Why are Arsenal so good right now?

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After Arsenal so agonisingly fell at the final hurdle of last year’s Premier League title race, fans and pundits alike wrote off their electrifying displays of attacking football as a mere flash in the pan, foreseeing an impending return to the comparative obscurity of the minor European places. For a period of time, such predictions seemed to be materialising. While Mikel Arteta’s side sat atop the table at Christmas this season, much of the year’s success had been derived from solid defensive endeavour. The defensive triangle of record signing Declan Rice in front of William Saliba and Gabriel had already led the side to a quartet of 1-0 victories. At the other side of the pitch, however, they had lost much of the fearless offensive impetus that characterised last season’s side, scoring fewer goals than the four sides below them in the table. 

So much of last season’s success had come by exploiting space in wide areas as Granit Xhaka and Ben White constantly seeked to support the wingers on the overlap. While White and Bukayo Saka had somewhat maintained that dynamic, albeit to lesser avail, the left side appeared dysfunctional at times. Kai Havertz is a good player in his own right but his lack of athletic dynamism renders him unsuitable for the box-crashing runs that Xhaka made so often. With Oleksandr Zinchenko tucked into midfield during attacking phases, Martinelli was isolated and struggled significantly, netting just twice in the opening four months of the season. Phases of possession were lengthy yet stale, and when breakthroughs were eventually made, attackers often misfired in open play, with around half of the season’s goals coming via either set pieces or penalties.

A hope of a first title in 20 years had seemingly vanished

Inevitably, this lack of creativity and often poor finishing came back to bite the Gunners directly after Christmas, as consecutive losses against West Ham and Fulham left them languishing in 4th, five points adrift from Klopp’s Liverpool side. A hope of a first title in 20 years had seemingly vanished, and the only cup competition left was the Champions League, a title that Arsenal were never able to claim even under the glory days of Arsene Wenger. It was dire. 

However, since that dismal evening, Arsenal have turned a corner, with a week-long warm weather break in Dubai rejuvenating the side. Barring a late slip-up in a difficult away fixture against Porto in the Champions League, their form has been flawless. They have scored 25 goals in just six league games and shipped only three, with a dominant 3-1 home win over league leaders Liverpool and a brutal 6-0 demolition of West Ham particular highlights. After two more impressive results against Burnley and Newcastle, they now sit just two points behind Liverpool, firmly in the title race once again. From looking devoid of ideas in open play, the Gunners have now become the first team ever to score two or more goals in seven consecutive halves of Premier League football. But how has this happened?

They have scored 25 goals in just six league games

Essentially, Arteta has maintained his intense pressing system and near-impregnable defensive unit, while making minor tweaks in offence to create more space for his once-cramped attacking players. With Zinchenko injured and Jakub Kiwior stepping in, he has abandoned the inverted role for now, with the Pole patrolling the left flank and providing Martinelli with additional support. This has provided additional space in midfield for the likes of Ødegaard, Rice and Jorginho. The latter in particular has had a breathtaking start to the year when he has played, taking home the man of the match award in both games he has started and unlocking defences with his ability to spot killer passes from deep. When Jorginho plays, Rice is pushed into the left-centre midfield role, to which he is more suited than Kai Havertz, who will often be pushed up top where he thrives due to his physical presence and intelligent attacking movement. This has been particularly fruitful when coming up against bigger centre-halves, whom diminutive forwards Trossard and Jesus often fail to trouble. A common gripe with Arteta was that he had become too predictable with his line-ups and system, and this fresh mix-up has made it far more difficult for teams to set up against them. 

Ultimately, this year is transitional for Arsenal. A league title or Champions League are unlikely, but far from off the cards. The team has clearly stepped up a level from last year’s side, who were brilliant to watch but naïve in the run-in. If the Gunners indeed don’t pick up any silverware this year, there should be no panic. They have the second-youngest squad in the league (behind the mighty Burnley), with almost all of their players still some way off reaching their prime. With stars like Saka, Martinelli, Ødegaard and Saliba all tied down to long-term contracts, one thing is certain: the future is bright at the Emirates.

Image: Ank Kumar via Wikimedia Commons

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