Being part of a big blog network can be cool sometimes, as it allows us to collaborate with other sites on occasion. With that in mind and ahead of the big Liverpool vs Arsenal match on Saturday, I sat down for a chat with Aaron from The Short Fuse to discuss the upcoming game.
TLO: Hey! Look! Arsenal are only two points behind Liverpool through 11 games, but the goal difference tells a different story. How did all of this happen?
TSF: The first three matches of the season happened. That’s the explanation.
Thomas Partey missed them with an ankle injury
ruthlessly inflicted on him in a totally unnecessary, dirty challenge suffered from a Ruben Loftus-Cheek sliding challenge in a warm-up friendly. Gabriel Magalhães (who has quietly had one of the best CB seasons of anybody in the PL) missed them rehabbing from a summer knee problem. Bukayo Saka wasn’t fit / rested enough to play a full 90-minutes post-Euros in any of them. Ben White had less than two weeks of training with the club before the Brentford match, then got COVID and missed the 2nd and 3rd games. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette tested positive for COVID at the 11th hour before Brentford.
Those absences forced Gabriel Martinelli, who didn’t get back from the Olympics in Brazil until 5 or 6 days before the opener, and Folarin Balogun, who had played 72 senior minutes, into the starting lineup. Aaron Ramsdale, who has yet to lose a match for Arsenal (knock on wood), wasn’t selected for any of the three matches. Arsenal didn’t have a proper right back until signing Takehiro Tomiyasu at the deadline (read: after the opening three matches).
Pretty much anything that could have gone wrong, went wrong. And it still feels like I’m forgetting something. Oh yeah, Granit Xhaka got himself sent off in the first half against Manchester City. As far as I’m concerned, the first three games of Arsenal’s season don’t count. They count in the table to be sure, but in terms of assessing who this Arsenal squad actually is, those three matches offer little to no insight. I’ve told that same story time and again to Arsenal twitter (protip: don’t engage with player avi / club badge twitter), and I’ve repeatedly been told I’m “making excuses” — I prefer “explaining” to describe it. The circumstances of the first three matches absolutely help us understand why the results weren’t good. That doesn’t change the fact that Arsenal opened the season with three ugly L’s.
Specifically to your point about goal difference, Arsenal were -9 after those opening three matches. Permit me a bit of speculation. Say Brentford ends up a draw — they were playing really well, especially to open the season, and the first match in the Premier League in front of a home crowd that hadn’t been able to attend matches for a year definitely had an effect. That’s +2 to Arsenal’s tally. The full, preferred squad probably shaves another one off against Chelsea. It certainly doesn’t concede 5 to Manchester City. They’ve got a habit of beating Arsenal 3-1, so we’ll go with that. With an average start to the season, Arsenal are sitting 3, 4, maybe even 5 goals of difference better off than they are now. That’s still not close to Liverpool’s +20, but it’s closer.
TLO: Arsenal spent a lot of money in the summer transfer window, surprising a lot of people (it’s me, I’m people). Who has stood out from the new group of players? How have the rest gotten on?
TSF: All of the signings have been great, and the best part about it is they’re all 23 and younger. There is a clear youth movement happening at the club; Arsenal have the youngest average starting XI in the PL. For me, Aaron Ramsdale stands out the most among the bunch. As I mentioned, he has yet to lose a match in an Arsenal shirt. He’s kept 5 clean sheets (should be 6: Spurs scored their meaningless goal in a 3-1 with Granit Xhaka lying on the ground with a several month’s time out knee injury instead of kicking the ball out). He is a leader at the back, gets visibly fired up when he makes a big save or a teammate makes a big play (which I personally love from keepers and defenders — inject it straight into my veins baby), and has been quick to defend his teammates when tempers have flared.
