The thrill and the surprise of catapulting ourselves into the 2022/23 title race is gone, consigned to history, and replaced by the weight of expectation that we repeat the trick. A new dynamic is new for, well, everyone. It has done something to the Arsenal fanbase — expectations will do that — and opposition sides are now more likely to sit back and hope to hit Arsenal on the break.
Mikel Arteta would have spent the summer thinking what to do differently with his Arsenal side and how to approach the challenges the new season, and his team’s new role as title challengers, would bring.
And it seems he has decided to turn the dial up in terms of controlling games. That means Arsenal keeping the ball better and making sure it spends as little time near their own penalty area as possible.
With accusations that Arsenal got carried away in the emotion of gamles too much last season, and the idea that games can take volatile swings when they become more based on those emotions, it seems Arsenal are looking to take the sting out of things more often this season. Emotion and chaos helps sides throw the playbook out of the window but Arsenal are better than most teams they will play. If emotion and chaos are levelers for sides you’d consider the underdog, Arsenal want the impact of those things minimised as much as possible.
Speaking to Sky Sports after the match he said:
“We took the game for longer periods into the areas we wanted, in the way we wanted, we were very solid and we gave very, very, very little away if anything because they didn’t create a single chance.”
The game was played where he wanted (the Everton half) and in the way he wanted (slowly) and all that helped Arsenal keep a lid on things. And that’s been a trend throughout this season to date. Arsenal are keeping opponents away from their half and their penalty area and they are doing so by keeping possession better.
These fixtures to date may not have featured any of the top sides bar Manchester United (and even that was a home game) but the 2022/23 edition of these matches produced stats, on average, pretty much exactly in line with the rest of the campaign.
This time around, despite being penned back for a lengthy period playing with 10 men at Crystal Palace, there has been a clear nudge towards Arsenal controlling both possession and territory more. That was also clear at home against Manchester United: instead of risking higher pressure and being caught out with a high line (like against Erik ten Hag’s side in pre-season) Arsenal allowed United to play the ball around at the back, focusing on preventing them from progressing possession.
All in all, in the long run this approach should reduce the chances of random results. Games might be more dull for longer periods — there’s an emphasis on Arsenal not taking risks but grinding opponents down and breaking their spirit instead — as Arteta looks to limit the chances of his team being sucker-punched and the trade-off is Arsenal not blowing teams away as often.
It’s up to the manager to striker the right balance and he has repeatedly emphasised the need to kill games off recently. Still, control is the drum he has been beating for a long time. You only have to go back to March 2022 — when it felt like Arteta’s Arsenal had finally begun to click and play the way he wanted — to hear the manager berating his side for a lack of control.
“We were allowing spaces against the team who, if we kept allowing that, we were going to suffer. I knew that. We had to put that right and we did it for certain periods. Then in the last 25 minutes, we lost it again. We have to show that maturity, understanding and capacity to control the game how we wanted to.
“At 3-1, after, we had to make 300,000 passes in the opposition half and when they have the right moment to come at us, then we can attack them. We didn’t do that. The game was open and you had the feeling that the game was open right until the end.”
Games that are open right until the end is the thing he is still trying to prevent and it feels like that message, the demand for 300,000 passes as a method of controlling things, is starting to sink in.