This column is usually an attempt at analysis in terms of what Arsenal have done on the pitch, why they did it, and what the results are.
And I’ve occasionally been asked if I watch games differently when I’m going to write a column. The answer is I usually have some sort of idea but then watch a game back (at x2 or x3 speed) before anything is properly written and published and you see it. Partly it helps to watch things twice! But partly because I don’t want to try and analyse a game as it’s happening, at least not much more than any other fan, on a surface level.
Football, as we all know, is about how we feel. So I’ve been wondering what to write about Saturday’s 1-1 draw against Burnley. It was yet another frustrating game that saw Arsenal drop points. We’ve only won 11 of 27 Premier League games so far this season and, despite improving, we’ve now only won two of the last seven.
But the Burnley game, like a few others since Christmas, left me feeling different to most of our games in the opening stages of the season. I was frustrated, absolutely, but not disheartened. If anything, the game just added to my feeling that Arsenal are going to be just fine. We entered the Chelsea game on Boxing Day discussing when we would have to accept we were in a relegation battle or if, indeed, we were already in one.
Not only did the Premier League table looked grim, but it was what we deserved. As we played out defeats against the likes of Aston Villa, Wolves, Tottenham and Everton, it never felt like we might be on the verge of turning the game around and rescuing something from it. A run of seven without a win saw us enter Christmas in 15th and the underlying numbers more or less went along with the results: we deserved to be there.
(Tables from Whoscored/Understat)
Arsenal had maybe been a little unfortunate in front of goal but expected goals worked in the team’s favour in that sense because they had spent so long trailing and playing against teams uninterested in adding to a lead they were confident of maintaining against one of the league’s bluntest attacks.
It never sounded like Mikel Arteta was clinging on to his job, but faith from the fans was wobbling big time. And then we played Chelsea. No more back three. Emile Smith Rowe in at number 10. Bukayo Saka now a winger instead of a wing-back. And Arsenal deservedly won.
The form has continued and Arsenal are no longer failing to win games because they can’t attack, but because their own errors are costing them (David Luiz, Granit Xhaka, Dani Ceballos) or unfortunate marginal calls are going the other way (David Luiz at Wolves, no penalty against Burnley) and, as a fan, I find there’s a lot more to take from that.
Of course it can be infuriating, but there are glimmers of hope. Arsenal are playing well enough to win games again, even when they aren’t winning. And it’s been the case for a couple of months, so it’s starting to feel sustainable. Simply, since Christmas, Arsenal have been good.
And this isn’t a case of the team just getting luckier.
Arsenal are playing more on the front foot than earlier this season and than last season. They’re not pressing much more, but they are pressing higher up the pitch, and they are taking more shots while keeping the defence as solid as it was previously.
Breaking down some basic stats and looking at the per game averages, everything is trending upwards. The pressing stats are strange this year, with clubs having incredibly condensed schedules off the back of pre-season, but even there Arsenal have taken huge leaps forward, pressing higher up the pitch with much more regularity than before.
(Stats from StatsBomb per FBRef, ‘PL Rank’ accounts for the entire season so far)
There is work to be done, absolutely. Saying that I’m happy with Arsenal’s last two months does not mean I’m happy with where Arsenal are, just the improvement from where we found ourselves.
Being happy with the progress is not an acceptance that the work is done and Mikel Arteta has admitted there is a lot of work left to do. Speaking before the Burnley game he said:
“We are very far. Very, very far (from where we want to be). There’s still a lot to improve, a lot of quality to add. Much more efficient in decision making, much quicker to open situations up when advantages are there.
“We need more control of games, more defensive actions in the opponent’s half, fewer giveaways in our own half, more clean sheets. There’s a lot to do – more goals to score, more creativity. A lot to do.”
And he’s absolutely right. Arsenal can’t be going to Burnley, not putting the game to bed when on top, gifting them an equaliser, and then failing to put them to the sword until the final 10 minutes.
But we wouldn’t have seen those final 10 minutes in the first half of the season, and the fact we did manage to play like that, and were incredibly unlucky not to score (never mind the penalty shout or hitting the post, how lucky was Pieters to block Pepe’s effort and find the bar, rather than the roof of the net?!) a late winner.
You can add Burnley to the list of performances post-Christmas that Arsenal simply didn’t look capable of pre-Christmas. The direction of travel looks good ahead of a huge week for Arteta and his players.