Whether you like it or not, there’s no denying that Arsenal’s style of play is changing under Mikel Arteta.
Gone are the days of the languid, possession football of Arsene Wenger, and in its place has come something more conservative in nature but fast-paced in transition on the counter-attack.
Is it working? The jury is out on that as is typically the case with the Gunners’ fanbase, but with four wins on the spin in all competitions at the time of writing perhaps Arteta is finally getting the best out of his players.
The emphasis is still on tidy short and mid-range passing, but no longer are Arsenal monopolising the ball and doing very little with it – a common accusation of Wenger and Unai Emery’s teams. Indeed, the Londoners sit just ninth in the season-long possession table at 51.7%, which is barely supremacy at all.
And the Gunners sit ninth in the table for time spent in the opposition’s third of the pitch, which suggests there is no dallying around trying to walk the ball in – this is movement with a purpose.
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang is adept at playing on the shoulder of the last man, Willian and Bukayo Sako are willing runners off him, and Kieran Tierney and Hector Bellerin remain as dangerous as ever on the overlap.
One ingredient is missing, however, that is preventing Arsenal from moving onwards and upwards. According to the latest outright Premier League betting odds, the Gunners are a long outside chance of even finishing inside the top six, and that will continue until another number – ten – is satisfied.
Arteta is crying out for someone who can play in-between opposition lines and receive the ball on the half-turn before progressing it forward either through close dribbling or an instant defence-splitting pass to Aubameyang and co. Mesut Ozil is not the man for the job, and he will presumably leave the club in the near future, but the good news is that we might not have to splash the cash on a replacement to fill the void.
There is a young pretender to the throne already at the club who could be the real deal. Arise, Emile Smith-Rowe.
Supply and Demand
While only 20, Smith-Rowe is starting to find himself more commonly involved in the starting eleven, and with good reason.
At the time of writing, he had contributed two goals and four assists in his prior eight appearances for the club, and while those have largely been in the Europa League, the England youth international is now making his mark in more prestigious affairs.
Smith-Rowe changed the game against Newcastle United in the FA Cup, make no mistake. Surviving an erroneous red card for a loose but non-malicious tackle – that was latterly overturned by VAR – the 20-year-old ran the show after coming off the substitutes bench, turning a dull and lifeless contest into an entertaining encounter with his breathless, forward-thinking style in the number ten role.
Yes, he scored the winner in extra time to put the icing on the cake, but that’s not really the point here – it was his ability to receive the ball with either left or right foot, turn and then supply those around him that was key.
Notice his body shape, his direction of vision, his every sinew wanting to go forward and progress the game – THAT is exactly what Arsenal have been crying out for.
With little to play for this term apart from a top-ten berth and a possible FA Cup or Europa League run, this is the perfect chance for Arteta to blood more youngsters and see if they sink or swim at the elite level. From what he has displayed so far, Emile Smith-Rowe will be capable of more than just keeping his head above water.