Inside Arsenal’s revival: Are hopes of a top four finish realistic for Mikel Arteta’s surging Gunners?


It has taken them long enough, but Arsenal might finally have reached the stage where Mikel Arteta is not one defeat away from discord and drama. Heading to Liverpool on Saturday, another thumping on a par with those suffered against Manchester City and Chelsea would be an unwelcome check on the Gunner’s surging momentum, but it is unlikely unleash the customary doom and gloom that has engulfed the club’s fanbase for the last several years.

For Arteta in particular, it was perhaps only in this 10 game stretch that he finally shook off the disastrous run of form from before last Christmas that threatened to reluctantly force the hand of Arsenal’s hierarchy. Those above the manager were insistent in public and private that they would hold on to their coach before a 3-1 win over Chelsea acted as a release valve on the mounting pressure. It should be noted that the backing of senior figures, in particular the Kroenke family that own the club, was equally fulsome in the slow start to this season. Over his 100 games at the club Arteta has ushered in ecstatic highs and blistering lows. Those who gave him his first managerial job have never wavered in their belief that he is the right man. 

Echoes of Arsene Wenger

Arsenal’s willingness to stand resolute with their manager amid external skepticism has a familiar ring to it around north London. Though they acknowledge they will possibly never have a manager who spans multiple football generations as Arsene Wenger did, this is not a club that wants the turbulence that comes with frequent hirings and firings. For all that there were just two changes in the dugout Arsenal felt like a club undergoing a permanent revolution, the likes of Raul Sanllehi and Sven Mislintat emerging as Holloway Road Robespierres for a period.

Wenger’s stability may have felt like entropy at times but it was surely preferable to the turbulence that engulfed the corridors of Highbury House from May 2018 onwards. In the space of two years the club lost a chief executive, director of football, head of scouting, their recruitment infrastructure and a head coach. Responsibilities got muddled to such an extent that in the summer of 2019 there were intermediaries who were unsure who was taking the lead on the recruitment front. 

Short-termism abounded, the sort that led to gambling on big contracts for veterans who it was hoped would bring back a lucrative spot in the Champions League. It is in that context as well that the attempt to break away in the Super League should be viewed, a club looking to skip the hard part, to postpone a proper rebuild for when they got back at Europe’s top table.

That sense of instability did not spring to life fully formed the moment Wenger left. Whether it be the contracts and future of key players or the manager himself, Arsenal rarely seemed to be operating towards a long term vision in the Frenchman’s final years. Instead they were plugging immediate holes, reacting to an Alexis Sanchez crisis here or a Wenger Out protest movement there.

Now things are a little quieter, perhaps even a tad dull. The nearest approximation to the contract crises of Arteta’s side is reflective of Arsenal’s desire for something more long term. They are nearly all tied to long term deals and those that are not are players the club does not particularly intend to grow around.  This is a team designed to grow together, one that may not reach its peak for several years.

In giving the keys over to youngsters there is a sense in which this team is, consciously or otherwise, harking back to the Arsene Wenger days, when the manager was prepared to hand the keys to a fresh-faced Fabregas. It is not the only way in which the club has attempted to get back in touch with Wengerian roots.

That is at its most obvious when the current manager offers Wenger a way back to the club he loves, as he did in conversation with CBS Sports. “For me, [Wenger’s legacy] is something that we lost and we have to recover,” Arteta said last week.

What does the data say about Arsenal?

Of course the particular irony of reconnecting with Arsenal’s greatest manager is that it comes at a time where his oft-derided achievement — a string of top four finishes — represents an ideal scenario for this season. Three games in it might have seemed a fantasy; the Gunners were marooned in the lower reaches of the Premier League, yet to finish their squad rebuild whilst the presumptive top four had all loaded up with proven talent to make an immediate impact.

Since a 5-0 loss at the Etihad Stadium to Manchester City they have gone unbeaten in 10 games, four more than they managed in 2020-21, equal with Arteta’s best run as Arsenal manager. It has not been without its wobbles — most notably a 2-2 draw against Crystal Palace secured in the dying minutes — but at their best Arsenal have looked like everything their critics have argued they lost since their 2003-04 Invincible season under Arsene Wenger. Playing with a notably similar 4-4-2ish system Arsenal are swift in their attacks, robust in midfield and exceedingly hard to score against.

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The latter is a particular achievement for a side that set records for goals conceded in the 2017-18 and 2018-19 Premier League seasons. It took Arteta time and a fair amount of money but Arsenal now have a defense that has kept clean sheets in five of their last eight top flight games. 

“They are in the process to go up,” says Cesc Fabregas, whose first flourishes at Arsenal came with the Invincible side before he led the elegant but occasionally brittle rebuild that followed. “It’s not easy, because I think Mikel had a very difficult job from the beginning, taking a team that didn’t have any confidence at all, a team that felt a little bit like they disappeared on the pitch, not focused, no real construction between attack and defense. 

“I feel that he’s doing well. I mean, his numbers are not bad.”

