Cautious optimism

Morning all. How are you doing? Hopefully you and yours are all keeping safe and well. It’s still a bit scary out there, so take care.

The last couple of weeks have been very good for Arsenal and Mikel Arteta, and not simply because we set the bar so low with what came before. We’ve moved up to the giddy heights of 10th in the Premier League, having taken 13 of the last 15 points. When you looked at that run of fixtures – Chelsea, Brighton, West Brom, Crystal Palace, and Newcastle – you’d have taken that if it had been on offer. Perhaps we’d have settled for a draw in the Chelsea game and hoped to win the others, but the Palace draw after beating Frank Lampard’s side felt disappointing all the same.

Nevertheless, there have been many positives in this run.

Clean sheets

Four clean sheets in those five Premier League games, and five successive clean sheets in all competitions – despite a bit of rotation in the back four – is very promising. Three of the teams in the top four as it stands have conceded more than us in the league; only Man City, Sp*rs, and Aston Villa have conceded fewer (and Villa have, because of Covid-19 postponements, got four games in hand, so when those fixtures start to stack up for them it could well change).

That we’ve been able to combine some defensive solidity with scoring actual goals – something which was an issue for so much of this season – suggests there’s a new-found balance in the team which augurs well.

The right-hand side of the front three

We bought a £72m player from Lille to be the future on the right, and – despite some flashes and moments of quality – it hasn’t really worked. We brought in an overly expensive, far too old player from Chelsea to either provide competition or essentially replace that club record signing, and so far it has to go down as one of the worst transfer deals Arsenal have ever done.

The solution lay within. Bukayo Saka has done everything we wanted Nicolas Pepe to do, and more. He’s done more than Willian has ever looked capable of in an Arsenal shirt – that opening day aside when he provided two assists and had a shot on target. Since then he’s been little short of disastrous.

I think there’s still some discussion to be had about where exactly Saka will end up, but such is the quality of this young man that he can produce consistent performance levels in the many and varied positions he’s been asked to play since he broke through into the first team. For now, he gives us what we need from the right, and there’s no reason anyone else should take his place there.

Note: the flip-side of this positive is that we have a £72m player declining in value week on week, and we’re paying a 32 year old £200,000 a week to sweet FA, so those are problems the club need to solve one way or another.

Emile Smith Rowe

Like night follows day, you can’t mention Saka without acknowledging the impact of Smith Rowe. What the 20 year old has done in such a short time is verging on remarkable. It’s always difficult to find the right balance between praise for, and excitement over, a young player – and crossing over into hyping him up too much.

We’ve all known that a ‘creative’ midfielder is a necessity, and to put his impact in a kind of zeitgeist perspective, his three assists in five Premier League games this season is just one fewer Mesut Ozil produced in the 2018-19 and 2019-20 seasons combined. In 610 first team minutes in all competitions, he has five assists and two goals, meaning he basically has 1 goal involvement per 90 minutes (87.1 mins to be exact). Yes, the sample size is small, so it skews things a little, but leaving stats aside, your eyes tell you plenty about the player and how much quality he has.

I can’t say for sure, but I’d be very surprised if his emergence hasn’t meant Mikel Arteta and Edu have had to reassess their potential recruitment plans. It’s a difficult one. We can’t put all the pressure on Smith Rowe this early. We have to manage him carefully, especially as he has had injuries, and there’s just no way he can, or should, play every game between now and the end of the season.

But what he has done might mean a rethink in terms of the kind of player we bring in. You have to protect Smith Rowe physically, but you also have to protect his potential and not block his pathway. He needs support and competition, of course, but it has to be sensible. It’s a tricky one, but then that’s why Edu and Arteta are handsomely rewarded and it’s an important part of their work. Ensuring one of the brightest talents to emerge from the Academy in recent years has a good career at this club is also one of the ‘best’ kind of problems to deal with. It’s far preferable to not having that quality at all.

More from experience

A short section, but we’ve seen better from Alexandre Lacazette in this period. He’s playing closer to the penalty box, he’s got people to combine with higher up the pitch (ESR in particular), and he’s scored a few goals. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s lack of goalscoring has been a problem, but it’s not been his fault alone. We’re getting him the ball in more dangerous positions now, and he now has three goals from his last six games.

The return of Thomas Partey is obviously a huge boost too. His quality is obvious, and perhaps what’s most promising is that he can’t possibly be 100{3851c0879557ceb6c70cddb6630c7df9a9750acfd53fffec21979e603af26faa} match fit yet. He’s been out too long, he’s going to ease himself back into things a bit and when he’s fully up to speed I’m excited to see what he brings to midfield. Even Granit Xhaka deserves a mention. Since that dimwitted red card against Burnley, he’s played well. He’s an imperfect player, but he’s been solid during this run, and thankfully managed to avoid too many of his weaknesses.

A word of caution

It was difficult during the bad run to make the case that things weren’t as bad as they seemed. When you’re that far down the table and flirting with the R-Word, you have to acknowledge it’s not good enough for a club like Arsenal. That was only a few short weeks ago, and while I know there’s a short-termism about football opinions that’s certainly amplified online, on social media etc, I think it’s important not to get carried away by this good run.

We have, more or less, matched the kind of expectations this club should have in terms of points from games against opposition like this. As I’ve mentioned, there have been real positives, building some momentum and confidence again is really important, and hopefully will stand us in good stead in the weeks and the games to come.

All the same, it’s too early to start crowing about anything. We set the bar so low, we’ve lifted it a bit higher, but it’s still some way from where we need it to be. We should compartmentalise this period, because there’s a lot of hard work to come, and how well we deal with that will be the measure of how much progress we’ve made in these last few weeks.

I’ll leave you with the brand new Arsecast Extra. If you haven’t had a chance to listen already, all the links you need to listen/subscribe are below. Till tomorrow.


This Arsecast Extra was recorded with ipDTL

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