Away games, torrid conditions, clean sheets – these have been the stuff of nightmares for Arsenal sides these last two or three years.
A season-opening victory at Newcastle on Sunday saw the Gunners conquer all three of the above in a manner that had much to admire – although some old habits will die hard this season.
First, the good stuff. Unai Emery’s men played as a unit. They defended as a group, they attacked in numbers, and they sought to get men around the ball both in and out of possession. In a nutshell, there was a system and they stuck to it.
The team was focussed and organised in defence and, while not coming up against the world’s greatest opposition, they largely nullified the threat that the Magpies did pose with some strong physical play. Aside from a 15-minute period in the first half, the Arsenal defence seldom came under the sustained period of pressure that would typically have us all feeling labour pains.
Much credit must go to Callum Chambers for his efforts in the backline. He has oft been derided as not good enough for Arsenal but he went about his work without fuss and, for the most part, did excellently. As was said often on Twitter after the game, nobody had much to say about Chambers during the game and that is a measure of how well he did.
I don’t believe he is a first choice starter in the long run but, at Newcastle, he showed himself to be capable in conditions that were far from user friendly.
Credit also to Joe Willock, Matteo Guendouzi and Ainsley-Maitland Niles. The three youngsters all had excellent games and will, hopefully, form a key part of our future as a club that nurtures and identifies talented young players and develops them into excellent footballers.
Willock was purposeful and creative in his advanced role, while Maitland Niles – despite his defensive lapses – was at the heart of a lot of good attacking play. If he could iron out the errors from his game, he would improve immeasurably.
Guendouzi, meanwhile, was simply immense in the middle of the park, in defiance of his tender years and relative inexperience. He ran himself into the ground again and was excellent in and out of possession. If he can improve again this season, we will have a serious player on our hands – a genuine gem from the French second division.
To top it all off, we bagged ourselves a clean sheet – that most elusive of great white buffalos. This is the kind of game in which we regularly leaked goals last season so it was brilliant to see Arsenal control the threat of the hosts in difficult conditions and for the goals conceded column to remain firmly untroubled.
For the sake of balance, I have to point out that, at times in the first half, that horrid tendency we developed last season for carelessly giving the ball away in our defensive third was in evidence again. I had hoped a summer of hard drilling on the training pitch might have put paid to it but it is going down swinging, it would seem.
Better teams have and will make mincemeat of our carelessness this season so we have to focus more on performing as we did in the second half and not as we did in the first.
It’s also fair to say that we didn’t cover ourselves in glory in a creative sense. We were a little stolid at times against Steve Bruce’s men, a problem exacerbated by some key players missing from our lineup who might otherwise have started.
Things didn’t really improve much in the second half in terms of the chances we created but I put that down, in part, to these early weeks of the season.
As things hot up in the weeks ahead we will hopefully find our touch a little more.
A quick final word on Henrikh Mkhitaryan. I am loathe to be too scathing after we have won a difficult game but he was pretty atrocious, and I think he knew it. That he lasted until the 83rd minute was something of a surprise.
He never shied away from possession, and often found himself in promising attacking positions in the game (more so than anyone else in fact) but time and again he over hit, under hit, miscontrolled, over ran, and generally spurned everything that came his way.
This game might have been put to bed far earlier had it not been for the Armenian’s profligacy. After a summer in which it was widely rumoured that the club was looking to offload the winger, he did himself no favours at all.
Perhaps all the talk has knocked his confidence, I can understand it might be unsettling, but we really should be getting better from a man who takes home a princely ransom every week.
As players regain fitness and shake off injuries, I don’t think Mkhitaryan will be among those troubling the first choice XI regularly – not on this performance, anyway.
All that aside, you can’t help but be happy with an excellent away win and clean sheet. It wasn’t a game destined to live long in the memory but who cares? Points make prizes, not style, and these three might just came in handy as the season develops.