As the international break is upon us, we find ourselves in third place domestically. We’ve also progressed to the fourth round of the League Cup. In terms of European performance, we’ve claimed six points from two games in the Europa League. Many Arsenal fans, myself included, would have been very pleased with this, had you offered it to us in early August. However, there is more to our start to the season than meets the eye.
Firstly, it’s important to clarify that I have no problem with ‘winning ugly’. The result is what’s most important, so an occasional sub-par performance isn’t the end of the world, providing that the three points are secured. In the case of Arsenal so far this season, it doesn’t appear to be a once off. Whilst it’s absolutely true that the great sides find a way to win, regardless of the performance, the reason that the accomplishments of these teams are so impressive is the rarity that they need to be bailed out by either a piece of individual magic or a mistake from the opposition.
For us, it’s seemingly every week. Which would indicate that it’s not a last resort, it’s the initial objective. There is no setting that the likes of Manchester City and Liverpool have had their blushes spared at times over the past two seasons. A prime example is when the European champions played against Sheffield United earlier this month. It was a sure performance where nothing appeared to be clicking for Jürgen Klopp’s side. They emerged with a 1-0 win, courtesy of a howler from Dean Henderson. So what makes this so different to Arsenal? The fact that it was an off day. In the last eighteen months, Liverpool have arguably been the best side in Europe. They play with style and regularly defeat sides by 3+ goals. How often can the same be said about Arsenal? Unfortunately, it is a rarity, particularly in the league itself.
When we come out as narrow winners, I no longer feel like we ‘got away with one’. I feel like everything went to plan. We can’t rely on Aubameyang to bail us out every week. Similarly, the poor form of our rivals won’t last forever. We can’t afford to rest on our laurels. Although we find ourselves in a healthy domestic position, I don’t believe that it’s a fair reflection of our quality. We sit on fifteen points. At the same stage last season, we had accumulated eighteen. You could easily make an argument for the fact that we haven’t improved, but that the level around us has dropped. In my opinion, if we continue to persist with the current approach, tactics and lineups, our luck will run out pretty soon. The level of performance has been underwhelming and must be addressed.
Regarding the so-called second team, the performance level has been exceptional. We’ve seen them in action on three occasions. A 3-0 win in Germany against Eintracht Frankfurt, a 5-0 win at home to Nottingham Forest and a 4-0 victory vs a poor Standard Liège outfit. Obviously, it’s important to account for the quality of teams faced, which is undeniably much lower than that of the Premier League. Nonetheless, this side has played with the style that we all associate with the club and has some incredibly talented youngsters. You could argue that players like Bellerín, Tierney and Holding belong in the first team, which is a fair point. However, our defence has been largely untested in these games. What has been most impressive is the talent of Martinelli, Willock, etc. Overall, I think it’s fair to say that the second-string side have largely outperformed the so-called first XI. Hopefully the performances and results that we’ve seen from these players can be transferred to our domestic displays from here on in.
Our first Summer signing saw the arrival of Gabriel Martinelli for £6m. He was playing in the fourth tier of Brazilian footballer and was largely unknown. However, he was signed on the recommendation of Edu Gaspar on his return to the club. The fee was minuscule and the deal was seen as low risk, high reward. After 11 games this season, the young Brazilian seems to have been worth the price-tag already. We’ve only seen him for ~30 minutes in the Premier League. The rest of his minutes have come in the League Cup and Europa League. As mentioned earlier, the gap in quality between the league and those competitions mentioned is huge, so we shouldn’t get ahead of ourselves just yet. Nonetheless, he scored a brace in his first start for the club and followed it up by yet another brace in the follow-up game. In the latter, he also provided a superb assist for Dani Ceballos’ first goal for the club. In the past, we’ve seen youngsters burst onto the scene but fail to sustain their form, so everything needs to be kept in perspective. Despite this, one thing is for certain, from the little that we’ve seen, there is certainly a player in there somewhere. Whether he will go on to reach his potential remains to be seen but, if he does, he could be a frightening player in the future.
The second arrival this summer was Real Madrid midfielder Dani Ceballos on a one-year loan deal. The Spaniard came with a decent reputation, but he had struggled to obtain many minutes for Los Blancos due to their options and depth in midfield. With the European Championship around the corner, a change of scenery seemed logical for all involved. Albeit, just for a year, he chose Arsenal as his destination. Similarly to Martinelli, we’ve seen glimpses of a top, top player. Against Burnley, he was unplayable. However, in the follow up game against Liverpool, he was anonymous. He’s since made it clear that he plans on proving himself at Madrid in the future, so it would appear that he will only remain on our books for one year. Nonetheless, as should aim to utilise his qualities before the deal expires. He can undoubtedly have an impact on our quest for Champions League football. Overall, I’m hoping that he’ll be able to find more of a consistency to his game and secure us a place amongst Europe’s elites before a new signing/Joe Willock take over from him in August.
