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Know Your Opponent: Arsenal

We sit down with The Short Fuse to see what’s happening on the red side of north London.

Arsenal v AFC Wimbledon - Carabao Cup Third Round Photo by Stuart MacFarlane/Arsenal FC via Getty Images

Another North London Derby is upon us this weekend as Spurs will make the short drive to the Emirates Stadium to take on their hated rivals. Spurs and Arsenal have had opposite starts to the season as Tottenham kicked off the campaign with three straight victories followed up with two defeats. Flip those results for Arsenal as they’ve had two straight 1-0 wins over Norwich City and Burnley in league play.

We invited Aaron Lerner (@AaronCLerner) over at The Short Fuse to sit down and talk about the biggest things surrounding Arsenal, including Mikel Arteta’s standing with the club, why Granit Xhaka is still employed, and if the Gunner defense is really bad or are they actually good.

CFC: So....Mikel Arteta: Talk to us. While none of us believed the whole “He has five matches to prove himself!” report, I do think there are plenty of questions about his long term viability as the man in charge for Arsenal. Is he in over his head? Is there hope he can turn it around?

TSF: On Mikel Arteta, how long do you have?

So first, we have to separate out how I think the club views him and his job status from the takes in the media, from the supporters, etc. Arsenal Football Club are all-in on Mikel Arteta. There are already calls for him to get sacked from fans and the media. The club sees things differently.

My feeling was (and is) that pretty much regardless, Arteta would get at least this season to show he’s got the chops. That was before the Kroenke’s backed the Brink’s truck up to the Emirates. The Gunners spent the most of any Premier League team this summer — you don’t give a manager that kind of money only to can him in-season, unless you’re Roman Abramovich.

Arsenal have bought into Arteta’s rebuild or process or whatever you want to call it. It’s probably all of the above. They needed to remake the roster and fundamentally change how they operate in the transfer market, and they’ve decided that Mikel Arteta and Edu Gaspar as DoF are the guys to do it. The club doesn’t have the kind of money to compete with the Manchester clubs or Chelsea in terms of big-name signings. Arsenal aren’t going to spend £60M plus on one guy. But the expectation, at least as a medium to long range goal, is to get back to competing with those clubs for a Champions League place and maybe mount an occasional title challenge.

To do that, I think Arsenal have to do pretty much what they did this summer: buy a bunch of talented, young players who can develop together. They have Bukayo Saka (20), Emile Smith Rowe (21), Gabriel Martinelli (20), Gabriel Magalhaes (23), Kieran Tierney (24). To that young core, they added four starters — Martin Ødegaard (22), Ben White (23), Aaron Ramsdale (23), and Takehiro Tomiyasu (22) — and two young, promising backups who’ve already shown flashes in limited action — Nuno Tavares (21) and Sambi Lokonga (21). Arsenal have the third-youngest team in the Premier League this season and the youngest not-just-promoted roster. Mikel Arteta is here for the long(er) haul because he has convinced the club that his youth movement the way forward.

Is he the right guy to turn things around? I think so? I hope so! My biggest concern and the biggest indicator that he might be over his head is his seeming inability to coach an attack. Arsenal have struggled to score goals with him at the helm, and I haven’t seen much that suggests that trend is going to change. We’ve long thought that he wants to move the team to more of a 4-3-3 with Thomas Partey in more of a Fernandinho role, which might open up the attack more because it allows Arteta to put more offensive talent on the pitch. But a combination of factors, mostly Partey going from a durable player at Atletico Madrid to Abou Diaby-levels of fitness at the Emirates, has prevented that change from taking root.

If Arsenal keep struggling to score that might cost Mikel his job. Both because free-flowing, attacking football was woven into the Arsenal DNA by Arsene Wenger and because when you don’t score, you don’t win matches. I think the club will be able to rise above the media and fan pressure if the team continues to not score, but it will definitely mount, I think we all know how that can go. If the results aren’t there and Arsenal are truly relegation threatened come January (not the 1% chance they currently face, which I think is high anyway) that might be it for Mikel. But that’s the only way I think he gets his walking papers this season.

TL;DR: Mikel Arteta will almost certainly be at Arsenal come the start of next season.

For the older heads / fun fact, that Arsene Wenger champagne attacking football has not always been Arsenal ‘eritage. You may have heard “to the Arsenal one-nil” sung by Gooners, that’s because under George Graham, stifling defense and 1-0 scorelines were the club’s calling card.

CFC: Let’s say Arteta tanks and Arsenal sack him in the coming weeks/months. Who is at the top of your list to replace him?

