It was the highly anticipated return to The Emirates for every Arsenal fan and player. After four away fixtures to begin Arsenal’s restart, they were in need of a good performance at home where they are chronically, a completely different team.
It proved to be the type of game that many were left wishing could have been the first game of the restart to give a boost of confidence. Arsenal came out with a confidence that has been on display this season only a few times, but with the need for maximum points before entering a daunting run of games, it was a welcomed result.
Arsenal Starting XI: Martinez, Mustafi, Luiz, Kolasinac, Bellerin, Xhaka, Ceballos, Tierney, Nelson, Aubameyang, Lacazette
Subs: Macey, Sokratis, Holding, Cedric, Maitland-Niles, Willock, Saka, Pepe, Nketiah
A few early notes on the lineup that saw a handful of changes in order to offer rest for players that have played more than their fair share of minutes. On the day his new contract was announced, Saka would be given a rest after playing in every game of the restart. Pepe, Willock, and Holding would also be put on the bench.
In other lineup news, Matteo Guendouzi and Mesut Ozil were not selected. This selection comes a day after Mikel Arteta spoke about the pair in his press conference. Ozil is reportedly still undergoing treatment for a back injury, while Matteo Guendouzi seems to be suffering from consequences of his fallout with Arteta. While some feel this may be punishment for his actions during the Brighton match, three straight appearances missed suggests something larger going on behind the scenes.
The opening 45 minutes of the match would offer Arsenal fans the chance to see what their side looks like when they fully dominate a game. The breakthrough came in the 33rd minute on another goalkeeper error when Aubameyang would time his pressure well to catch Tim Krul dawdling on the ball, get the steal, and tap-in goal.
The second goal wasn’t far behind. Five minutes later, Luiz would drive a longball to Tierney on the left wing in space. He would collect and run at Max Aarons who was forced to step out and close the gap. With the space opened up, Aubameyang would make a run in behind to collect the ball dribbling toward the endline. From there, it was a simple slot into the box to find an untracked Granit Xhaka. 2-0 Arsenal. 3 passes, 1 shot – Arteta’s game working to perfection.
67th minutes, Norwich looking to play out of the back but being pressed into a corner by Arsenal on a throw-in. In a desperate attempt to get out, Norwich would play a regrettable square ball right to Aubameyang on the top of the box with no one but the keeper around him. A second gifted goal, 3-0.
Finally, in the 81st minute, Arsenal debutant Cedric Soares would make his mark. Just four minutes into him being on the field, he would collect a poorly cleared corner twenty-five yards out and bury it into the net. It had dip, swerve, and a little curl away from the keeper to make it four.
It was a great day for Arsenal and here are 3 points of interest outside of the great goals themselves.
1. Complete Team Performance
One of the prominent complaints about Arsenal under the guidance of Mikel Arteta is the feeling that the attack is often reliant on moments of individual brilliance to spark anything. It has caused Arsenal’s attack to sputter and dissolve, for midfielders to settle for side-to-side passing and probing that is comfortable to defend against, and produce few scoring opportunities.
Yesterday, Arsenal looked like a side that was confident and comfortable in the formation they were in and had an idea of exactly how they were going build-up play and be dangerous. Instead of settling for probing, midfielders like Dani Ceballos were looking to take chances with more vertical passes into feet or pick out runs in behind. It was a crucial game for the center midfielders to put in the extra work to get up into the attack against a side like Norwich that was likely to be content with defending.
Arsenal saw Ceballos looking to pick people out, Xhaka offering his long-range passing ability connecting on 2/3 long balls, a cross, and two shots. Ceballos completed the most dribbles, the most passes, was the most fouled player in the game, and won the most duels in what was clearly his best performance since Burnley in August.
The attack still revolved around the wings being Arsenal’s main point of danger, which proved successful throughout the game. Norwich struggled to step out and close down the wings while still shutting down access to the center, resulting in Arsenal’s ability to confidently make runs and passes wherever they pleased. Bellerin and Tierney were rampant on the overlap as Arsenal’s right side actually managed to exchange decently well – something they have struggled to do. Whether that was something that needed more time to develop, was a tactical choice to reduce the frequency in order to keep Pepe in the attack rather than defensive while Bellerin overlapped, or the chemistry between Bellerin and Nelson is just higher, it’s hard to tell. But with the right-side aiding in the attack, there was a balanced look to it.
