We sat down with Aaron from the Short Fuse to ask about Arsenal’s season so far. I answered his questions here.
TLO: Decent start to the season for Arsenal. Are Arsenal fully back? What’s the key to the good start?
TSF: I think Arsenal are fully back and not just to the late Wenger years where they were playing for the fourth place trophy. They’re back back. It’s a weird feeling because we’ve had so many false dawns in North London — for a time under Unai Emery, earlier in Mikel Arteta’s tenure — only to regress back to the fringe top six side (and that’s being generous) that Arsenal had become for a while. But I think this one is for real.
It’s tough to point to one thing as the catalyst for Arsenal’s good start because Mikel Arteta and Edu have been building towards this for two years. The roster needed to be cleared out and turned over, and they’ve done it over the last few transfer windows. The Gunners have a bevy of really good, young players, who are all well-drilled and comfortable in Mikel Arteta’s system, which bears a striking resemblance to Pep Guardiola’s system. And we know that one works.
TLO: Arsenal’s first choice XI is pretty good. Are you worried about depth? What’re the players you’re worried most about getting injured?
TSF: I’m not terribly concerned about Arsenal’s depth, actually. That’s probably mostly because I’ve become accustomed to Arsenal having absolutely no depth whatsoever. Take a look at some of the Arsenal matchday squads down the stretch last season. They barely had two senior players to bring off the bench. They’ve improved that this season. I no longer look at their bench and wonder “who on earth is going to come in if they need a goal.” Mikel Arteta has options off the bench, and all of the top 16 players on the roster can play multiple positions, which helps mitigate potential injuries as well.
Arsenal cannot afford to lose Thomas Partey (who they should be without anyways, he should be suspended by the club). Of all the positions on the pitch, his — the single pivot — is the one in which Arsenal don’t have anybody who can come close to doing the things he does. He defends, he recovers the ball, and he progresses it up the pitch. He is the team’s engine. The Gunners are redundant everywhere else in the formation, in part because they’ve got a bunch of guys that can play multiple positions. If a defender goes down, perhaps even two, they can shift players around the backline without losing too much quality by bringing on Takehiro Tomiyasu / Kieran Tierney. They have quality attackers to bring off the bench in Eddie Nkeitah, Fabio Vieira (who looks like quite the player), Emile Smith Rowe (who is currently out until January), and even 19-year old Marquinhos.
TLO: Two key additions from this summer seem to be at the center of success. How important are Jesus and Zinchenko?
TSF: Circling back to your first question, if you made me pick one thing that had the biggest impact on the improvement at Arsenal, it would be Gabriel Jesus. And it’s not close. He has transformed the Arsenal attack. He’s a better player than Alexandre Lacazette or Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang were in every conceivable way. He also better fits into the setup. At the simplest level, he gets into the box. Alexandre Lacazette didn’t really do that last season, mostly because he no longer had the range / pitch coverage to drop deeper to receive the ball, lay it off, and run into the box before the play developed too far beyond him. Gabriel Jesus can do that. He also scores goal, which is a welcome improvement on Arsenal’s previous line-leaders.
Getting a bit more complex, Gabriel Jesus makes the Arsenal attacking four more fluid. All four of Martin Ødegaard, Bukayo Saka, Gabriel Martinelli, and Gabriel Jesus interchange and can pop up anywhere. The two wingers, Saka and Martinelli, mostly stick to their half (side?) of the field, but they will come central or one of the central players will support out wide to overload the fullback and create a mismatch.
Alex Zinchenko has helped transform the Arsenal setup as well. He’s not as good defensively as Kieran Tierney, but he can do more on the ball. When Arsenal are in possession, Zinchenko (and Ben White on the other side) will push up and pinch in alongside Thomas Partey to shift the formation into a 2-3-5. Arsenal are much better able to progress the ball, switch the point of attack, and retain possession when they need to as a result.
TLO: What does a successful season look like for Arsenal?
