Mikel Arteta was bullish about Arsenal’s title chances in the wake of their 3-1 loss to Manchester City at the Emirates Stadium.
The defeat was Arsenal’s third in four games in all competitions and allowed City to move above them at the top of the Premier League table. In the space of 11 days, they had dropped more points than in the previous six months of the season combined.
Arteta, though, rejected any talk of a loss of momentum. While many on the outside were doubting his side, the manager went the other way. “I have more belief than I had before the game,” he said.
Two weeks on, it seems that belief was justified. Arsenal can move five points clear again when they face Everton on Wednesday. But it took more than belief to put them back in this position.
Focus on the boxes pays off
Arteta spoke of going “back to basics” after Arsenal followed up their 4-2 win over Aston Villa with a 1-0 victory against Leicester on Saturday. “It was about coming back to some details and basics that took games away from us,” he said.
He elaborated in his pre-match press conference for the visit of Everton. “We talked about boxes,” he said when asked about their upturn in form. “We’ve been much more efficient in both boxes.”
The City game best summed up the issues as he saw them.
Arsenal performed well, for the most part, limiting Pep Guardiola’s side to their lowest-ever totals for possession (36 per cent), passing accuracy (73 per cent) and successful passes (219). “It’s a shame because we really had them,” said Arteta afterwards.
But what happens between the boxes only matters if you deliver inside them.
Manchester City’s performance was an exhibition in ruthlessness, with Kevin De Bruyne’s instinctive finish for the opener, following Takehiro Tomiyasu’s error, setting the tone. Arsenal, by contrast, lacked a clinical edge, carving City open but then failing to capitalise.
The same profligacy could be seen in their previous games against Everton and Brentford, when they had a combined total of 38 shots and yet only found the net once, through Leandro Trossard.
The Belgian’s opener in the 1-1 draw with Brentford was their only goal from open play across the three games.
The problem was compounded by sloppiness and a lack of efficiency at the other end. Arsenal, so difficult to break down earlier in the season, were suddenly giving up too many chances, the underlying data suggesting they were fortunate to concede only twice across the two games against Brentford and Everton.
In fact, in the meeting with Brentford, Arsenal’s total for expected goals against came out at 2.01, making it their highest of the season to that point. Their totals against Manchester City (1.80) and Everton (1.67) were not far behind, their third and fourth-highest respectively.
The response has been emphatic. Arsenal conceded two goals against Aston Villa and had to wait until stoppage time to clinch their victory, but a deeper look at the numbers shows the dominance they enjoyed over their opponents.
Arteta’s side gave up only 0.51 expected goals against at Villa Park. At the other end, their chances were worth 3.28 expected goals, their highest total in a single game all season.
Their attacking numbers were not so impressive against Leicester, but Gabriel Martinelli seized his chance when it came and defensively they were again far more assured, their efficiency in protecting their box evident in the fact Leicester could only muster a solitary shot – and that was a speculative effort from distance.
Trossard, Jorginho show their worth
The game against Leicester featured a significant change in personnel at the top of the pitch, with Eddie Nketiah dropping to the bench for the first time since Gabriel Jesus’ injury.
The 23-year-old had played every minute in 11 consecutive games in all competitions before that, but having scored seven goals in seven appearances initially, he had not found the net in five.
A change was required and, happily for Arsenal, a new option had emerged in January signing Trossard, whose impressive early performances convinced Arteta to use him as a false nine.
It was of course Martinelli who scored the decisive goal at the King Power Stadium, but the Brazilian’s role in the victory owed a lot to the presence of Trossard, rather than Nketiah, at No 9.
While Nketiah is an out-and-out striker who rarely strays beyond the width of the opposition box, Trossard is far more inclined to drift towards the flanks and, specifically, to the left.
That is good news for Martinelli, who loves to cut inside and interchange positions with his striker, much as he did for his winner on Saturday, when Trossard pulled wide and fed him on the inside with a clever pass through the legs of Harry Souttar.
Jesus, like Trossard, is a roving centre-forward whose movement to the flanks helped Martinelli thrive in the opening months of the season, but the 21-year-old has proved far less effective when deployed alongside Nketiah.
Indeed, before his late goal from the bench in the win over Villa, Martinelli had not found the net in eight games in all competitions, all of which had come with Nketiah starting.
Now, however, as Jesus continues his recovery from injury, Arteta knows he has another alternative in the absence of his main striker – and crucially it is one which could allow Martinelli to recapture the form he was showing earlier in the season.
Trossard’s £27m arrival from Brighton did not set pulses racing among Arsenal fans following the unsuccessful pursuit of primary target Mykhailo Mudryk, and the same could be said of the man they turned to in midfield having been unable to sign Moises Caicedo.
Like Trossard, though, Jorginho has swiftly won over any doubters and played a key role in Arsenal’s upturn in form, earning praise even in defeat from Arteta for his debut display against Manchester City, then excelling against both Villa and Leicester.
The win over Villa, during which Jorginho’s long-range effort led to the crucial Emiliano Martinez own goal, was particularly significant in the sense that it was the first Premier League game they had won without Thomas Partey since August.
In the past, the Ghanaian’s periods of absence due to injury have derailed Arsenal’s progress but Jorginho has provided depth in a vital position, his Premier League pedigree and experience allowing him to slot straight into the team and fill the void.
“He’s a great player, we saw that from the first day when he came here,” said Martin Odegaard after the win over Leicester, during which Jorginho could be seen orchestrating Arsenal’s build-up play and helping to ensure near-total dominance of the ball.
In fact, across the three Premier League fixtures Jorginho has started, Arteta’s side have averaged 65 per cent possession, an increase from 58 per cent in their other games.
“He brings a lot of quality, he’s very calm on the ball, finds the right passes and dictates the game,” added Odegaard.
The Norwegian also talked up the impact of Jorginho’s experience and winning mentality on the team’s younger players and it is worth noting, too, that while he does not offer the same level of physicality as Partey, he has also played an important role defensively.
Across Arsenal’s last three games, Jorginho has made more tackles and interceptions combined than any other player. He also ranks top for ball recoveries and possessions won in the middle third.
It is not yet clear whether Partey will be available to start against Everton following his return from injury, but it is a testament to Jorginho’s impact that it no longer feels pivotal. Like Trossard, Jorginho has proved his worth, helping to put Arsenal’s Premier League title challenge firmly back on track.
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