In results terms they certainly are not bad at all. With 20 points from 11 games they could even leapfrog Liverpool with a win at Anfield. And yet some of the underlying metrics tell a rather different story. Arsenal have the league’s 12th highest expected goals (xG) tally while allowing opponents the seventh most dangerous shot profile in the league in terms of xG. Unsurprisingly that does not make a rosy picture in a metric that by this stage of the season is more predictive of future results than it is not (and one that proves to predict future results more accurately than past results do). As it stands Arsenal have the 13th best record in the Premier League in terms of xG, allowing shots worth about 0.26 per game more xG to their opponents than the ones they create for themselves. Notably the four teams with the best xG difference are the current top four.

Defenders of the Arteta regime could point to a host of mitigating factors, particularly in terms of that sizeable xG allowed. It is not just that Arsenal had a hellacious fixture list in their early games including a raucous trip to newly promoted Brentford when their squad was decimated by COVID-19 followed by meetings with the Champions League winners and runners up, but that this was not even the team that the manager and technical director Edu had envisaged. In defeat to Chelsea Bernd Leno was in goal, Rob Holding and Pablo Mari the two center backs, no Thomas Partey in midfield and Gabriel Martinelli, rather than Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang or Alexandre Lacazette leading the line.

Even the team that took the pitch in the first game after the September international break looked utterly unrecognizable. Discount those three games — and there are those around Arsenal who would urge you to do so, counselling that their season only began during the September international break when Aaron Ramsdale, Ben White and Gabriel got to work at London Colney — and the statistics looks rather different. Arsenal have the fourth best xG difference in the league since the transfer window closed.

How Arsenal’s xG compares to top four contenders

Chelsea

19.80

11.79

8.01

6.83

Manchester City

21.74

7.46

14.28

7.33

West Ham

19.23

13.07

6.16

3.75

Liverpool

26.49

12.32

14.17

10.03

Arsenal

13.82

16.37

-2.55

4.17

Manchester United

15.62

16.42

-0.80

-0.78

Brighton

12.86

12.84

0.02

-0.63

Wolverhampton Wanderers

15.33

13.29

2.04

-0.85

Tottenham 10.72 16.07 -5.35 -4.64

Others might argue that Arsenal’s xG numbers have been warped in games against the likes of Leicester, Tottenham and Aston Villa, where they streaked into leads off good finishing and then naturally sat back. In tied games Arsenal have put up 6.37 xG and allowed 3.41. That is the fifth best record in the league, even if much of it was accrued against the likes of Norwich, Burnley and Watford.

In short, there are reams of mitigating circumstances that need to be put together in the case for the defense. West Ham, for instance, have the underlying numbers to back up their performances. The season does not start on September 1 and there are more fixtures against top opponents. Eventually it will matter that Arsenal cannot shut up shop when they hold the lead.

The xG table is certainly still warped to an extent by those early travails but that equally offers a warning of how close this team could be to teetering out of control. Arteta’s first XI might be able to pick up points against mid table opposition, and Saturday’s trip to Liverpool will offer a clearer test of how they fare against the best sides in Europe, but replace Gabriel and Ben White with Holding and Mari, or lose Partey and bring in Elneny, and this team look to be one that can be easily brushed aside.

A team for the future

Perhaps the most obvious room for improvement in Arteta’s side comes in attack. Examine a 10 game rolling average of their xG since the start of the 2019-20 season and there is a relatively sustained decrease in opponent xG but only on a few occasions does Arsenal’s shot quality overhaul it.

Partly those issues are systemic. Under Arteta the team has generally favored a methodical, possession-led approach that offers them plenty of territory but has not translated into a high volume of shots (their average of 11.7 per game since the change in management is 13th of 24 Premier League clubs in that period). Some of that is down to individuals. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang does not always look the force he was and was hamstrung with a number of issues last season whilst Nicolas Pepe has rarely delivered the sort of consistent Premier League performances that one might expect of a near-$100 million footballer.

It is a team that seemed for much of Arteta’s tenure to have an identity problem. Its manager favored the methodical approach he had helped Pep Guardiola forge, but players such as Pepe, Aubameyang and Thomas Partey seem tailor made for broken play. Only in recent weeks has that approach been tried with a 4-4-2 that gives Aubameyang a strike partner, press leader and link man in Alexandre Lacazette. Still this radical change of approach, envisaged initially to combat Aston Villa’s back three but sustained since, is another reason it is so hard to read Arsenal’s potential progress this season. What happens when teams work out a way around this new system?

Perhaps the only real sense of certainty about Arsenal’s future development are Bukayo Saka and Emile Smith Rowe, graduates of the club’s Hale End academy who swiftly established themselves as foundational pieces in the first team. Their development may not continue on the smooth upward trajectory it is currently on but both show signs of swift adaptability and continue to add new attributes to their game.

Smith Rowe’s personal improvements in particular have come through an upswing in shooting form. After scoring just two in his first 22 Premier League games, the 21 year old has scored twice that number in half as many games since then. Such runs of form often have fans, pundits and journalists pulling their hair out looking for elaborate explanations. Smith Rowe himself suggests that cutting out chocolate and flame-grilled chicken helped improve his form. Sometimes though, the simplest explanation can be the most convincing. Sources close to Smith Rowe explain that the reason he has been in such fine scoring form is due to his diligence on the training field. He has put in extra hours on shooting drills and got his rewards.

