Forget Anfield. Arsenal’s bi-annual trouncing at Liverpool’s hands is more outlier than trend. No, the side that United face on Saturday had previously gone ten without tasting defeat and is one much improved. One with youth – and an accompanying fearlessness – coursing through it. One with bite, missing since the days of Patrick Viera. One with enough pace and verve to make it dangerous.
Make no mistake; Mikel Arteta’s men are a million miles away from title contenders, and that’s unlikely to change. The Invincibles they are not. But expect, now that the Spaniard has installed some much-needed shithousery, to see occasions on which they offer up tummies for tickling fewer and further between.
Arteta will soon celebrate his second anniversary in charge. But cast your minds back to August, and his position was under very real threat. Three league defeats to start the season and not a goal scored. Had the Gooners failed to beat Norwich after the first international break, many predicted he was done for. In the end, they won by a single strike.
Since then, not just results, but pretty much everything, has progressed. For that, Arteta deserves great credit, even if his touchline behavior reeks of someone inviting comparisons to his former mentor. Rather than distancing himself from Pep Guardiola, the guarded steeliness Arteta the player and coach was known for, has gone. In its place, a high-octane ninety minutes of constant overly exaggerated Christmas charades.
That aside, he has worked wonders with a defence consistently a source of hilarity over the years. The days of Arsenal fans waiting patiently for the next Shkodran Mustafi / Sokratis / [insert error prone defender] blunder appear behind them. Pre-Anfield, they’d conceded just four in eight Premier League games. It has quite literally been re-born.
“These are early days and there’s a huge amount to do, but we’re determined to help the club fulfil its potential and we’re all incredibly excited to see what Eddie, his staff and the players can achieve.” @jamiereuben #NUFC #NUFCTakeover https://t.co/jU32vhqwuw
— True Faith: Newcastle United Fanzine and Podcast (@tfNUFC) November 25, 2021
Ben White and Gabriel have come together seamlessly. White is a Rolls-Royce of a centre back, already with the air of the£50 million player he is. Slight of build, but strong as an ox, his reading of the game and calmness is peak Fabricio Coloccini. He doesn’t tackle much because he rarely needs to go to ground. His 29 interceptions are by far a team high, and put him in the division’s top ten. Gabriel – a natural left-footer – is much taller and rapid. Remember too that both are under 25 and in only their second Premier League seasons.
Completing the youthful backline in recent weeks have been full-backs Takehiro Tomiyasuand Nuno Tavares, a pair of summer signings who Arsenal fans have taken too instantly. The former – a Japan international signed on deadline day from Bologna – in particular has won hearts with his all-action displays down the right. A ready-made cult hero, he was the club’s Player of the Month for September. Tavares is raw, enjoys bombing on just a touch too much and may find himself dropped for the fit-again Kieran Tierney on Saturday.
Now, remember when we all scoffed at Arteta for forking what could be £30 million quid for a presumed-to-be back-up goalkeeper relegated twice on the spin? Yep, me too. Well, since Aaron Ramsdale came for Bernd Leno, Arsenal have won six and lost just one in the league.
As well as his shot-stopping ability – the world looked on with amazement as Ramsdale somehow defied both gravity and James Maddison last month – he has brought both backing vocals and steeliness. The video of him joining in with Leicester fans’ taunts at the King Power was endearing.
Is it a surprise that he has flourished? Arteta would say not. True, Ramsdale conceded goals aplenty with both Bournemouth and Sheffield United but at no point was he dropped. Thus far, only Edouard Mendy and Jose Sa better Ramsdale’s save percentage (78.9%), and he has five clean sheets in nine.
Thomas Partey adds a touch of quality and experience in a midfield two, while Granit Xhaka’s absence has allowed another summer signing – Albert Sambi Lokonga – to shine. Ainsley Maitland-Niles has also had a couple of goes in central areas having impressed there in the cup. At 24, it’s about time he got a run in his preferred position; United would do worse than enquiring about his availability should more game time not materialise.
In recent week’s Arteta has settled on a 4-4-1-1, with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang – by far their most potent forward – the one. At times, you might forget he is playing, but Aubameyang’s main assets – searing pace and a knack for the art of ‘right place, right time’ – mean he cannot be ignored. He has also led the pressing from the front this season.
The numbers though suggest Aubameyang’s powers are on the wane; there has been a slow but noticeable decline in his goals per 90 ratios since his goal-a-game peak for Dortmud back in 16/17. Last season was his lowest league goals haul (10) as a regular starter, and he has just four in the Premier League so far. Having missed his last two penalties (both saved, although he scored the rebound against Aston Villa), it will, according to Arteta be Aubameyang’s choice as to whether he remains on duty. Watch him grab three on Saturday.
Alexandre Lacazette has occupied the number ten role in recent weeks, with Martin Odegaard benched. Out of contract in the summer, Lacazette netted a last gasp (and frankly undeserved) equaliser against Crystal Palace as a substitute, and has started the last four. What he lacks in pace, he more than makes up for in work-rate and ability to come out of sticky situations with ball in tow. Expect him to feature for an hour or so before being withdrawn.
— True Faith: Newcastle United Fanzine and Podcast (@tfNUFC) November 24, 2021
Now. Here is where the footballing juices really begin to flow. The wide-men. A duo that could play a huge part in the success of both club and country for the next decade. The first – Bukayo Saka – was a major contributor for England over the summer. And he stepped up when other’s more experienced evaded their manager’s gaze. He has dealt with that miss, and the abhorrent racial abuse that followed, like he has everything in his young career to date; with a quiet, unnerving grace and a touch of class. Anyone thinking of giving him stick on Saturday for his errant penalty, well, that says much more about you.
Then there is Emile Smith-Rowe. Sweet, sweet Smith-Rowe. Those low-cut socks and tiny shin pads, a throwback to yesteryear. 12-months on from being part of the Papa John’s side, he made his international bow in the latest break. Smith-Rowe is one of football’s gliders. A glider with flash in all the right places.
Both bring maturity and a decision-making ability that belies their tender years. They are living, breathing examples of everything that is good about the game. Everything that fans want from their club.
So, how can United get a result? Well, unlike last week’s opponent’s Brentford, Arsenal are not a pressing side. In fact, they rank bottom for successful presses in the league, their highest ranked player (Aubameyang) coming in at number 65. When they do press, it tends to be in forward areas; that bodes badly for the likes of Ciaran Clark and Jamaal Lascelles, but Jonjo Shelvey could have the space to ‘do his thing’ if he pushes up a little further than usual. Arsenal also tend to be architects of their own potential downfall; no team has made more than their 9 errors that have led to shots on goal. So, they can be pressed.
Smith-Rowe and his tendency to time runs into the box with perfection need watching – he has four goals in recent weeks – while a popular corner routine involves them packing the six-yard box and wreaking havoc. Martin Dubravka please.
Watford were the last to visit the Emirates and, while they offered little by way of attacking threat, their sit back and nullify approach almost worked. Almost, but not quite. And that was a game previous Arsenal iterations might have lost. Still, as Paul flags in his preview, at least we have a decent record against them…