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Know Your Opponent: Arsenal

It wouldn’t be an NLD without peeking behind enemy lines.

Arsenal Training Session Photo by Stuart MacFarlane/Arsenal FC via Getty Images

Tottenham Hotspur play a rather important match today against hated rival Arsenal. While the Premier League title can’t be won this early and nor can you secure Champions League football, this is a match you’ll look back on as a pivotal moment.

I had a chance to talk with Aaron over at The Short Fuse this week to discuss Arsenal’s fantastic start, if the Gooners still want to hang Stan Kroenke by his thumbs, and how the defense has found it’s shape under Mikel Arteta.

CFC: The Gunners have bounced back from their rough end to last season, currently at the top of the table. While I think you’d agree that City are still the favorites, how long do you think Arsenal can keep this up and will it be good enough to get back to the Champions League?

TSF: The Arsenal you’ve seen is the Arsenal I think you’re going to get for the season. You’re right, they can’t keep up with City over an entire season. For what it’s worth, my go-to stats guy Scott Willis’ model (@oh_that_crab on Twitter — check him out, he’s really good and does non-Arsenal stuff too) predicts that Liverpool will get back to 2nd around Matchday 34, but there is no reason Arsenal can’t finish 3rd or 4th. It would take something miraculous, like 75% of Leicester City in 2016 levels, for them to win the league. I could see Arsenal (or Spurs, honestly) pipping Liverpool for second if things break their way. Third or fourth seems most likely.

For the more realistically minded fans, this was the year for Mikel Arteta to put up or shut up. More importantly, if you asked the Kroenke’s what their timeline was for this rebuild, I think you’d hear something similar. I tend to think that even if the club misses the Champions League this season, Arteta gets another year. It doesn’t make sense to get rid of the guy after the significant investment (£250M combined over two summers) they’ve made for him, especially now that we’re finally starting to see results. At the risk of sounding overconfident and giving y’all something to ridicule me with if things go south, Arsenal are good. They’re obviously off to a good start results-wise. The underlying numbers are there, too. Depending on where you look, they’re actually underperforming — they’ve scored fewer and conceded more than xG and xGA suggests they should have.

The question for Arsenal is will they stay healthy. To be fair, you can say the same thing of all the top clubs. They’ve each got key players they can ill-afford to lose to injury. Unfortunately for Arsenal, one of those is Thomas Partey, who has been available for about 50% of matches since joining the club. He’s the one player for whom the club doesn’t really have an analogous replacement. Arsenal had that issue last season with Kieran Tierney and Takehiro Tomiyasu, and we saw what happened to the results in that collapse down the stretch when a combination of Partey, Tierney, and Tomiyasu were out injured. They brought in Alex Zinchenko on the left, and the return of William Saliba from loan (more on that later) allowed Ben White (who has been fantastic and 100% should be in the England conversation) to push to right back. But they don’t have an alternative / backup for Partey. Nobody else on the roster provides the ball progression, possession recovery, and defensive acumen he does.

CFC: What’s been the biggest catalyst for the early success of Arsenal this season?

TSF: Gabriel Jesus, without question. He completely changes the way Arsenal are able to attack because, and I know this is a revolutionary concept, he gets into the box. Last season, Alexandre Lacazette couldn’t do that. He didn’t have the athleticism required to drop deep and help in the build-up, which he did quite well, and then get forward with the attack into the area to provide goal threat. Gabriel Jesus does that. Going into the Brentford match, Jesus had received the most progressive passes (65) of any player in the Premier League. He also makes the attack more fluid, generally. He’ll pop up on one of the wings to pull players out of position, create overloads, and cause chaos. The other three attackers, usually Gabriel Martinelli, Bukayo Saka, and Martin Ødegaard do the same more frequently now as well.

Gabriel Jesus’ presence also allows Arsenal to press more effectively. The Gunners are a modest 12th in overall pressed sequences, but 4th in high turnovers and 1st in high turnovers leading to a shot. The pressing doesn’t come entirely from Jesus, either. When Martin Ødegaard joined the club, his pressing statistics from his loan stints in Spain were impressive. We hadn’t seen consistent, effective pressing from him in North London until this season. I think Gabriel Jesus’ energy alongside him is a big reason why. And don’t sleep on Gabriel Martinelli, either. He has a high motor and will make a nuisance of himself if a defender lingers on the ball.

CFC: I won’t lie and say that I like that William Saliba and Mikel Arteta got their beef set aside because he looks pretty damn good. That being said, how screwed are Arsenal if one of your starting three defenders go down and which one would hurt the most?

TSF: I actually think Arsenal are decently well-equipped to cope with a defender going down. At the very least, they’re better off compared to last season. The Gunners were not a deep team on defense, which took centerstage against Spurs last May. Rob Holding was the first guy off the bench, and we all saw how that worked out. Holding is a fine player. He’d start at most mid-table Premier League clubs. He’s not a starting caliber player for a side with designs on a Champions League finish.

Last year, for all intents and purposes, Holding was Ben White’s backup at RCB. I think Mikel Arteta would have preferred to move Takehiro Tomiyasu into that spot when White got hurt, but Tomiyasu was 1) hurt himself and 2) the only real option at RB so he couldn’t slide over even if he was available. This season with William Saliba in the fold, Holding is third or fourth on the depth chart. Saliba is the starting RCB, which has allowed Ben White to play RB while Tomiyasu has been out. If Saliba were to go down, one of those two would slide to RCB and the other would play RB, keeping Holding on the bench. The Gunners have a similar situation on the left. Alex Zinchenko provides cover for Kieran Tierney at left back (and starts ahead of him if both are healthy). Tierney can cover LCB if Gabriel Magalhaes gets hurt, and I’m told that William Saliba can also slide to the left (cha-cha real smooth).

