Arsenal, for a long time now, have been one of Premier League’s most attractive teams to watch. Their football, for large parts of the last two decades, has been artistic, enthralling fans and also winning admirers among the neutrals.
But beauty doesn’t always translate to success. In their pursuit of blurring the lines between football and art, the Gunners have often been caught on the wrong end of heavy defeats against fellow big teams that didn’t just neutralise their flair but exposed and exploited their weaknesses time and again.
The 8-2 defeat at Old Trafford, the 6-0 humbling by Chelsea and several heavy defeats inflicted by Liverpool and Manchester City in the last few years had handed the Gunners the unwanted tag of big-game bottlers.
For all their pretty football against the lesser sides, Arsenal always came up short when they locked horns with the very best.
The pattern that began under Arsene Wenger extended into Unai Emery’s reign. A 4-1 loss to Chelsea in the 2019 Europa League final was a classic case of Arsenal capitulating against a rival when it mattered most.
Since Mikel Arteta took charge at the Emirates stadium in December, Arsenal have shown signs of improvement on that front. While the odd reverses have remained, the biggest change has been in matches against the fellow big clubs in the land.
In the nine matches against the Premier League big six sides in all competitions, the Gunners have won five, lost three and drawn once since Arteta took over. The performances haven’t just helped the Gunners win a record 14th FA Cup crown and a 16th Community Shield title, but also restore a lot of lost pride in big matches.
Arsenal's record against PL top six
|Before Mikel Arteta became Arsenal manager||1||3||5||-8|
|After Mikel Arteta became Arsenal manager||5||1||3||-1|
A team that the rest of the Premier League top six sides systematically exposed has turned the tables on their rivals, giving them a taste of their own medicine. In the nine previous matches against the top six sides in the Premier League in all competitions, before Arteta took over, Arsenal had won just once while losing five times and drawing thrice.
The Gunners’ goal difference in the last nine matches against the top six sides is -1 as compared to -8 in the nine matches before Arteta took over. The figure would have been a lot better had they avoided a heavy defeat to Manchester City.
However, Arteta has instilled into Arsenal, a quality they have lacked for the last few years: defensive organisation. Under the Spaniard, the Gunners seem to have a defined defensive structure and an obvious yet effective plan to counter-attack opponents when they win the ball back.
Since football restarted after the Covid-19 lockdown, Arteta’s Arsenal have beaten Liverpool twice, Manchester City and Chelsea once.
The Gunners’ greater defensive resolve has come at the cost of attacking returns with Arsenal scoring poorly on the best attacking parameters. But they have been bailed out by the incredible abilities of striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang who scored a brace each in the FA Cup semi-final and final and netted Arsenal’s only goal and winning penalty in the Community Shield.
The Gabon striker has been the Gunners’ talisman and has stepped up in the big games this season. He deserves as much credit for the Gunners’ transformation in big games as Arteta. Aubameyang has ensured, the Spaniard’s coaching has borne fruit.
Against Liverpool in the Community Shield, the Gunners displayed great character to stay in the game after Liverpool had equalised in the second half. Known for collapsing in matches against big sides, the Gunners weathered the storm to end the game on the front foot against the Premier League champions.
As for Liverpool, the defeat in the Community Shield won’t ring alarm bells, but the Reds indifferent form since the February break will be a concern for Jurgen Klopp ahead of the new season. Only Manchester City have defended the Premier League title in the last decade and the Reds would need to address their form if they are to clinch a record-equaling 20th English league title this season.
The Community Shield in all fairness is little more than a glorified friendly game. History suggests that the result of the match must be taken with a pinch of salt. Only two teams who won the Community Shield in the last decade have gone on to win the Premier League title the same season.
But despite the friendly nature of English football’s curtain-raiser, the celebrations by Arteta and his team tell a story. Arsenal, after years of stagnation, seem to be moving in the right direction. The joyous scenes at the end of Community Shield were a toast to this overdue improvement.
These are still small steps for Arsenal given how big a club they are. But under Arteta, there are signs that these small steps could turn into big strides in the near future.
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