With the international break about to burst into full bloom, it’s a good time to look back at what Arsenal have done so far this season in order to gauge how well they’re performing but what stands out at the moment isn’t what has happened, but what hasn’t.
As well as Arsenal have started this season, there are a number of key indicators that suggest that not only is this start better than most are giving them credit for, but that there is plenty of room for improvement as well. For example:
NUMBER OF GAMES SHKODRAN MUSTAFI HAS LOST AT ARSENAL – 0
Seven goals conceded in seven Premier League games might not seem like a fantastic record at first glance, but consider the following: four of them came in one game in which we played our fourth and fifth choice central defenders, one was an own goal that bounced off the crossbar and in off Petr Cech’s backside, one was a penalty and the seventh was at Watford when we 3-0 up at the time.
Apart from the Liverpool game, in which they played 15 minutes of sublime football that could have beaten anyone, we’ve been defensively solid for the vast majority of the campaign so far. Even though we had the second best defensive record in the league last year, there was always the niggling worry that Arsenal were going to make a mistake at some point, for both fans and players alike.
This year, neither is apparent. It would be easy to just put this down to Shkodran Mustafi’s arrival, but Laurent Koscielny has been superb in tandem with him. Having two centre-backs in such good form is encouraging the forwards to be a little bit more ambitious with their positioning, in the knowledge that everything is safe behind them. Our attacking play at times this year has been superb, which makes the next statistic all the more encouraging.
NUMBER OF ASSISTS FOR MESUT ÖZIL THIS SEASON – 0
That’s right. Zero. Zilch. Nada. Niente. In 2016, with Alexis Sanchez, Theo Walcott and Alex Iwobi all giving defences headaches, Özil is doing an Alexander Hleb impression behind them, he isn’t providing the assist, but he’s providing the assist to the assist (NHL fans will know this as the ‘hockey assist’). Except whilst Hleb was only doing it in an attempt to recycle possession, Özil is using the defence’s urgency to deny him space against them.
Take the second goal against Chelsea as an example. Özil has the ball 30 yards from goal. There are two banks of five Chelsea players in front of him. Alex Iwobi moves in between the two blue lines to offer a passing option, which Özil uses. It’s from this moment on when Özil realises that all he has to do is to get the two central midfielders away from Iwobi in order to create a chance.
When Iwobi gives Özil the ball back, Cesc Fabregas and N’Golo Kante are already anticipating Özil getting the ball, because they know how much Arsenal want him to have the ball in that area of the field. But in drawing those two away from Iwobi, Özil has done exactly what he wanted to do, so as soon as Iwobi passed him the ball, he passed it back to him. Iwobi now has a second to look up and make the correct decision, because the players that should have been pressing him were still in the process of changing direction towards Özil. Three seconds later, Walcott has a tap-in.
It may seem counter-intuitive, but the less Arsenal have to rely on Özil to be the main source of creating chances, the better their chances are at winning games. There are going to be games like the one at Burnley last weekend, when a well-disciplined team is going to put 10 men on its own 18-yard line and swarm the passing lanes, cancelling out Özil’s strengths.
But if Arsenal can continue to rely on others to attack in different ways on a regular basis, then Özil will be more effective, not less. Alex Iwobi already has three assists in the Premier League this season, one more than he managed in all of last season. He seems to be tailor-made for that role on the left wing, a creative midfielder that can both find a pass and draw a defender out of position. But we have someone far better than him at the club…
NUMBER OF TIMES AARON RAMSEY HAS PLAYED 90 MINUTES FOR THE CLUB THIS SEASON – 0
At Euro 2016, Aaron Ramsey was the best midfielder at the tournament. He played either as a number 10 behind Gareth Bale, or as wide forward who cut inside as often as possible with Bale doing the same on the other wing. He was nigh on unplayable at times, simply because defences had no idea where he would be attacking from next. With Bale, Ramsey caused havoc by simply letting him run at a defence and then moving into the space that resulted from it.
Wales’ problem was that behind Bale and Ramsey, they had no-one other than Joe Allen to take advantage of all that movement in front of them. Arsenal may not have Gareth Bale, but they now have a striker who loves to collect the ball from deep and run at defences. As good as Alex Iwobi has been so far, he still doesn’t do enough off the ball to create chances for himself. I’ve no doubt that he’ll learn that eventually, he’s only 20 after all, but it’s a weapon that Arsenal desperately lack at times, that third runner on the opposite side to draw a defence away from the ball.
Aaron Ramsey is such a perfect fit for that role on the left of our attack, it’s almost unfair that he got injured as soon as Alexis got going up front. We’ve seen how much Walcott has benefitted from playing with the Chilean, Ramsey will be just as good on the left. He’s better defensively as well than Iwobi at the moment.
The fixture list has been kind to Arsenal so far, with six very winnable games in a row upcoming, before November rears its ugly head again. There are small details to work on and players to get back fit, but as of right now, Arsenal have very little to complain about.
Which is nice.