Finally, this crazy and most congested of Premier League seasons takes its World Cup break and, after a breathless few months, it is possible to take stock of teams’ progress so far. For Arsenal, it is a case of much achieved, but much still to do. They finish the first tranche of 14 games with a completely unexpected five-point lead, but any sensible fan will realise that there is still a long way to go before they can even challenge for the Champions League places, let alone a Premier League title.
Much Done But Much Still to Do for Arsenal
The Arsenal. pic.twitter.com/w3qjD6Xlru
— Arsenal (@Arsenal) November 12, 2022
Mikel Arteta’s greatest achievement so far this season is to have brought the entire Arsenal “family” (for want of a better word) of players, fans and owners back together again for the first time in ages – possibly since Arsène Wenger’s first decade in charge of Arsenal ended with the Champions League final defeat to Barcelona in 2006. In effect, Arteta has gone from being the lightning conductor for fans’ grievances about the club and, in particular, its owners, the Kroenke family, to being the conductor of what is currently a high-class footballing orchestra.
It is genuinely remarkable how much progress has been made by both the manager and the team this season. Nobody had predicted that Arsenal would be leading the Premier League by this stage and yet that is precisely what they are doing after a start to the season that is even better than the one that Wenger’s greatest team made in the Invincibles season of 2003/04.
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In particular, Arsenal have regained a lot of their old defensive mastery, as was evident again in the 2-0 win at Wolverhampton Wanderers this weekend when they kept yet another clean sheet, their seventh in the Premier League this season. Indeed, to not have conceded even a single goal in half the league games they have played so far is probably the single most surprising Gunners statistic of the season.
Arteta may have taken his time to weigh up William Saliba, who he inherited from Unai Emery, but having done so he has shown enormous faith in him, breaking up the established and effective centre-back pairing of last season (Gabriel and Ben White) by moving White to right-back, where he has also excelled. Certainly, Arsenal have not had as many good centre-backs since the long-ago days of George Graham.
Completely Rehabilitating Granit Xhaka
Arteta’s second greatest achievement so far this season is to have completed the rehabilitation of Granit Xhaka, both on the pitch and in the eyes of fans. Indeed, so complete is that rehabilitation that when Xhaka limped off early against Wolves, Arsenal fans were genuinely worried about his absence from the team for the first time in his six-year Arsenal career.
In retrospect, it seems remarkable that the two previous Arsenal managers, Wenger and Emery, did not realise that Xhaka is really an attacking midfielder, as he is for his national side Switzerland, rather than the defensive/holding midfielder that he had originally been billed as and usually played as. It may simply be a classic case of nominative determinism being misleading, i.e. a player called ‘Granit’ must be defensively minded. Whatever the reason, Arteta has finally been able to keep Thomas Partey fit enough for long enough to perform that role, freeing Xhaka to be his on-field orchestrator of attacks.
Everyone is Contributing
The ultimate testament to the infinitely greater togetherness that Arteta has generated at Arsenal is the simple fact that seemingly everyone is contributing to the first team whenever they get a chance to play in it, at least at Premier League level. Many fans thought that Reiss Nelson had already left the club, but he replaced Bukayo Saka against Nottingham Forest and scored twice. Equally, Fabio Vieira (who, like Xhaka, many fans might have thought was a defensive midfielder, simply because of his name) is finally beginning to get up to speed with the Premier League, as he demonstrated against Wolves with his assist for Martin Ødegaard’s opener.
Now that Arteta has finally established a solid team structure and consistent style of play, it is far easier for squad players like Nelson and Vieira to come into the first team and contribute to it. And if everyone in the entire squad can keep contributing to the team as they have done so already, then Arsenal can go far this season.
But Much Remains to Be Done, Especially Strengthening the Squad
Arsenal’s previous game before the victory at Wolves was the limp 3-1 home defeat to Brighton & Hove Albion in the Carabao Cup last week. For the first time all season, Arteta rested a large number of his first-team players and instead fielded a team of squad players. The result was dispiriting, if not alarming, for Arsenal fans, as this second XI looked largely devoid of ideas and indeed ability.
Now, it must be stressed that it is always easier for a squad player, or even two squad players, to enter a successful first team than it is to field an entire team of squad players for the first time together and hope that they will at least resemble the first team. All the partnerships built up on the pitch during first-team games take time to develop and the squad players have simply not had that time to establish, let alone build on, such partnerships.
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Weakness in Front of Goal and in Midfield
Eddie Nketiah scored against Brighton, after an assist by Nelson, but it is still highly doubtful that he will ever emerge as the free-scoring striker that Arsenal really need to support Gabriel Jesus, who has dazzled this season without scoring the number of goals that his dazzling has deserved. It is still entirely likely that Arteta will have to strengthen his central attack in the January transfer window, if only by bringing Folarin Balogun back from his loan period in France with Reims.
The other obvious area of weakness, in the squad, if not the team, is central midfield. Partey and Xhaka have finally established a really effective central midfield partnership, but their deputies, Albert Sambi Lokonga and Mohamed Elneny, are nowhere near the same level. Consequently, one of the longest transfer sagas in recent history, namely Arsenal’s pursuit of Youri Tielemans, may be reactivated in January, especially with Tielemans in the last six months of his contract and Leicester likely to want to receive at least some money for him rather than just seeing him leave for free in the summer.
Above All, Arteta Has Provided Hope
Nevertheless, despite these understandable misgivings about Arsenal’s squad strength, particularly in central attack and central midfield, it would be utterly churlish not to give credit where it’s due and praise Arteta for his efforts this season. After nearly three years at the club, he has finally grown into the job and he is now managing Arsenal with far greater poise and assurance than he had done previously. In particular, he seems to be cutting out the kind of crazy tactical experiments (such as playing only one man in midfield, which is what happened when he paired Partey with either Ødegaard or Emile Smith Rowe) that he obviously learned from Pep Guardiola.
Now, with the World Cup enforcing a break in the Premier League, Arteta must regroup and refresh himself before attempting to do the same with his Arsenal team and squad, first when the international players return from the World Cup and then again in January when the transfer window opens. If he can do so, and in particular if he can find two first-team recruits for central attack and central midfield, then he has a real chance not just of winning a Champions League place but of being Manchester City’s main rival for the title.