A player that once seemed skittish in front of goal is offering plenty of indications that his doubts were misplaced. His post shot xG from 11 games this season is already higher than from 20 last, no surprise when he has doubled his tally for shots on target. With the caveat of a relatively small sample size, he has also added the most shooting goals of any Arsenal forward in the Premier League this season, reflecting a player who is making the most of the chances that come his way. His current run of five goals in eight games across all competitions may just be a hot streak, but when he is getting into shooting positions so much more frequently than before a healthy goal return seems sustainable.

As Leicester defenders swarm the ball, Smith Rowe positions himself to where it might break, from where he scores for Arsenal
Wyscout/Sky Sport

It is notable how many chances, such as the above goal against Leicester, come from Smith Rowe exploiting what he had shown even as an academy prospect, a strong understanding of space, to get his effort away. So many of his goals and testing shots come when he seems to anticipate a ball breaking in his direction. Only four of his 16 shots have been what Opta terms high pressure efforts, only two have been blocked.

However, for Jeremie Aliadiere though it is not even the contributions in front of goal that most impress him about Smith Rowe and Saka. A youngster in the legendary Invincibles squad of 2003-04, he knows better than most how intimidating it can be to take the step up into the first team, particularly at a club such as Arsenal that is constantly searching for the next wunderkind.

“It is the freedom they’ve got that impresses me the most,” he says of Smith Rowe and Saka. “They’re fearless. They look like they’re not scared of trying things. From the first time I saw Saka playing I just thought wow, that kid’s just got self belief and a confidence that at that age is pretty impressive and incredible to have.

“I know myself, when I was that age, I didn’t have that. I didn’t feel confident enough to try certain things because, if I lose the ball, the boys are not going to be happy with me. You can see those two, the way they play, they’ve just got absolutely no fear. 

“At the moment those two boys are the main two creating danger. The team let them, you know, try anything they want pretty much because they know that — let’s be honest the last few weeks, months — if you took them two out of the team it would be a completely different Arsenal team.”

Fabregas might well see a lot of himself in these two as well, thrust into key roles on rebuilding teams while they are still in their teens.

“They kind of remind me a little bit of you, a little bit faster,” Garcia put to Fabregas in his interview with the Gunners’ great.

“That’s not hard,” Fabregas laughed.

Neither of them are quite delivering on Fabregas’ level yet, certainly not the 2009-10 vintage who scored 19 goals and provided 20 assists in 37 appearances, but if they are capable of reaching that level they will be given the platform to reach it. As Aliadiere notes, it is unusual for a club to put such faith in such young players. “You can feel the Arsenal are giving everything they can give Smith Rowe to make him feel good and make him feel wanted and make him feel as free and happy as possible to perform. 

“Back in my time you would have not give such an iconic number to a kid that had only played three months or four months.” Smith Rowe was handed the No.10 shirt on signing his new contract in the summer, much as Saka was made Arsenal’s No.7 when he put pen to paper.

These two are perhaps reflective of where Arsenal are right now, impressive and encouraging but crucially with reason to believe this might be their floor rather than their ceiling. Six players were added to Arteta’s first team last summer. More was spent by the Gunners than any other Premier League club. All the new arrivals were 23 or under. For this squad the best years are surely some way off.

Set against that, though, is the question of what must be the minimum standard for Arsenal, rebuilding or otherwise, particularly in a year where Manchester United’s travails might have opened up a top four berth that seemed out of reach at the start of the season. FiveThirtyEight gives them a 20 percent chance of qualifying for the Champions League, behind the Red Devils and a streaking West Ham in the race for fourth.

For some that is the bare minimum that should be expected. Aliadiere says: “For me it’s top four. I don’t see anything else with the talent we’ve got. As much as I hear a lot of people saying about time and the process this is Arsenal football club we’re talking about.

“Not having Europe this season give us a massive advantage. We can keep a starting XI and a regularity in the team, which we’ve seen in the last few weeks. At least now we feel like we’re finally seeing the players in the right system for them and for the coach.”

His former team mate might disagree.  “I don’t think people demand top four at the moment,” Fabregas says. “I think the fans are realistic. You speak to the fans and they don’t expect to win everything now and to be top four all the time. 

“They want to see an improvement. I think top six can be regarded as a good season. Next year play Europa League, start feeding these players with European football… Then once you have this level, you know of course achieve the Champions League and try to maintain the team there.”

Yet that might be precisely the problem, that if Arsenal were to fall just short of top four this season they would find themselves back in the Thursday, Sunday grind of the Europa League that so drained them over the previous three seasons. The financial benefits — an estimated £40 million a year — make it better to be there than not but in purely footballing terms a decreased fixture list allows Arteta the hands on time with his squad he craves.

This season of rebuilding and investing in youth seemed like one in which Arsenal might, at most, take a small step forward with an eye on the longer term. Yet the travails of others may just have opened up a gap that could allow Arteta to accelerate his project forward. Whether his players can fill that space remains intriguingly unclear but he at least has the sort of environment conducive to a steady build towards lofty heights.





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