Almost every successful manager can identify a turning point in their career, when they saw their fortunes almost literally alter before their eyes, because they achieved an unexpected result or just benefited from a slice of luck. For Alex Ferguson, it was the winning goal by Mark Robins in an FA Cup tie against Nottingham Forest in 1990, which finally set the great Scot on the way to his first trophy with Manchester United; for Howard Kendall at Everton, it was Adrian Heath’s equaliser against Oxford in a League Cup tie late in 1983; and for Mikel Arteta at Arsenal, it might – stress, might – be Alexandre Lacazette’s last-minute, indeed almost last-second, equaliser against Crystal Palace last month in the Premier League.
At the time, it was not immediately obvious that Lacazette’s goal would have any significance other than allowing Arsenal to scramble an undeserved point against a Palace side, coached by Gunners legend Patrick Vieira, that had largely dominated them at home. And yet since then, there seems to have been a marked upturn at Arsenal in almost every regard, as they have convincingly won their next four games (three in the league and one in the Carabao Cup, against Premier League Leeds), scoring nine goals and conceding just one, culminating in the 1-0 home defeat of Watford on Sunday.
Mikel Arteta’s Arsenal Are Finally Starting to Emerge
The return of Alexandre The Very Good
The obvious change to Arsenal was the reintroduction of Lacazette. Since scoring that late equaliser against Palace, he has played in all three Premier League games, against Aston Villa and Watford at home and Leicester away, and although he has not scored again he has contributed enormously to the overall improvement of the team. Playing in an unusual position as a quasi-No.10 behind Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, a role that seemed to have been sewn up by either Emile Smith Rowe or Martin Ødegaard, he won a crucial penalty against Aston Villa and another one against Watford, which Aubameyang also missed, as against Villa, but this time couldn’t convert the rebound. Even more importantly, however, Lacazette seems to have liberated Aubameyang to return to something like his best form at Arsenal.
Of course this should not be surprising, as Aubameyang has usually played his best at Arsenal when he has had Lacazette alongside him in attack. They have rarely, if ever, operated as an orthodox front two, but they have still often dovetailed beautifully, almost rotating between front man and slightly withdrawn creator, as was evident in Arsenal’s run to the Europa League Final in 2019 and even more potently in the FA Cup win in 2020. Quite simply, as Ian Wright and others have said, Arsenal are a better team with both their main strikers in the starting 11, and with Lacazette playing for a new contract and/or to impress other clubs, he absolutely merits his place in Arsenal’s line-up.
Greater Consistency In Every Area
However, alongside Lacazette’s return to the team, Arsenal seem to have improved generally. Since the Frenchman’s late entrance against Palace, there has been greater consistency in almost every aspect: selection; tactics; and above all commitment. As a result, nearly two years into his tenure at The Emirates, it finally seems that Mikel Arteta’s Arsenal – his side, playing the way that he wants them to play – is starting to emerge.
New Goalkeeper, New Arsenal?
Having been the No.2 to Pep Guardiola at Manchester City for a couple of seasons, Arteta was intimately involved with what may be the last remaining great tactical development in football, namely playing with 11 men rather than 10 by getting the goalkeeper involved in outfield play. Aaron Ramsdale has a long way to go to match the seasons-long consistency of Ederson at City, or Alisson at Liverpool, but even in the few matches that he has played for Arsenal so far he has shown infinitely more skill as a swift distributor of the ball than Bernd Leno did in his three seasons as Arsenal’s largely unchallenged No.1.
However, for all his long-range passing and rapid throwing-out, Ramsdale has also excelled between the posts, which of course remains the primary role for a goalkeeper. His amazing save against Leicester, which elicited the effusive praise of Peter Schmeichel, was impressive enough, but arguably even more impressive was his reaction to conceding a late goal against Aston Villa, when Arsenal were three up and seemingly cruising to a clean sheet. Arsenal fans have probably not seen their goalkeeper taking the concession of a goal personally, so much so that Ramsdale verbally laid into his defence and central midfielders, since the days of David Seaman. And against Watford, he proved that he is a lucky goalkeeper as well as a good one, as his late error was not punished by Josh King.
A Far More Settled Defence
Ramsdale’s excellence in goal has also contributed to a major improvement in the Arsenal defence. Like Ramsdale with Seaman, they have a long way to go before they can even begin to compare with the great back four of Adams, Bould, Dixon and Winterburn, but at least and at long last they are beginning to look like a unit, working together, rather than just a hapless collection of individuals who look like they have just met. Ben White and Gabriel are clearly the first-choice central defensive pairing; Takehiro Tomiyasu has been little short of a revelation at right-back; and even Nuno Tavares has deputised ably for Kieran Tierney at left-back, to the extent that it is no longer regarded as a complete calamity if the former Celtic man is unable to play, which, given his continuing injury troubles, is just as well.
A Proper Central Midfield at Arsenal
Of all his tactical experiments throughout his time at Arsenal, Arteta’s worst by far has been his occasional attempt to play with a one-man midfield. He may deny ever doing so, but that was the inevitable effect whenever he paired Thomas Partey, who was still largely finding his feet in the Premier League after his move from Atletico Madrid, with either Emile Smith Rowe or Martin Ødegaard, two natural No.10s, or at best attacking midfielders, who simply did not have the defensive discipline or even the defensive instincts to act as a double-pivot alongside Partey.
Against Watford, Partey was missing through injury, but Albert Sambi Lokonga continued his good form. The summer signing from Anderlecht who came into the side after the Palace game, is a genuine central midfielder, who can both tackle sufficiently well to protect his defence and pass sufficiently well to set up attacks. His inclusion alongside Partey since the Palace game has immeasurably helped to improve the balance of the side. And in Partey’s absence against Watford, Ainsley Maitland-Niles impressed in a rare opportunity to play in his favoured central midfield position. Hopefully Arteta has finally learned that, as with heads, two central midfielders are better than one.
And, Finally, a Functioning Attack
Lacazette’s return to the team has not only benefited Aubameyang but the two younger members of Arsenal’s front line, Bukayo Saka and Emile Smith Rowe, particularly the latter. While Saka is still to return to the form of last season that led him into England’s Euro 2020 team, ahead of no less a star than Phil Foden, Emile Smith Rowe has visibly improved this season. He is finally adding goals, including the winner against Watford, to assists and overall workrate, suggesting that he can begin to live up to that most daunting of nicknames, “The Croydon De Bruyne”.
But What Will Happen After the International Break?
Arsenal have now gone 10 games unbeaten in all competitions after losing the first three Premier League games of the season, and after beating Watford they are fifth in the league table. However, their next task could hardly be more daunting, as they travel to Anfield immediately after the international break. However, even if Arsenal should lose at Anfield, which is likely given their dismal recent record there, they are finally showing what appear to be genuine signs of improvement.
Of course, as almost every Arsenal fan will tell you, over the last decade there have been more false dawns at The Emirates than you would find in a Hollywood studio. Consequently, there is a long way to go for Arsenal and Arteta to show that they can compete against the genuinely elite teams, like Liverpool. However, it bears repeating that this is finally Arteta’s side, with Aubameyang and Lacazette the only first-choice players who he has not signed or promoted to the first team. Finally, after two of the hardest years that any Arsenal fan can remember (the two-game FA Cup-winning run against Manchester City and Chelsea in 2020 excepted), this is Arteta’s team and they are starting to show some real promise.
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