Monday, November 29, 2021

Is Arteta´s message finally sinking in as Arsenal head to Anfield?

SoccerNews in General Soccer News 19 Nov 2021

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At the end of August, Mikel Arteta was under pressure, his Arsenal side propping up the Premier League.

To make matters worse, rivals Tottenham were sitting pretty at the top of the pile.

Yet by the start of November, Spurs had dismissed Nuno Espirito Santo and the Gunners were nine games into an unbeaten streak that has now been stretched to 10 in all competitions.

Arsenal’s struggles, epitomised by the 5-0 hammering at Manchester City in matchweek three, have made way for a team now playing with real verve.

Aaron Ramsdale and Emile Smith Rowe are thriving, Ben White has settled into the defence following his big-money move, and Arsenal look like a team on the up.

However, their biggest test since that City defeat comes on Saturday in the form of a trip to Anfield, with Liverpool – who saw their 25-match unbeaten streak ended by West Ham before the international break – just two points above them.

Out with the old…

Given his only other coaching job prior to taking over at Arsenal was as assistant to Pep Guardiola, it was no surprise to see Arteta initially adopt a possession-based approach at Emirates Stadium.

Yet something has changed this season. Arsenal have had their lowest average share of possession (46.75 per cent) Opta have on record (since 2003-04).

It might be a stretch to say this is entirely deliberate. For example, Crystal Palace dominated the ball in the first half of a dramatic 2-2 draw on October 18, having 57.1 per cent of the possession before Arsenal managed to wrest back some form of control after going 2-1 down, with 78.1 per cent of the play in the final 15 minutes prior to Alexandre Lacazette’s last-gasp equaliser.

Arteta would not have been happy with how easily his team handed Palace territory in that match, and Arsenal were far superior against Aston Villa four days later. However, there has definitely been a trend of their best moments – see Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s goal to double the Gunners’ lead in the north London derby – coming on the break.

Ball carriers are at a premium, with Bukayo Saka leading the way for carries (136) and progressive carries (79) at Arsenal but ranking only 26th and 29th respectively across the Premier League. But Arsenal have other ways to get the ball forward, able to mix up their attacks and switch the play with the help of White’s accurate long passes.

In stark contrast to Liverpool, Arsenal do not tend to press high. Only four teams, have a deeper average starting position than Arsenal (40.3 metres from their own goal) in the league this season, with the Reds the most progressive by that metric (45.4).

Intense pressing has been the bedrock of Jurgen Klopp’s success at Anfield, while Arteta likes to take a more reserved approach. Last season, Arsenal ranked 12th in the top flight for both pressed sequences (484) and PPDA (14.3 opposition passes per defensive action). Liverpool were first (686) and second (10.4) respectively.

It has been a similar story this season, with Arsenal 15th for pressed sequences (131) and 18th for PPDA (15.7). The Gunners’ 79 high turnovers (when the ball is won within 40 metres of the opposition’s goal) compared to Liverpool’s league-leading 122 provide another example of the contrasting styles set to be on show at Anfield. 

Ramsdale’s rise

Liverpool’s Alisson endured a miserable time against West Ham, arguably at fault for two of the Hammers’ three goals. While the Brazil international will be looking to bounce back, his Arsenal counterpart heads into Saturday’s fixture in superb form.

In all competitions, Ramsdale has gone 202.5 minutes between conceding on average so far this term. Contrast this with Alisson, who is allowing a goal every 78.8 minutes, having only played five games more.

The former Bournemouth and Sheffield United goalkeeper, who made his England debut in the 10-0 rout of San Marino, has been a standout performer, keeping five clean sheets – already matching his total from last season – in eight league appearances.

His save percentage of 86.21 is second only to Chelsea’s Edouard Mendy among goalkeepers to have played more than two Premier League matches. It also marks a drastic improvement on his figure of 69.86 from last term.

And Ramsdale, according to expected goals on target (xGOT) data, has prevented 2.8 league goals and 3.9 in all competitions this term. This is especially impressive when contrasted with Bernd Leno’s performances at the start of this season, the Germany international conceding nine times from shots worth 8.88 xGOT across just three games.

The 23-year-old’s most notable display came against Leicester City, with some fantastic saves cumulatively seeing him prevent 2.5 goals, way surpassing the previous high mark of the season set by Alisson against Norwich City (1.7).

Arsenal’s win percentage with Ramsdale in the team stands at 77.8, while another example of the Gunners’ changing style is evidenced by 53 per cent of the shot-stopper’s passes going long.

Arteta getting his message across?

Arsenal missing out on Europe for the first time in 25 years was not what Arteta would have envisioned for his first full season in charge.

That being said, perhaps the luxury of extra time on the training pitch is paying dividends, especially with a younger squad who seem eager to soak up their manager’s advice.

“[Arteta] just tells us to keep calm,” Smith Rowe told Sky Sports following the 3-1 win over Spurs in September. “We’re young players in a massive game. He just encourages us so much and gives us so much confidence. Not just the manager, but the players in the team as well, they give us so much confidence.”

After 100 games in charge, Arteta’s message certainly seems to be getting across. He has earned 54 wins so far, though only one of these have come from five attempts against Liverpool.

Arsenal have lost twice and drawn twice with the Reds under Arteta, conceding eight goals and scoring four. Indeed, of his 24 matches in all competitions against the other ‘big six’ teams, Arteta has managed only a middling nine victories – it is a record that must improve if the Gunners are to be serious contenders at the top of the table.

Perhaps, for now, that is not Arsenal’s aim, however. A top-four push seems more realistic than a title challenge, and Saturday’s game could provide a true benchmark of where Arteta’s team stand.

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