But what has stood out the most is his personality. He comes across as such a fun-loving, happy guy, and he’s got a great smile. He has already talked about how much the crowd behind him means, and he did it in a funny way — that as a keeper, you’re often isolated and a bit lonely, so the fans behind him become the friends that keep him company during a match when the ball is down the other end. He spent a season on loan at AFC Wimbledon: there’s a video of him from after the Gunners’ Carabao Cup match there having a kickabout with some of the little kids who “missed” playing with him after matches once his loan ended. And he enjoys a bit of light-hearted banter, too. The Leicester fans were ragging on him the entire game, late on after taking a goal kick, he turned around and joined one of their mocking songs with a smile and a fist pump. After the match and his clean sheet, he gave them a little bow. It didn’t come across as in your face or rude - just getting into the spirit and having some fun. Football is supposed to be fun. Too often, we forget that.
Now that I’m done waxing poetic about Ramsdale (it surely doesn’t hurt that he and I share a first name), I’ll run through the others a bit more quickly.
- Ben White: it was a lot of money. Took him longer to settle in, probably because he caught COVID. Improving every game and has been solid for a while now. Finally comfortable enough to start his progressive dribbles, which is one of the things that distinguishes him from other centerbacks.
- Nuno Tavares: has been really good. Was signed as a backup to Kieran Tierney who cannot seem to stay healthy so that when the Scotsman inevitably gets hurt (which, surprise suprise, has already happened this year) Arsenal don’t lose the attacking contribution from the left back. Tavares causes chaos in a good way going forward with his dribbling but could still use a bit of defensive polish. He’s fine defensively but that’s in part because his speed lets him recover from mistakes.
- Takehiro Tomiyasu: second-best signing to Ramsdale. Said with no exageration: almost never gets beat. Just a really solid defensive fullback. Fine passer and occasionally gets forward, but probably won’t be the guy to hurt you with his attacking prowess.
- Albert Sambi Lokonga: signed to backup Thomas Partey. Has been impressive since being forced into action by Granit Xhaka’s injury. Receives the ball and is immediately looking to progress it up the pitch. Very good progressive passer but can linger on the ball a second too long. Defensive positioning / awareness is his weakest area.
- Martin Ødegaard: great player, but he and Mikel Arteta haven’t found his best place / role in the attack. Arsenal have a glut of attackers, most of whom excel on the break / in open spaces. Plays a bit more like a traditional #10 and wants to slow things down just a bit to let his creativity and vision shine. Will be key against teams that play in a low block against the Gunners. Also an underrated high-presser, he creates havoc for opposing defenders on the ball.
TLO: While also spending big in the transfer window, Arsenal also seem to have a few guys come from their own ranks to become bonafide Premier League starters. This isn’t so much a question as much as it is a space for you to talk about Emile Smith Rowe and Bukayo Saka because they’re two players I quite like, and I’m sure you do too.
TSF: They’re fantastic. There is a special place in every supporter’s heart for “one of our own” and both of them came through Hale End, the Arsenal academy. Saka joined the club at 7 years old. Smith Rowe, a lifelong Arsenal fan, joined at 10. Hopefully they’ll be fixtures at the Emirates (and on the Three Lions) for years to come. It doesn’t hurt that they both seem like genuinely good, humble, and likeable human beings. I’m sure we can all think of young stars who seem like foolishness-prone kids or straight up pricks. That’s not this pair.
Saka had his breakout season last year. He started this season a bit slowly, but I think that’s down to being worn out from the Euros, and more generally all the football he has played. We sometimes forget that while young players probably have more energy because of their age, they also aren’t as accustomed to the grind or as physically strong to cope with it. But the last few matches, Saka is back looking like his dangerous attacking self. He absolutely tormented Leicester City left back Luke Thomas. As we’ve seen when Saka has deputized at left back / wing back and played on the left side of the attack, he’s a versatile, flexible player. He is unquestionably at his best from the right.