There isn’t too much to say regarding William Saliba. When we secured his signature, it was agreed that he would return to Saint-Étienne on a season-long loan before joining up with his new teammates. Since then, he has had an operation regarding a long-term injury, and has only made his return to football recently. His side were struggling for form during his absence, and found themselves in the relegation zone. His return to league football came in a 1-0 win away to Nimes, although he only played a few minutes towards the end of the game. He followed this up with a Europa League display vs Wolfsburg. This game ended in a 1-1 draw. His first league start of the season game against ASSE’s biggest rivals: Olympique Lyonnais. The French youngster was key in his side’s clean sheet and they sent on to nick a late winner in a memorable 1-0 victory. Following the game, the 18-year old led the celebrations and it would appear that he is a natural leader. This will be a huge boost upon his arrival. Hopefully he can go on to have a healthy and successful season between now and May.
When Arsenal announced the signing of Ivorian winger Nicolas Pépé for a club record £72m, expectations were understandably high. Any player with that sort of a price-tag will face instant pressure. Unfortunately, his adjustment to life in England hasn’t been instant. He has managed 1 goal and 3 assists so far this campaign, but many were expecting more from him, myself included. The player himself has indicated that he is aware that his performances have been sub-par, and that he believed that he’ll hit top form soon. Despite his slow start, I’m not overly worried. Thierry Henry didn’t settle instantly. Nor did Dennis Bergkamp. Roughly 20 years on, the pair are largely renowned as the two best players in the history of Arsenal Football Club. It is important to remain rational. We’ve seen glimpses of incredible quality, and we all know just how well he performed for Lille last season, so the signs are there. Aswell as this, I feel that the system hasn’t helped matters. He has had limited creativity around him and arguably hasn’t started a single game with our first choice right-back. The return of Héctor Bellerín should have a positive impact on his performances. Once he starts scoring, he’ll be hard to stop, in my opinion.
Our penultimate signing saw the arrival of Scottish left-back, Kieran Tierney, from Celtic. The negotiations were ongoing throughout the summer, but we finally secured the signature of the 22-year old on deadline day. Unfortunately, we haven’t seen him feature that often due to injury problems. When he signed, we were all made aware that he was in the recovery stage following an operation on his knee. Thankfully, he seems to have put these issues behind him and we’ve seen him feature in the League Cup and Europa League group stages, as well as for the youth team. From the little that we’ve been shown, he looks like a phenomenal addition to the squad. He’s astute defensively, incredibly mobile and has a superb final ball to match it. At Celtic, he recorded 39 assists in the last three seasons. Admittedly, the quality of opposition is much lower to that which he’ll become accustomed to in England, but it is an impressive statistic nonetheless. His debut in London was against Nottingham Forest in the League Cup. He created two fantastic chances and was unlucky to finish without an assist in the side’s 5-0 win. He didn’t face the same problem in his second outing, against Standard Liège. The Scotsman provided the assist for the first goal of the night, within the opening 15 minutes. He followed this up with a superb cross to Joe Willock, who failed to convert. Whilst he has featured, we are yet to concede a single goal. It’s early days, but he looks like a smart acquisition by Sanllehi and co.
We saw numerous central defenders linked with potential moves to Arsenal throughout the summer, but the name of David Luiz didn’t appear until close to the deadline. The 32-year old former Brazilian international arrived on deadline day, and concluded our business for the summer. With Saliba returning to France, Koscielny/Bielik departing, Mustafi’s future in doubt and Mavropanos/Holding facing spells on the sideline, his arrival seemed logical. He was presumably seen as a short-term signing, but it was a necessary acquisition, for me. If he helps us to secure Champions League football in time for Saliba’s arrival, I think we’ll all consider it to be £12m well spent. He has had moments of madness, that we’ve all become accustomed to over the years, but has added some much-needed experience to the dressing-room. He appears to have integrated very well and spreads positivity off the field, similarly to Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. The defensive errors need to be eradicated, but his ball playing capabilities could prove to be useful between now and June. With Rob Holding’s return seemingly imminent and Calum Chambers’ form remaining impressive, he mightn’t be viewed as a starter for the entire season. However, competition for places can only he viewed as a positive. It will force everyone in that position to perform, otherwise they’ll be facing a spell on the bench. Regardless of the team selection, hopefully he can perform well when called upon and help the club return to where we want to he, the UEFA Champions League.