Basically, the Gunners have more first-team caliber defenders, all of whom can line up at multiple spots along the backline. In terms of which defender it would hurt most to lose, I think it’s a toss-up. Alex Zinchenko and Ben White both provide more on the ball and going forward than Kieran Tierney and Takehiro Tomiyasu, which is important to how Mikel Arteta has set up Arsenal this season. When the Gunners are in possession, the outside backs tuck in and push up alongside the single pivot to form a 2-5-3. Zinchenko and White are better when pushed into the midfield.

The two centerbacks — Gabriel Magalhaes and William Saliba — are equally as important to what Mikel Arteta wants to do. They’re both among the top five in progressive carries this season alongside Joao Cancelo, Ruben Dias, and Rodri. You might notice something about that list, by the way. It’s clearly a Pep Guardiola / Mikel Arteta thing. They want centerbacks who will push the ball up the field. The two centerbacks are a key factor in Arsenal’s strength on set pieces, too. Heading into the Brentford match, Arsenal had 4.4 xG created from set pieces, the most in the league, and in that game, Saliba scored from a corner. Last season, Gabriel Magalhaes led all Premier League defenders with 5 goals, all from set pieces. The Gunners have also allowed just .95 xG from opposing set pieces, third best in the Premier League.

CFC: Are the supporters still hoping that Stan Kroenke gets bored and sells the club or has the view on him softened at all?

TSF: Right now, I think supporter sentiment is as high on the Kroenkes as it has ever been. Funny how spending a bunch of money and winning matches will do that. In the end, that’s pretty much all supporters of any club want. There was always a perception that Stan Kroenke didn’t much care about the club and didn’t spend. The spending part of that has been inaccurate for a while. Yes, Arsenal didn’t spend to the level of their competitors through the mid-teens as the club finished up paying for the Emirates, which helped paint that particular picture of him as an owner. But since the club cleared the Emirates debts and especially since Kroenke consolidated his investment in the club in 2018, Arsenal have been among the top spenders.

They didn’t spend particularly well (hello 72M for Nicolas Pepe - a deal so bad and potentially crooked that it got Raul Sanllehi sacked) until Mikel Arteta and Edu took over. Even then there were missteps. Signing Willian was an awful decision. David Luiz was what he was — I happen to think he was mostly okay with a few too many catastrophic errors that color the perception. The Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang extension did not work out. Cedric Soares is at the club for...reasons. But I’ve drank the Kool-Aid and am willing to chalk those moves up as stopgap in an attempt to prevent Arsenal from being even worse than they were before the current rebuild could begin in earnest.

The moves didn’t really work. Arsenal were mediocre at best for a few years. But the current rebuild, which has everyone excited and is finally starting to bear fruit, is impossible without £250M in spending from Stan and Josh Kroenke that indicates full buy-in, patience with, and support for Arteta and Edu’s vision. I think supporters understand that and are, perhaps grudgingly, giving credit where it’s due.

CFC: Let’s say you’re Antonio Conte and you’re watching game film of this Arsenal side in preparation for Saturday. What’s the weak point in this Arsenal defense?

TSF: Antonio Conte doesn’t have to watch video to find the weak point in the Arsenal defense, he just has to think back to last May. The Gunners are vulnerable to the counter. If you’d like a more recent example than the last NLD, look at the Manchester United match (which I’m convinced would have gone differently if Arsenal hadn’t had the opening goal taken off the board by a phantom foul but that’s besides the point - I’m not bitter, I swear). United scored all three goals on counters / quick-developing, direct attacks.

Y’all know better than I how good Spurs are on the break. I call it that goal. Harry Kane checks back around midfield or a bit into Spurs’ half to receive the ball. He spins and plays it into wide space for Son, Kulusevski, Richarlison, or whoever to run onto. And they either carry it into the box and score themselves or play it across to the other winger (or Kane) for a first-touch shot at an open net. That play pattern could be particularly successful against a setup where the outside backs are pushed up and tucked in. There is a lot of space on the outer thirds of the pitch in Arsenal’s defensive half.

CFC: How do the Gunners line up on Saturday?

TSF: It’s a bit tough to say because Thomas Partey, Alex Zinchenko, and Takehiro Tomiyasu are all carrying knocks, but Mikel Arteta said “they are part of the team” when asked at his press conference, which people have taken to mean that they may be available. Kieran Tierney, who left Scotland duty early, should be available as well. If they’re available, Zinchenko and Partey start. If not, it’s Tierney and Sambi Lokonga in their spots. My gut tells me that it’ll be Tierney for the first 60-70 minutes at left back with Zinchenko coming off the bench if Arsenal need a goal. I think Partey starts but doesn’t play the full 90. You can expect to see Eddie Nketiah sometime around the 75th minute onward.

Ramsdale, Tierney, Gabriel Magalhaes, WIlliam Saliba, Ben White, Partey, Xhaka, Ødgaard, Martinelli, Saka, Jesus

CFC: How about a prediction?

TSF: I think Arsenal take it. 2-1. They’ve got to figure out how to stop that goal sometime, right?

A big thank you to Aaron for joining us! I answered some questions for him over on The Short Fuse so give it a read when you get a chance!