiliation by their greatest rivals, but you can bet it hurt the players even more. The response has been exemplary. They sit at the summit of the league, and look to be in a strong position to exorcise the demons of 21/22 and achieve their Champions League dreams. But is there more in store for Arteta’s Arsenal?
The next 6 weeks will tell us if this team is ready to challenge for bigger things.
Much of Arsenal’s start this season has been met with the caveat of the fixture list. Arsenal have been somewhat fortunate in the teams that they have faced so far this season, facing only Manchester United from last season’s top 6 – who inflicted Arsenal’s only loss so far this campaign. It is however important to note that teams such as Aston Villa, Fulham and Brentford have taken points from both sides of Manchester and Liverpool – and have all been convincingly beaten by the Gunners.
October sees Arsenal host the North London Derby and bogey team Liverpool at the Emirates, before heading to Stamford Bridge in early November. These are significant tests for the Gunners, who achieved 6/9 points in the corresponding fixtures last season. We will be in a much better position to assess Arsenal once these games have been played. There is however cause for optimism in the fanbase, if the display at Old Trafford is appropriate evidence. They suffered a defeat that a dominant and positive performance did not warrant.
Augmenting a more challenging fixture list is the sheer volume of it; in October alone Arsenal have 9 fixtures to play as a result of the mid-season World Cup. To maintain hopes of challenging for the Europa League and the Premier League, Arsenal will have to deal with an unprecedented level of workload. The squad is certainly stronger and deeper than it was last season, but it remains to be seen if the team can maintain such a high level of performance when inevitably core personnel need to be rested, whether that be enforced through injury and suspension or preemptive rotation.
Inevitably there will be setbacks – such is the nature of football – and so another thing to look out for is how the team responds to them. So far, Arsenal have dealt with disappointment well this term. After the disappointment at Old Trafford came the Brentford performance. On a more micro level, Martinelli struck seconds after Leicester got back into the game at the Emirates in matchweek 2. Arsenal came from 1-0 down to beat Fulham in a game that 12 months ago could have had a very different result. The question is, will Arsenal be able to react quickly enough to avoid dismantling a pivotal month in the footballing calendar?
Then there is the matter of unpredictability. This stems from Arsenal’s recent displays from a tactical perspective. Mikel Arteta has finally been able to implement a clear vision and stamp his identity on the way that Arsenal play. They approach each game with intensity, purpose and discipline across all phases. We’ve seen Granit Xhaka crash the box, with inverted fullbacks bolstering the midfield ahead of a Gabriel-Saliba clean-up crew. Jesus’ movement and dribbling ability have been central to the devastating Arsenal we have seen this season.
What happens when teams don’t allow Arsenal to play their favoured game? This is a challenge Arsenal will face the more successful their approach becomes. The level of tacticians in the Premier League is arguably at an all-time high, and if Arsenal keep winning it won’t be long before teams start to work out how to disrupt them. Crystal Palace manager (and former Arsenal captain) Patrick Vieira isolated and nullified Lacazette’s contribution to Arsenal’s build-up at Selhurst Park last season, a move that destroyed Arsenal’s offensive gameplan and ultimately derailed their entire campaign in one fell swoop. So, can Arsenal find ways to tweak their approach and maintain some form of unpredictability, whilst remaining true to the overarching principles that Mikel Arteta abides by to avoid such devastating consequences?
The Arsenal manager has shown numerous times that he can adapt his teams structurally to meet the requirements of the time. He utilised a back 5 to great success in the FA Cup triumph of 2020 before employing a more fluid version of it to mastermind a 4-2 win at Stamford Bridge in April – both are a far cry from his ideal 433 system. It isn’t anticipated that Arteta will drastically veer away from a tactic that has produced so many dominant performances of late over the next 6 weeks, but with the relentless nature of the fixtures for the upcoming period, his tactical prowess will be tested every 3-4 days. It will be interesting to see how noticeable and effective his tweaks are.
The period of football until the World Cup is far from season-defining, and it is important to recognise that Arsenal will make mistakes between now and then in what is an extremely rigorous and demanding schedule. It will however go a long way to answering some of the questions that hang over Arteta and his squad. The main thing is that despite the outside noise, there is a shared belief around those involved with the club that there are big things to come for this Arsenal team. Talk of a title challenge may be slightly premature, but crazier things have happened in football. Let’s see where we are in November.
Andre Mederick, @goonerameds