It is hard not to be impressed with the manner in which Mikel Arteta has transformed Arsenal’s performances since he took over in December.
Gone is the total shambles that played out on the field each week under Unai Emery, instead replaced with a team showing lots of promising signs. A coherent structure, positional discipline, and defensive solidity.
On Saturday, Arsenal came out firing and played brilliantly for 30 minutes against a Crystal Palace side camped on their own 18-yard line. The Gunners couldn’t keep this up for the full 90 and Palace came back into the game, before the sending off of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang 25 minutes from time all but ended Arsenal’s hope of securing a victory. However, Palace created very few openings and had to rely on a deflected goal and a late Nicolas Pepe shot coming off the post to finish the match level.
Now, this is not to say Arsenal are fixed. Far from it. Matches against Crystal Palace, home or away, are fixtures that the Gunners should be expecting to win and a close look at Arsenal’s attack shows some clear weaknesses. First and foremost, the inclusion of Sokratis Papastathopoulos at the centre of Arsenal’s defence comes with a key issue in that he is not comfortable with the ball at his feet.
One of the home side’s key failings early on was allowing David Luiz and Lucas Torreira time on the ball, and they simply dominated play and pinned Palace back. As Roy Hodgson and his players began to notice this trend, Jordan Ayew started following Torreira more closely, Cheikh Kouyate pressurised Luiz more intently and they simply allowed Sokratis to have the ball at his feet.
This simple switch resulted in a clear change of momentum in the match, but given Arteta’s resources at this time it is not a simple fix. Shkodran Mustafi is better on the ball than the Greek, but his defending has been hellish. Rob Holding has played one Premier League match since December 2018 and he looked really shaky in possession against Leeds United in the FA Cup. Calum Chambers won’t be seen until late 2020.
Unless Arsenal dip into the transfer window, this is a problem without a simple solution. However, given the fact that William Saliba is returning from his loan in the summer and January is notoriously hard to pull off impressive deals, a stop-gap move for Jerome Boateng is perhaps all the club can manage.
Elsewhere, the adaptation the team has made to accommodate Sead Kolasinac is admirable in its effectiveness, but it is causing problems in other places. Firstly, the front five that Kolasinac’s positioning creates does not get the best out of Pepe as it pushes him further wide. It also means that he does not have access to an overlapping full-back with which to combine and puts an added defensive onus on him.
Pepe’s ability means it is hard to leave him out but based on what is required of a player in that role, it is no surprise Arteta opted for Reiss Nelson on the right of his attack against both Bournemouth and Chelsea.
Resolving this is possible in Aubameyang’s absence, which may allow Pepe to move inside and Nelson to move outwards. However, what cannot be adjusted for in the short-term are Kolasinac’s deficiencies. In this system he is receiving the ball in some really good positions, but his lack of quality means the team are unable to fully capitalise on that progress. Kieran Tierney is not likely to return until March at the earliest and with Bukayo Saka preferring a more advanced role, like the conundrum facing Arteta at centre-back, there is no simple solution.
Fans must be patient with Arteta and the underlying signs from his first five matches in charge are positive. But given that Arsenal are unlikely to venture into the transfer window this month, he may hit a ceiling pretty shortly that can only be smashed through with proper recruitment next summer.