TSF: I don’t want to say it’s Champions League or bust for Arsenal mostly because I don’t think that Mikel Arteta will necessarily be sacked if they don’t finish fourth or better. I think if the squad is ravaged by injuries like they were last season, he’ll get a pass. He’s got a get out of jail free card in winning the Europa League. And even if none of that happens, my gut tells me he’s got another year.
But missing out on the Champions League after such a fantastic start where the play has looked so good would be massively disappointing. I don’t think Arsenal can keep pace with Manchester City, but stranger things have happened. Just ask Leicester City. I think the Gunners would need 75% of the luck / circumstances that the Foxes had to win the Premier League. It’s extremely unlikely to happen, but when you’ve spent the past five years coping with “yeah, ain’t no way” you take what you can. Dare to dream, right?
Realistically, Arsenal are looking at finishing 2nd-4th. Some models already have Arsenal slightly favored to finish ahead of Liverpool for second, although they just edged ahead and a loss on Sunday would flip that right back. The Gunners are either the second or third best team in the Premier League right now. Even though I know a multiple-result lead in the table can vanish in a flash, especially this early in the season, it feels like they’re going to manage a Champions League finish, and that would absolutely be a successful season for them. At the risk of sounding too greedy, I think I might be a bit disappointed if Arsenal finish in 4th. I’d be thrilled to be back in the CL, but it feels like this bunch are better than 4th.
Winning some silverware would be nice, too. Arsenal certainly look to have a good enough squad to manage it, especially in a knockout competition where you’ve just got to beat a good team once (or twice depending on the stage) instead of being consistently better over the course of an entire season.
Oh. And finishing ahead of Tottenham. It’s been too long since we’ve celebrated St. Totteringham’s Day.
TLO: How do you feel about this match? What’s gonna happen?
TSF: I think this match is going to come down to two things: Jurgen Klopp’s tactical flexibility and the Arsenal left / Liverpool right. Liverpool want to have the ball and impose their football on the opponent. So do Arsenal. I think the Gunners win the midfield battle, and they’re at home, so I think they will be on the front foot. If Liverpool set up to duke it out with Arsenal in a battle of who dominates possession, they’ll lose. Arsenal’s quick ball movement, ability to switch the field, and attack quickly and dangerously from wide areas will pull Liverpool’s struggling midfield out of shape and create chances.
But if Liverpool set up to exploit the wide areas, especially in behind Arsenal’s pushed up, tucked in fullbacks with Mo Salah and Luis Diaz, they could cause a lot of problems. Arsenal ask a lot of their centerbacks and whichever fullback is further back at any particular time. Manchester United showed you can hit Arsenal on the counter, and Liverpool have better attackers than United. It’s absolutely a path to the points for the Reds on Sunday.
If it does play out that way, look for Arsenal to key on Thiago to force the ball progression and distribution onto Jordan Henderson and Fabinho. If I were Mikel Arteta, I’d take my chances with those two beating me with line-breaking passes. I’d setup to try like heck to prevent it being Thiago on the ball with time and space to pick his head up. That’s not to say that Arsenal will fall off Henderson and Fabinho, either. The Gunners press well, but they do so selectively. They’re in the middle of the Premier League in terms of absolute number of pressures, but they’re at the very top when it comes to generate shots from ball recoveries. My guess is that Fabinho on the ball will be the trigger, and Arsenal will try to force him into mistakes.
Nor would I let Trent Alexander-Arnold pick my side apart. I think Gabriel Martinelli will have that well-handled. He’s got an extremely high motor and will harass the right back all day. Not to play too much into the narrative, but TAA is going to have his hands full defending Martinelli, too. The young Brazilian gave Trent a tough time last season and is playing even better this year.
It all comes down to the Arsenal left, Liverpool right. You can get at Alex Zinchenko if you force him to defend. You can get at Trent Alexander-Arnold if you force him to defend. Mo Salah and Gabriel Martinelli both have more than enough attacking talent to win that battle. Whichever team wins those battles, whether by pressure, possessing the ball, or some tactical change, will likely win the match.