Following a false start in his tenure as Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta is finally up and running in North London after recording a highly significant 2-0 victory over Manchester United.
We all know the hideous stats behind the terrible run that the Gunners were on heading into this match but this victory over their old enemies was important for reasons other than ending a dour string of results.
In each of the Spaniards opening matches in charge, there were clear indicators that the Arsenal players were being guided by a man with an obvious direction and clear methodology. The aggression and intensity was cranked up and the players seemed to have more desire and aggression in their game.
However, their New Year’s Day victory at the Emirates over the Red Devils was the closest we’ve come thus far to seeing Arteta’s master plan for a grand reversal of fortunes at Arsenal in full swing. The zeal and relish in which the home side pressed their opponents and pounced on second balls was truly ferocious and left Manchester United dazed and confused during a first-half onslaught that had the fans stomping their feet.
Yet, as there often has been with Arsenal over the past decade and a half, there was also a serious caveat from their improved display. During a more balanced second-half, there were players going down all over the pitch as intensity levels dipped considerably from the home side.
Of course, nerves played their part. After a late collapse against Chelsea, few could blame the evident twitchiness from the terraces and out on the pitch as Arsenal tried to close out the game and earn a win at home in the Premier League for the first time since early October.
Fatigue though was the main spanner in the works here. Players were visibly fading all over the park and the game was halted on several occasions for treatment to tired limbs. Yes, of course, the Christmas congestion would have played its part but a closer look at the figures during Arteta’s opening salvos as Arsenal manager reveal just how much harder the players will have to work under their ambitious young boss.
Collectively the Arsenal players are averaging 112.1 miles per game under Arteta, this is up from 107.1 per game and has elevated them from 11th up to fourth in the rankings in terms of distance covered in the Premier League.
Mesut Ozil, for example, covered 11.56 km against Man United. He has not covered so much ground in a Premier League game for two years. The German also regained possession on 10 occasions for his side as United’s midfield were given no time at all to dwell on the ball at the Emirates.
That such a divisive player as Ozil has immediately bought into the new manager’s methods should be encouraging for Arsenal supporters. The newly forged intense pressing style also bodes well as a clear and defined methodology and is clearly being installed in the players, stemming directly from Arteta’s coaching.
However, fatigue levels may be something of a concern. For the second time in two games the players ran out of steam with a significant chunk of the second-half still to play. Chelsea punished them, so too will others if this trend continues.
The former Manchester City assistant has clearly got work to do in conditioning his players to be more compatible with his new and demanding approach.
“I wanted to play a different rhythm than what I was watching.” The 37-year-old said after the Man United match. “…at the moment it lasts until one moment in the game. They can cover the distance yes, but at the intensity I want for 90 minutes? No.”
Such an honest admission from the manager speaks volumes about where he currently is with the group of players he inherited from Unai Emery and Arsene Wenger.
Arteta is a student of Pep Guardiola and as such his players, without exception, will be expected to press, harry and squeeze the space on the pitch at all times. Such a high octane style will take its toll on players who have not previously been put through such paces. Crucially too, the system only works if everyone is fully engaged and genuinely capable of carrying out such a physically gruelling approach.
The early signs have no doubt been encouraging but it’s clear that the fitness levels of his players is something of an early hurdle for him to get over as he looks to make good on his blueprint for success at the Emirates.