Baby Steps: Why Arsenal’s Season Mightn’t Be Entirely Doomed

This image is a derivative of Arsenal - Emirates Stadium by Paul Hudson (CC BY 2.0)

It was quite simple, Arsenal just had to win on the weekend.

To be honest, it didn’t matter how they got the job done, the result didn’t have to be one to live long in the infamy of Arsenal folklore while the replay could’ve very well been burnt or stored in a safe with the key thrown away.

They just needed three points on the board when the final whistle sounded and well, they succeeded.

A 1-0 home win over newly-promoted Norwich City was enough to momentarily ease the mounting pressure on coach Mikel Arteta following a dismal start to the season which yielded no points or goals from their opening three games.

Anything less had the potential to go nuclear and the temperature on Arteta’s already simmering hot seat would’ve only been dialled up tenfold.

Gunners’ fans needed to walk out of the Emirates Stadium with something to cling onto and perhaps the win gives the team somewhat of a platform to build off.

The performance was far from revolutionary but it was far from rudderless and uninspiring.

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Arsenal had structure, played with purpose and looked reinvigorated – a far cry from their 5-0 thrashing at the hands of Manchester City before the international break.

Arteta described the break as “the best 10-15 days I have ever had in football” and maybe it was what was needed to help him find the antidote to the Gunners’ many seemingly untreatable wounds. 

In saying that, just how did things turn a bit of a corner on the weekend?

As the old adage says – ‘defence is the best form of attack’.

With key defensive personnel returning, Arteta was finally able to start solving Arsenal’s long-standing issues in the back-half which have plagued the team for years on end.

Arteta shifted to a 4-2-3-1 from a 5-4-1 and made a whopping seven changes to the side – with four of those coming in the defensive half.

Ben White and Gabriel provided a major boost in the heart of defence while debutants Takehiro Tomiyasu and Aaron Ramsdale were thrusted in at right-back and goal-keeper respectively.

To describe these inclusions as ‘timely’ is being generous and is underselling just how leaky and dysfunctional their defence was prior to the international break.

Throughout the opening three games, Arsenal conceded an average of 2.78 xg per game from 18.3 shots – showcasing that not only were they giving up efforts on goal but the shots were in much-more dangerous areas.

However, against Norwich, those numbers were down significantly, conceding only 10 shots and 0.61 xg.

Although the Canaries don’t possess the all-star attacking quality of the likes of Chelsea and City - it’s still a step in the right direction as they exhibited a much stronger and more organised defensive unit throughout the 90.

To help solve their defensive crisis, Arsenal spent big to bring in White and Tomiyasu who are not only quality long-term inclusions but they help add an extra element to the way in which the Gunners look to play.

White, a ball-playing centre-back, was sensational in his second-start forming a solid partnership with Gabriel and provided a fulcrum for the side to build-up from the back – making three key passes.

In comparison to his ‘direct replacement’ David Luiz (who played a similar role to White), only made two key passes for the entirety of last season.

Tomiyasu on the other-hand may finally be the answer at right-back, showcasing not only a willingness to get forward but a strong defensive presence winning seven aerial duels.

What the Japanese international also provides is versatility and his ability to shift into a back-three in attack allows Kieran Tierney to get higher up the left-flank and best utilise his skills as an attacking full-back.

A first clean-sheet of the season is a big tick and hopefully the first of many for Ramsdale who also impressed on debut between the sticks.

However, it was not only the inclusions of the aforementioned ‘fantastic four’ that helped the Gunners to three points.

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The return of Thomas Partey is arguably the most important of the lot.

What the former Atletico Madrid midfielder provides won’t feature regularly on highlight reels but his function will help others take up those valuable seconds – performing the intangibles to a tee.

Partey adds much-needed steel in the middle of the park (another problematic area), marauding from side to side to win the ball back and slotting in as an extra central defender when defending in transition and in attack.

Going forward is where he is most useful but again in an impalpable sense – freeing up attack-minded players to have greater freedoms and less defensive responsibilities.

When Partey came on, the Gunners were chasing the game and shifted the more attack-minded Ainsley Matiland-Niles to right-back while bringing on Emile Smith-Rowe to offer some extra creativity in midfield.

His influence was profound, giving both the full-backs and creative midfielders Smith-Rowe and Martin Odegaard extra license to get forward and facilitate closer to goal.

Arsenal’s xG was 0.59 before Partey was subbed on but was 2.46 in the period of time the Ghanian international was on the park – exemplifying how Arsenal were able to create better chances when he was on the park.

To cap off his performance, it was Partey who also helped kick-start the build-up for Aubameyang’s winner.

After receiving the ball following a Smith-Rowe forced turnover, the defensive midfielder played a cutting pass to Bukayo Saka who was able to wriggle free and set the ball in motion for the eventual winner.

He can even do the tangibles when called upon!

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Arsenal have never lacked attacking options but have struggled to find solutions to their problems in the defensive issues but perhaps Partey, White and Tomiyasu may finally be the answers.

What they provide is a nucleus and something for Arteta to build around by placing his best attack-minded players in around these types to play their more natural role.

Odegaard benefits, Smith-Rowe benefits, Tierney benefits – the whole team benefits.

As shown on the weekend, by having these personnel at his disposal, Arteta has an extra ace or two up his sleeve by being able to shift between systems and move the magnets when required to chase or defend a lead.

In all, any sort of improvement from the opening three games would be considered progress.

On the weekend we saw something far from a completely lost clause and there really may be something to build off heading into an important stretch of games including a North London Derby against Tottenham.

The win doesn’t suggest that Arsenal are set to take the league by storm, surge up the table with a miraculous run of results and secure a top-four birth but it can be used as a springboard for the rest of the season.

Continued progression from here is paramount and one win won’t immediately lift the doom and gloom lingering over the Emirates but it’s a baby-step in the right direction.

Maybe, just maybe there is a ray of sunshine seeping through.

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Nick D'Urbano

Nick D'Urbano is a freelance sports writer. Throughout Nick's career, he's worked for numerous multimedia companies in print, radio and TV. Currently, Nick covers the A-League, W-League, AFL and AFLW for News Corp Australia's Newswire along with co-hosting Twilight Football on FNR Football Nation Radio. Nick won the Antenna Award for the 2019 Youth Personality of the Year for his work on Channel 31's AFL talk show 'The Rushed Behind.

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