TSF: Graham Potter. And yes, I will fight Dustin (and any others of y’all) for him. I hope he sees this. Pick me.

CFC: Can you explain to me how Granit Xhaka is still at Arsenal AND got a contract extension? Has he been better?

TSF: We have top men working on it right now. Top. Men.

I actually think it’s a pretty simple explanation. Granit Xhaka would have be a Roma player if they had ponied up / come closer to Arsenal’s valuation. The Gunners wanted £20M-plus, which isn’t wholly unreasonable for an international captain coming off a very strong Euros, and Roma may not have even offered £15M. They bought Tammy Abraham instead, which even I can acknowledge was a way better move, but that is besides the point.

Arsenal gave Xhaka the contract extension so that he wouldn’t enter the final year of his deal next summer. Since the Alexis Sanchez and Aaron Ramsey debacles, the club has been adamant about avoiding guys getting to one year remaining. Presumably, the deal was to “protect his value” and they’ll sell him next summer when clubs will likely have more money. Whether that logic is sound and how much value there is to protect in a guy who turns 30 next September is another question.

As far as his play goes, he’s fine. Granit Xhaka has always been underappreciated as a player (and played out of position at Arsenal - he’s not a DM, he does much better in a more advanced, #8-ish role like he plays for the Swiss national team). Arsenal have been significantly better with him in the lineup than with him out of it over his entire time in North London. He has his strengths, he has his limitations, and he occasionally has a “what the heck were you thinking” thing and gets himself red carded. It comes with the territory. It is what it is, and I’m mostly agnostic about it at this point.

CFC: Arsenal’s defense has been weird for a while now, but I think the strangest part is that William Saliba seems to be killing it on loan and all of the Arsenal fanbase can’t understand why he hasn’t been given a chance this year. Should Arsenal be recalling him or is the defense looking better now?

TSF: So before I get into the meat of your question about Saliba and the defense right now, let’s take a look at Arsenal’s goals against the past 10 seasons - in the list below, 1st is the fewest goals against of any club.

3rd in ‘20-’21

8th in ‘19-’20

9th in ‘18-’19 (51 against, which is way too many)

8th in ‘17-’18 (again 51 against, too many)

6th in ‘16-’17

T-2nd in ‘15-’16 (and one behind Spurs and United in 1st)

3rd in ‘14-’15

4th in ‘13-’14

2nd in ‘12-’13

8th in ‘11-’12

There is this narrative that Arsenal are weak defensively as a club and have been for years. That’s not really true — it’s good not great territory. And if you go back further to the Lee Dixon, Tony Adams, Martin Keown, and Nigel Winterburn, Steve Bould days, Arsenal had a formidable backline. To be fair, that recent stretch of 8th, 9th, 8th isn’t good. But Mikel Arteta solidified the defense when he took over in December 2019, the middling finish is mostly down to Unai Emery’s time in charge.

Whether Mikel Arteta can have both a sound defense and any kind of an attack with it is an open question. He’s tried to open it up to start this year and that hasn’t gone well. Arsenal haven’t scored many and they’ve given up a bunch. I think some (most?) of that is down to Thomas Partey’s injury, Ben White being new and then getting COVID, Gabriel Magalhaes starting the season injured and Pablo Mari, who had looked competent in an Arsenal kit thus far looking like he forgot how to defend, and so on. Are those excuses? Maybe. I see them as explanations that help me understand why Arsenal’s defensive solidity seemed to have vanished over the summer. In the last two matches (against Norwich and Burnley mind you), the defense looked better. Y’all’s attack will be a stiffer test, and we’ll know much more about the state of the Arsenal defense when the final whistle blows.

On Saliba, this won’t be a very satisfying answer but I don’t have a clue what is going on there. I’ll do my best to read between the lines. Mikel Arteta and the club say he’s still part of the plans but their actions (not playing him last fall, loaning him in January, loaning him again this season) seem to suggest otherwise. If I had to guess, Mikel Arteta doesn’t rate him as highly as the previous regime, the one that brought him in, did. And for what it’s worth, Raul Sanllehi, who signed him, was canned for, uh, irregularities with the Nicolas Pépé signing. So make of that what you will.

I also think there is something going on with the relationship between Arteta and Saliba — the communication and understanding doesn’t seem to be there. I don’t want to speculate as to which party bears the blame because we have such an incomplete and biased picture from what gets selectively leaked to the media.