Emile Smith Rowe is having his breakout this season. Actually, he broke out last season when his insertion into the starting lineup around Boxing Day correlated with Arsenal’s red-hot second half of the season. The Gunners were the third-best team in the Premier League from Christmas on, but I’m not sure how many people realized ESR’s role in that. It certainly wasn’t the Arsenal conversation topic among the pundits. But he’s getting his acclaim this season. That’s probably in part because he’s added a bit of finishing to his resume (something that I think is the weakest part of Bukayo Saka’s game, FWIW).
I’m thrilled to see them both succeeding and getting recognized for it.
TLO: Apart from that really, really bad start where Arsenal lost big to Brentford, Chelsea, and City, it seems like nothing really happens in Arsenal matches. Is that by design? Is Mikel Arteta finally figuring out how to control matches? Or is that due to something else? What does this mean for the rest of the season for Arsenal?
TSF: Arsenal are a bit boring by design, yes. But also, Mikel Arteta and Arsenal seem to be slowly figuring it out. They still don’t create as much going forward as you’d like to see, but they also don’t give up much going back the other way, either. Arteta wants to be mostly compact out of possession, only press occasionally off specific triggers, and strike fast. It’s not counterattacking football per se, but it’s also not rack up 70%-plus possession, slow build-up, pass the ball 1000 times and eventually walk it into the net. On attack, Arsenal want to create mismatches and numbers advantages in wide spaces and exploit them quickly when they develop. Arteta wants to control the game without necessarily controlling possession. He is fine with letting you have the ball, so long as you don’t have it in dangerous areas.
When Arteta took over almost two years ago, the first thing he did was shore up the defense with his rigid structure and comparatively complicated tactics. That defensive solidity was concerningly absent to start the season, but much to my relief, with a settled backline and mostly first-choice players, it has returned. The next step for Arteta is (and has always been, it’s not like this is a new realization, we’ve known since Project Restart, really) to do more offensively. There are some signs that is starting to happen. The attack has looked better.
Let’s assume that Mikel Arteta is trying to do similar things tactically as his coaching mentor Pep Guardiola is doing at City. There might be a few wrinkles here and there, but I think that’s mostly accurate. The problem is Arsenal don’t have Kevin de Bruyne. They don’t have Phil Foden. Or İlkay Gündoğan. Or Jack Grealish. Or Raheem Sterling. Or Riyad Mahrez. And on down. Part of the reason City are able to do what they do and play with so much structure out of possession, so much attention paid to spacing both with and without the ball, and to play such a rigid system is their guys (1) have such a familiarity with and understanding of the system that they know when they can and how to break from the structure and (2) are so individually talented that they can make things happen from those positions.
You can see the ways Arsenal are moving in that direction, but they have a ways to go. Emile Smith Rowe is starting to look a bit like Gündoğan with later runs, combination play moving into the box, and a bit of finishing. Bukayo Saka is a tricky-dribbling wide attacker like Mahrez / Sterling. Hopefully Martin Ødegaard develops into a player like KDB. So much of what City does is because of De Bruyne, and Arsenal don’t have anything approaching that (most teams don’t, that’s how being one of the best in the world at your position works).
Further, Arsenal have some pretty significant differences from City. Alexandre Lacazette, whose re-insertion into the lineup has been a big part of why the attack has started looking better, is limited in terms of how much space he can cover on the pitch. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang is best played as an out-and-out striker, which City don’t use. Those two guys in particular (neither of whom will be at Arsenal beyond next season) cannot play Total Football. Put that all together, and it often maths out to boring football played mostly in the middle third.
TLO: Arsenal and Liverpool are at very different points of their arcs, but that doesn’t really matter when the whistle blows. What about this Liverpool team terrifies you and what do you think the Reds can do to make Mikel Arteta lose his hair on Saturday night?
TSF: The Liverpool attacking trio should be plenty scary for anybody, anywhere. Mo Salah has somehow found another level and is clearly the best attacker in the Premier League this season. I’m not sure I’d go so far as to say “in the world” right now, but that’s mostly because comparing Salah with guys like Robert Lewandowski and Erling Haaland is a bit apples to oranges. As far a “scorers” go it’s either Mo or Lewa. Haaland’s injury removes him from the conversation for the moment. And Kylian Mbappe also exists (and for me, is somehow underrated by most people). And to circle back to your question, Diogo Jota is quite the fourth chair in that quartet.
