Arsenal Mix the Good with the Bad in Season Opener

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The Premier League season opener again illustrated the qualities attached to England’s top-flight. There wasn’t necessarily much in the way of astute defending or tactical nous, but the excitement level was through the roof as Arsenal scored two late goals to claim a 4-3 win over Leicester City. The result left the home fans at Emirates Stadium buzzing, and when you consider how close this was to yet another poor result on opening day for the Gunners, that was only to be expected.

The difficult thing, however, is how to assess the performance for Arsenal. Their defending, in simple terms, was pretty grim. They conceded three times from headers – twice from corners and once from a stunning Marc Albrighton cross – but maybe that can be forgiven when personnel is brought into the equation. Indeed, Arsene Wenger fielded a back three of Nacho Monreal, Sead Kolasinac and the highly inexperienced Rob Holding, the latter being the only recognised central defender of the trio. The positive here is that Arsenal still managed to claim victory despite missing the likes of Shkodran Mustafi and Laurent Koscielny, but the negative is that the defence was under so much pressure in the first place.

Leicester’s second goal symbolised this problem. Things kicked off with Mohamed Elneny, who picked up the ball deep in Arsenal’s central midfield zone. He then played a very, very short pass, and an altogether unnecessary one, to find Granit Xhaka a couple of metres away from him. The Swiss, now under heavy pressure from the onrushing Leicester midfield, forced a pass out to Arsenal’s right-hand side. Albrighton pounced upon it. He sprinted forward and, although confronted by Holding, had the time to pick his spot. He followed up with a whipped delivery for Vardy, its precision so impressive that the Englishman had little to do but guide it into the back of the net with his head.

This was the kind of thing that hurt Arsenal in the early going. They were just too casual in their distribution from the back, with Holding being a particularly big offender. There was a moment when the young defender did a brilliant job of keeping the ball in play to avoid giving away a throw-in, but just as soon as the crowd offered a huge round of applause in appreciation of his efforts, Holding took too long to make up his mind and subsequently lost possession. Perhaps this has something to do with his age, as there are certainly periods when he can look more assured, and even elegant, on the ball, but he needs more first-team football before he can make quicker decisions in order to consistently perform at this level.

Regardless of Holding’s individual circumstances, Arsenal needed more care in possession, and this is probably part of the reason why they switched to a back three late last season. Indeed, one of the benefits of the system is that there are usually three players back to protect against counter-attacks and turnovers, whereas a system with four at the back can leave massive gaps behind if both fullbacks bomb on and leave the central defensive duo exposed. This means Arsenal often have an extra defender in these situations, and for a team that famously leaves the backline stretched, this can be of real assistance.

Arsenal’s lack of height and defensive nous in central areas certainly cost them against Leicester, but through the combination of an extra man at the back and their ball-hoarding ways, they still managed to limit the Foxes to just 6 shots for the match. Due to turnovers and set-pieces, those tended to be opportunities of high quality – all three of Leicester’s shots on target ended in goals – but the defenders themselves were not actually too bad. Arsenal just needed to ensure they weren’t left so isolated in transition due to sloppy ball use, and in the season opener, they weren’t overly successful in doing so. In attack, however, the Gunners looked a lot better.

They enjoyed a massive 70% of possession, perhaps not unexpectedly against a team who tend to sit deep, and they had 27 shots on goal. Not all of these were excellent opportunities, but when a side dominates the ball to the extent that Arsenal does, it’s not uncommon for the odd speculative long-shot to occur. There were, however, a number of excellent chances for the North Londoners to score, and it must be said that their deeper build-up play was often the starting point for this good work.

Because Leicester sat back to such an extent, and in a compact block of players arranged in a 4-4-2 shape, there was plenty of space in deeper spots in midfield. That meant Granit Xhaka, Arsenal’s deep-lying playmaker, had plenty of time on the ball. He could use that time however he chose, in the sense that he could either circulate possession quickly to a teammate on the far side or, more simply, just play a short ball into a central player. When he did the latter, he then mixed up his movement to some degree, not only sitting back to receive in the centre circle but also drifting to the sides of Leicester’s centre-forwards, who sat just in front of their midfield players.

He did this in the lead-up to a couple of Arsenal’s goals, most notably prior to their equaliser, to go 2-2, just before the interval. Here, Xhaka floated out wide, to the left-hand side, before spotting Mesut Ozil in between the lines. He then slid the ball back into the German international, who now had it on the edge of the area. That led to a sharp chain of passing, with Alexandre Lacazette and Sead Kolasinac also contributing to Danny Welbeck’s eventual close-range finish. Xhaka also floated to the left to play a crossfield ball to Hector Bellerin in the lead-up to Lacazette’s opener, and in this way, his fingerprints were all over much of Arsenal’s work in the final third.

Xhaka aside, this tended to be how Arsenal wanted to do things. They liked to use all of their options in attack, whether that be through short balls through the centre or more direct ones to the onrushing fullbacks. At their best, this is what makes them tick in the 3-4-2-1. They have a number of avenues through which to attack, and when one is used, the opposition is forced to respond. That means another avenue might soon be available to exploit, and when Welbeck sauntered through the centre in the second half, after Arsenal had exchanged a series of passes in that area, before teeing up Bellerin, who had almost been forgotten by Leicester’s defenders due to the Gunners’ initial focus on the middle, that possibility came to life. The young Spaniard may have had his shot saved by Kasper Schmeichel, but this was nonetheless an example of what Wenger’s men can bring to the table when they move the ball seamlessly.

Of course, the dramatic three minutes that allowed Arsenal to overturn a 3-2 defecit to win 4-3 were the result of sheer desperation rather than well-scripted build-up play, but the club nonetheless played some brilliant football in patches throughout the match. If there’s one thing that could really help them in this area, though – putting Alexis Sanchez aside – it would be the addition of a more creative, Santi Cazorla-esque player to partner Xhaka. That’s not to say Elneny is bad player, and indeed he’s a very good one, but he’s not necessarily the type to play defence-splitting passes. Whether Arsenal can find this player within the confines of the club, as Wenger did when he dropped Cazorla deeper, remains to be seen. There are guys like Jack Wilshere that probably have the qualities to perform this kind of role, but otherwise someone like Nice’s Jean-Michael Seri, who combines high pass accuracy with chance creation, might be worth a look in the transfer market.

This sort of player would really make Arsenal an interesting proposition going forward, and it could even propel them to another level. For now, though, things aren’t looking too bad for Wenger and his men. They need to get a few players back into the team, especially in defence, but a home win to start the season is always a bonus, and the fact that there’s still plenty of room for improvement means they have something to work on. Now it’s time to see whether the Gunners can capitalise on their winning start, and if they can do that while making some shrewd additions to the squad, there’s no reason why they shouldn’t be optimistic with yet another long campaign ahead of them.