Saliba has had a rough go of it — he’s lost both parents in the last two years, he had a really tough time with injuries, COVID happened to the world and Ligue Un wasn’t picked back up, there was that whole bit with the photos of a teammate and the French youth national side. He’s 20 years old and hasn’t played as much as you’d hope for a developing player. Arsenal brought in Ben White at RCB (Arteta has this weird rigidity with needing a right-footer at RCB and a left-footer at LCB), which is where Saliba plays. I don’t think they’re going to recall him nor should they. I’d like for Saliba to work out at Arsenal, but the rational side of me says that probably won’t happen. As you say, he’s playing really well in France, so hopefully the Gunners will be able to at least recoup what they paid for him.

CFC: Arsenal are out of Europe for the first time in ages. While you don’t want to spend multiple seasons out of European competition, do you think it might be a blessing in disguise to get the Gunners back on track and put them in better position to climb the table?

TSF: I think the “blessing in disguise” line of thinking is generally overblown by football fans much in the same way that the idea of squad rotation is. For example, people were bent out of shape that Thomas Partey played midweek against AFC Wimbledon in the Carabao Cup given his injury history and that he’s coming off an ankle problem. He apparently asked Mikel Arteta to play so that he could get back to match fitness. Players want to play, and playing games is good for their fitness / development / sharpness, what have you.

I think Arsenal being in Europe this season would have been better than not being in Europe. They are trying to bring younger players through, and the Europa League / Conference League would have given those guys a chance at more competitive minutes. Having winnable matches can also help the general morale at the club and get guys on track. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang scored a hat trick against West Brom in the league cup to snap him out of a form funk. European competition provides more opportunities for things like that.

CFC: I know you have a deep love in your heart that you can’t admit about Heung-Min Son and how much you’d love to have him on the red side of north London. Besides Sonny, who would you take in your Arsenal squad right now?

TSF: He’s a bit older than the Gunners current youth movement trend (FWIW I was surprised to see he was 26, it feels like he should be 28-30), but I would take Pierre-Emile Højbjerg in a heartbeat. He’s what Arsenal fans wished Granit Xhaka would be. Højbjerg is Xhaka but make him more mobile, better defensively, and with more xA. So like, an upgrade in pretty much every way save progressive passing / passing accuracy. Højbjerg also has that “bite” that Xhaka does but without doing something incredibly dumb and get sent off once or twice a season.

Højbjerg is one of those guys that you absolutely hate him when he’s on the other team but you’d love him at your club.

CFC: How do the Gunners line up for Sunday?

TSF: Ramsdale; Tierney, Gabriel Magalhaes, Ben White, Takehiro Tomiyasu;

Man, we keep coming back to Granit Xhaka, don’t we. He’s the big question mark. He’s been suspended because of his red card against Manchester City, but he’s available for selection against Spurs. Most Arsenal fans hope that Mikel doesn’t pick him and goes either with Sambi Lokonga next to Thomas Partey or plays a single pivot like he did against Burnley. My feeling is that Arteta will opt for Partey to have a midfield partner because the Gunners struggled to control the middle of the park at Burnley. My gut is telling me Xhaka partners Partey on Sunday, but I’d like to be wrong.

Last week, there was a report that Bernd Leno raised a stink in training and Mikel Arteta decided to start him for the NLD over Aaron Ramsdale, but Arteta rubbished that he’d already picked his starter. I think Ramsdale is first choice until further notice.

I’d also direct your attention to Gabriel Magalhaes — he’s been an absolute monster since returning from injury. He was really good last fall and winter, then got COVID by not-so-intelligently hosting a birthday party in December, missed time and lost his place, and didn’t fully recapture his early season form. But that dude is really, really good. And if you’ve not seen Takehiro Tomiyasu yet and are a defense-purist, enjoy his performance. He’s just solid, man. And his reliability on the right is a good fit for Arsenal’s asymmetric, left-side bias attack.

As far as Ben White is concerned, I’m hoping he looks better once he’s more comfortable with his teammates and with what Mikel Arteta wants from him in the system. Right now, he looks like he’s thinking instead of acting on instinct, which has led to errors.

CFC: Prediction?

Who knows what you’re going to get out of Arsenal or Spurs these days? Both clubs have the talent and have shown they can be really, really good. They’ve also both looked like utter crap. I think the home support lifts Arsenal to a 1-0 win. But it could easily go the other way.

A huge thank you to Aaron for taking time out to answer questions. I did the same for them over at The Short Fuse, where I talked about the Harry Kane Saga, what the future holds for Nuno and if he’ll be the man for many years on the touch line, and who I think will shine from the summer transfer window.