Even since Mikel Arteta took over the reins from Unai Emery Arsenal’s transformation has been nothing short of incredible.
From a defence that was shaky at best and dropping points against minnows to a side that has completely flipped the script with how it defends and goes forward, all signs point to Arsenal making progress under the Spaniard.
On top of this, the difference in the Arsenal players in terms of their mentality and willingness to do the dirty side of football is in stark contrast to the Emery days.
Costly mistakes, poor positional play and just an out-and-out average defender at times, David Luiz was much maligned during his early days as an Arsenal player. But towards the end of last season and at the start of this one Luiz has been solid as a rock. He is the leader of the backline and is assuming a mentoring role to Gunners young defenders William Saliba and Gabriel to help them settle into life in the English Premier League.
Luiz’s performance against Leicester City in the EFL Cup was extremely solid, as the Foxes barely had a sniff at goal all night apart from the odd shot towards the end of the game. Playing as part of a back three is where he is at his best, being able to drift around and play out from the back with his good range of passing, hopefully alongside Saliba and Gabriel, eventually to help guide the young centre backs to take over at some point.
For now it seems like Rob Holding and Gabriel are Arteta’s preferred choice to form the three along with Kieran Tierney and Hector Bellerin as the wing backs, although Ainsley Maitland-Niles has shown he is more than capable to play either side of the back three and even in midfield.
Then there is Granit Xhaka. Like many fans, I thought his career as an Arsenal player was well and truly over due to that incident in a 2-2 draw at home to Crystal Palace, perhaps the worst moment under Unai Emery. It showed the unrest of our fan-base. For all intents and purposes Xhaka was out the door – until Mikel Arteta arrived.
To Xhaka’s credit he has knuckled down and slowly got back the trust of the Gunners faithful with his on-field performances and, most importantly, his attitude and work rate, which Arteta puts high above virtually anything else. He has gone from an outcast with poor decision making and questionable passing and tackling decisions to the heartbeat of the Arsenal midfield. His range of passing and commitment to hassle the opposition make him one of the first names on the team sheet each week.
To fully utilise him they need to find the right midfield partner for him, which by all accounts has been identified as Thomas Partey. Whether Arteta succeeds in getting his main two transfer targets in Partey and Houssem Aouar before the transfer window slams shut remains to be seen, but If they do manage to secure both players, look out for Arsenal this season.
Let’s not forget the progress some of the younger stars have made under Arteta too. The likes of Bukayo Saka, Eddie Nketiah, Joe Willock, Reiss Nelson, Gabriel Martinelli and Kieran Tierney have all shown huge improvement since Arteta took over, with Saka and Nketiah the two who most stand out.
The rise of Eddie Nketiah has seen him selected ahead of Alexandre Lacazette at times and has pushed the Frenchman higher than in previous years as his position in the side is now under serious threat from the young Englishman.
Saka has been nothing short of remarkable over the last few months. His pace, dribbling ability, goalscoring and uncanny ability to put a great cross in is what makes him a super player for the future. One can only imagine what the side will look like when Martinelli comes back into the fold, but it sure is exciting to think about.
The rise of the Gunners young talent has meant some of Arsenal’s so-called stars have found themselves on the bench or not even in the match-day squad. One such player is record signing Nicolas Pepe. After a somewhat disjointed start to life in England Pepe has been coming off the bench in most games under Arteta, but when he does come on he shows his incredible ability to run past defenders and dazzle with his moments of magic.
Arteta has said he will pick players based on how they perform and train, and with the side playing well recently, Pepe will have to get used to coming off the bench.
It is this type of attitude and willingness to put the team first no matter who you are that’s such a breath of fresh air, as players are not gifted games anymore; they are made to work hard for every game. Pepe has not once sulked about his position but has made it work to his advantage, as his work rate and his eagerness to accept Arteta’s terms is a credit to him and has shown with his on-field performances.
Unfortunately this has not worked for everyone. Mesut Ozil and Matteo Guendouzi have been cast aside for reasons we are made to believe are simply down to attitude and a reluctance to follow Arteta’s way of coaching. Even though numerous times Ozil has stated he is fit and ready to play he regularly finds himself out of the squad entirely.
With Arsenal trying to off-load both during this transfer window but not yet having found suitors, they will have to bide their time until they can get a move. They could force their way back into the fold, although by now that seems highly unlikely, especially after Ozil was overlooked entirely for the EFL Cup game against Leicester, which was a complete surprise to me.
So we have seen the difference in several Arsenal players, old and young alike, who were at one stage on the outer but by following what the manager wants from them and approaching it with the right attitude in training have now blossomed into vital players and critical to Arteta’s Arsenal vision.
Times are changing with a new manager and system, and Arsenal is finally on the right track both on and off the field.