The most notable statistics that show this is the comparison between Arsenal's percentage of possession to the shots that possession yielded versus other games during this restart. Yesterday, Arsenal ended the first half with 56% possession, 8 shots, 6 on goal, and 2 goals. They completed the game with 52% possession, 13 shots, 8 on goal, and 4 goals. Compare this to Sheffield where they ended with 59% possession, 10 shots, and only 3 on goal or Southampton where their possession only yielded 10 shots with 5 on goal. There was clear intent and purpose to their movements, and it's a promising sign.
Whether the fluid 3-4-3 formation is temporary until Arteta can add players of his choosing to the side or something that he will look to move toward in the future, it’s hard to say, but everyone saw an Arsenal side confident in everything they did. Crisp passing, aggressive movements, confident build-up play, daring attacks, and fluid motions that produced 4 goals and a dominant win. It was a complete team performance for the full 90 minutes.
2. Aubameyang at home, doing it all
It was one of those odd days for Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang where he ghosted around the field, made his runs, and then would appear to devastate the Norwich defense rather than being the focal point of everyone's attention. The end of the first half was reached and many were wowed by the effects Dani Ceballos had on the game – rightfully so – but under the radar, Aubameyang had gotten himself 1 goal, 1 assist, 3 shots on goal (100%), 2 chances created, 3 duels won, 1 tackle, 2 aerials won, and a recovery.
Aubameyang was contributing to the success on both sides of the ball and the second half would only pad those stats. He would end the game with 2 goals, 1 assist, 4 shots (100% accurate), 2 chances created, 1 key pass, 5 duels won, 1 tackle, 4 aerials won, 4 recoveries, and a well-earned Man of the Match award to top it all off. He tallied his 50th and 51st goal making himself the fastest Arsenal player to reach that mark while leaping to the top of the golden boot race with 19 goals on the season.
It is certainly a captain’s performance and one that shows exactly what he is capable of doing. There is some worry that this type of performance is something he offers against weaker sides, especially at home, which could be argued for the entire Arsenal side. In the meantime, we will soak it in and look for a similar result from him at the weekend when Arsenal travel to The Molineux to face 6th place Wolverhampton.
3. The left side moves from “good” to “fine-tuned machine”
The left side of Arsenal’s formation has always been the more complete under Mikel Arteta’s guidance. The attack funneled through it in his 4-2-3-1 in order to offer Aubameyang the ability to tuck inside and play in-between the oppositions right back and central defender while Bukayo Saka or Tierney looked to overlap and get to the endline to provide service.
When the switch was made to the new 3-4-3 look, there were some moments of concern at what this would do to upset their success. That quickly dissipated as it picked up right where it left off. It seems no matter who makes up that left side, it thrives. Tierney, Saka, Aubameyang, Kolasinac, Martinelli, Xhaka – it doesn’t really matter, their combination play is effective.
Yesterday, it appeared that left side made the switch from simply being good, to looking like a fine-tuned machine that knew exactly what it was doing every time the ball was in their area. Kolasinac as the left center back, Tierney the left wingback, Aubameyang the left winger, and Xhaka the left side of the center midfield pivot.
The perfect example of this came on the second goal. The long ball from Luiz to Tierney in space down the wing, Kolasinac came center to provide cover and defense, Tierney collected and ran at the defender, Aubameyang slipped into the unoccupied space in behind, while Xhaka made a well-timed run into the box. Four passes, a shot, and a goal.
It may have been the only goal of this game sprung from that left side, but if you look at the performances of every player that occupies that left side, they were all fantastic. Their chemistry and combinations on full display allowing Arteta more time to concern himself with bolstering the right. In addition, we can expect the left to become even more devastating as the right side continues to work its own kinks out and teams have to respect both wings equally. Nothing happens in a vacuum and when the team performs well, the left side is bound to thrive as well, but you just can help but feel that side’s abilities to work with one another is exemplary.
It’s an easier blog to write when everything goes well in games and it does not escape anyone that this result came against the bottom side of the Premier League who is now almost a guarantee to be relegated, but in these games where supporters will want to see their side dominate – they have.
Arsenal have a big game at the weekend against Wolverhampton who currently sit one spot above them in 6th place. A draw would be great, a win would be incredible. 3 points over Wolves would put real pressure on them to not slip up for the remainder of the year while giving Arsenal some real confidence of this alarming run in.
Arsenal’s next 5 Premier League games are: Wolverhampton (6th), Leicester City (3rd), Tottenham (7th – North London Derby), Liverpool (1st), and Aston Villa (18th). Even Aston Villa may prove a tough matchup as they look to claw their way out of relegation.
Lots of work to be done, but first up Wolverhampton. Enjoy the win!
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