Arsenal are actually STRONGER than last season – here's why
Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta used one word to summarise what his team did away to Everton at the weekend that they hadn't managed in three previous visits: solid.
"We looked really solid," the Basque boss noted. "We gave very little away – if I can say, nothing – because they didn't have a single chance. In the end, we found a way to win… and we were really solid defensively as well."
It's not as if Arsenal haven't been "solid" for over a year now, compared to their previous selves. William Saliba arriving into the side transformed the backline, adding a warrior to the centre of the defence and allowing Ben White to move out to right-back. The Gunners conceded just 43 times in the Premier League last term – that's the lowest since 2013/14, when Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny formed one of the best central defensive partnerships in the league.
But statistically, Arsenal have gone up another level in defence. Only Manchester City (3.4) have conceded fewer Expected Goals than Arsenal so far this season (4.0). City have let in three goals to Arsenal's four, at the start of the campaign.
There is a clear improvement, given that they were all at sea in the second half of last season. But to some Arsenal fans, at least, the press hasn't looked as good this season as it did at the start of last. There was a reluctance to press with razor-sharp relentlessness against Manchester United – and the introduction of Kai Havertz has led to an obvious change of dynamic.
VIDEO: How Arsenal EVOLVED Declan Rice To Beat Man United
Still, the numbers don't reflect that – and the dominance is still obvious. Against Everton, Arsenal had 83.8 per cent of their possession in the Toffees' final third. Against United, it was 81.2 per cent, Fulham 90.4 per cent and Nottingham Forest, 82.8 per cent. It was just over half of their possession at Crystal Palace – but they were a man down for the majority of the second half.
Basically, the stats show that Arsenal are keeping the ball in dangerous areas and they're limiting the opposition in transition. So why don't things look as easy as they did last season?
There are a number of factors – and the loss of Granit Xhaka is a huge one. The Swiss did so much work for the team off the ball, as well as his obvious "box-crashing" capabilities. Kai Havertz isn't being asked to replicate the exact same role: instead, Arsenal have replaced both Xhaka and Thomas Partey with one player in Declan Rice – who is still learning how to play as a lone No.6 and cover for his team-mates positionally.
Essentially, Arsenal have moved to a system without a natural No.8. There are two No.10s in the side – against Everton, it was Fabio Vieira and Martin Odegaard – and two No.6s behind – that's Rice and one of Oleksandr Zinchenko or Thomas Partey, so far this season. But Arteta's side are still playing with the handbrake on – and that's the key difference. Last season, they could barely win without playing full throttle. This season, they can.
You can see it when Arsenal desperately need a goal – look at the pressure they piled on against Fulham and United at the Emirates – that when they throw caution to the wind, they can rival anyone in the league for attacking bluster. The Gunners look a little more reserved otherwise, keeping possession and patience like they did against Everton, waiting for the breakthrough.
But once that defensive structure has bedded in, Rice acclimatises to his new role and limiting transitional threat comes a little more naturally to this side, don't be surprised if they attack with the same ferocity, press with more vigour and look more like last season. We've only seen Arsenal in third gear at most so far and they've picked up 13 out of 15 points: it's a scary thought to imagine them hitting top speed in a few months…