Towards the end of Unai Emery’s reign as Arsenal manager, one of the major frustrations that fans voiced was a startling lack of identity in the way the team played. During the early stages of Mikel Arteta’s ascendancy, the squad showed a resoluteness and solidity which soon became a trademark. The Gunners rode this newfound steadfastness to silverware and salvaged a dire season.
During this campaign, there have been extended periods where the team looks disjointed, frail, and a far cry from the strong-willed side that lifted the FA Cup. Some supporters once again questioned the identity of the team and the manager when the campaign reached a nadir. However, after garnering thirteen points from a possible fifteen and currently in possession of the second-best defensive record in the Premier League, Arsenal is beginning to show signs of its identity under Arteta once more.
Arteta was somewhat vindicated on Tuesday with the team’s triumph over Southampton at St. Mary’s. The manager came under harsh criticism for fielding what was perceived to be a weakened side in the very competition which has bolstered his nascent managerial career. Yet, the gaffer was quick to point out that many of the team’s “first choice” players were simply unavailable for selection. This fact was plain to see from the further exclusion of Kieran Tierney from Tuesday’s Premier League squad and the early nights for Thomas Partey and Emile Smith Rowe.
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However, amid all the turmoil over squad selection, an important factor was missed – Arsenal found their identity.
Arsenal’s identity must shine through against Manchester United on Saturday
The three goals that Arsenal scored against Ralph Hasenhüttl’s men perfectly encapsulate exactly what this team is all about when everything clicks. After missing a golden opportunity to go ahead early and then conceding from a well-worked corner, it would be safe to assume that Arsenal players would’ve let their heads drop.
On Tuesday night we saw a very different response. For the first goal, Alexandre Lacazette, who squandered the aforementioned chance, initiated a press as Southampton looked to play out of the back. The Frenchman’s harrying run signaled his teammates to assume tight positions against their opposite numbers. A rushed stray pass fell right into the path of Bukayo Saka who quickly found Thomas Partey. The Ghanian moved the ball quickly to his pivot partner Granit Xhaka who was able to slip in Nicolas Pepe on goal, who then showed strength and balance to shrug off the defender and slot the ball past Alex McCarthy.
The second goal was especially eye-catching. In the past supporters have bemoaned the team’s unyielding penchant to play short from the goalkeeper. While building from the back is a crucial tactic to master in today’s modern game, an over-reliance on passing out from your own box can be very predictable and cause unnecessary moments of panic.
In this case, Bernd Leno elected to go long aiming for Nicolas Pepe. The ball didn’t reach the left-winger but it fell to Xhaka who moved the ball with attacking intent to find Lacazette. Arsenal’s No. 9 played a defense-splitting through ball to star boy Bukayo Saka who accelerated away from his marker rounded the keeper, and swiftly finished on his “weaker” foot from outside the box.
Finally, the goal that killed the bout against Southampton was one predicated on invention and opportunity. Cedric Soares will, and should, get the lion’s share of the credit for the sublime diagonal ball that he sprayed to Saka from the left-back position. Saka, once again proving his two-footedness, played a perfect yet simple ball across the face of goal for Lacazette to slot home. The goal was devastating in its simplicity, only requiring two dangerous passes to unlock Southampton’s entire defense.
These three goals embody what Arteta’s Arsenal is meant to be: decisive, efficient, dynamic.
Pepe’s goal underlines the importance of intelligent pressing and how it should be employed to force the opposition into making mistakes. The second goal showed a willingness to diversify tactics and play opportunistically. The final goal was a simple move predicated on Cedric’s vision and technical ability to spot and play the pass coupled with smart positioning from Saka and tireless running from Lacazette.
With games against Manchester United, Wolves, and Aston Villa on the horizon, Arsenal will need to show this dynamic and steadfast identity in order to continue their fine form.