I don’t think it’s anything Liverpool will do that will frustrate Mikel Arteta the most. He tends to focus on the things that his team does wrong, probably intentionally. When the results don’t go Arsenal’s way, a familiar Arteta refrain is that his side didn’t convert their chances, regardless of how many chances they actually had. Arsenal could draw a game 0-0, miss one big chance, have the opponents go 0-for-5 on them, and Arteta would tell you his side needs to be more clinical. To be fair to Mikel, I think he’s getting a bit better at giving realistic assessments of matches, which might be down to him getting more comfortable as a manager and his “seat” cooling off a bit (although I don’t think he was ever in any real danger of being sacked, but I digress).
It’s a question of framing. Mikel prefers to talk about his team rather than the opposing team, but of course what the other team does impacts what Arsenal do. Defensively, Arteta would be most aggravated by Arsenal losing their shape, which the movement of Liverpool’s attacking three has a tendency to do to opposing defenses. The big thing for Arsenal will be Takehiro Tomiyasu and either Kieran Tierney or Nuno Tavares, whoever plays left back, not getting pulled too wide to open up spaces for interior runs into that vacant space. If (and when) that happens, it’ll be on either Thomas Partey (who isn’t 100% certain to play but it’s trending that way) or Nuno Tavares to pick up the late runners. It could also fall to the centerbacks to pick up Salah and Mane’s off-ball movement, especially if it’s Trent Alexander-Arnold / Andy Robertson pulling the fullbacks wide. As a general note, Liverpool’s attacking threat from fullback is going to ask more of Bukayo Saka and Emile Smith Rowe defensively, which hasn’t been their strong suit, especially in the first half of matches.
You asked what about Liverpool terrifies me. Nothing does. You’ve got a really good team with a bunch of world class players. They’re better than Arsenal. I’m fine with that. Maybe the Gunners snag a point, but probably not. I’m making a concerted effort to be more positive and not to worry about Arsenal (or sports) as much. As I said, football is meant to be fun, and too many of us have forgotten that. With all the other crap going on in the world that upsets me and is outside of my control, I’m trying hard not to let the things that I choose to do / how I spend my free time be negativity-creators. My starting point was being realistic about what Arsenal are and are not this season. Coming into the year, I thought they were somewhere between the 5th and 9th best team in the league. I’ve adjusted that ever so slightly, they could get up to 4th.
I try to remind myself that sometimes the other guy plays better and beats your guy. It’s a part of sports. Yes, players have bad games. Sometimes they play perfectly fine, but the guy across from them plays really well and makes them look bad. It happens! It’s not an indictment of your guy or your team nor a reason to get Mad Online. Opposing teams have agency. And sometimes their players do amazing sports things. I’ve found that “wow, what a sweet shot / move / pass” is a much healthier perspective than always having to assign blame.
And that’s more than enough of my tabloid advice column philosophy. *gets off soapbox*
TLO: How many goals does Liverpool win by?
TSF: Most people (yourself included) think it’ll be two goals. I think it’ll be one. I’m not crazy enough to think that Arsenal are going to win at Anfield, but I don’t know, there may be something there with this Arsenal squad. They could steal a 1-1 draw.
And if they don’t, it’ll just reinforce my overall assessment of the Premier League: City, Liverpool, and Chelsea are a cut above everybody else (but Chelsea are a quarter- to a half-step behind the top two) and beyond that :shrug emoji:. West Ham are a clear best of the rest but on current form, Arsenal aren’t too far behind them. But any one of West Ham, Arsenal, Leicester, Manchester United, Wolves (?) / Brighton (?), and (maybe) Tottenham under Conté could finish anywhere from 4th to 10th without surprising me too much.