Resilience, organisation and sheer bloody-mindedness were qualities Mikel Arteta was quick to instill in a floundering Arsenal squad when he arrived last December, with the upturn in results thereafter testament to the value of those missing elements.
From the start of this season, the Arsenal manager sought to build on that base by encouraging his side to be a little more expansive at the top end of the pitch. Gone was our reliance on the lightning breakaway and smash-and-grab style that yielded some head-turning wins. And that was fine.
Our new, braver approach was supposed to feature a front three that would add some cut and thrust – some pace, directness, and end product, with the back five making way for a back four that was equally solid but much more progressive.
That plan, for all its merits and good intentions, isn’t working.
In both attack and defence our performance is worsening – we create and score less than we were and we concede more chances too (if not that many goals).
For me, the issue really came to a head at Elland Road on Sunday with a fortuitous 0-0 draw showing no signs of the kind of bounceback we had all hoped for after the 3-0 thrashing at the hands of Aston Villa.
Despite the welcome additions of Nicolas Pepe and Joe Willock to the starting lineup, there was nothing about our attacking efforts that was in any way an improvement. In fact, it was, in some ways, worse. There was no build-up to speak of, the cut-and-thrust was more poke and swish.
Add into that a stuttering, turgid midfield and a defence shot through with holes and you have a toxic mix that makes for poor performance and rising levels of frustration. Our first half efforts against Marcelo Bielsa’s men was no better than it had been against Villa. We failed to impose ourselves, we failed to keep hold of the ball, and we failed to make any real impression on the match.
Arteta rightly opted for a change at the break, with Willian – a man miles off the pace again – making way for Reiss Nelson. As it transpired, the youngster was never given a chance to show what difference he could make as Pepe got himself sent off by reacting to the goading of a Leeds player – a woefully naive piece of stupidity that ruined his chance to make an impression on the day and for the next three Premier League matches to follow.
With that, the direction of travel screeched into a u-turn, with the Gunners ambitions, such as they were, limited thereafter to survival.
Ironically, it was during that 40-minute period that Arteta’s men enjoyed their best football of the afternoon. Yes, they found themselves under siege for large tracts of play but they demonstrated a greater sense of togetherness and resilience at the back than they have produced for a while.
In attack, too, the Gunners were much more productive. Auba was left ruing a poor connection as he turned and shot in the box straight into the goalkeeper’s grasp, while another breakaway effort was denied by a questionable intervention from a Leeds hand. Bukayo Saka was then quite brilliantly denied by a last-ditch lunge when it looked for all the world like he might cap a sweeping counter-attack with a goal.
In short, in breaking up play deep in our half and moving the ball forward with intent, and at pace, the Gunners were actually much improved as an attacking force, even with a man fewer.
In the end, most will be satisfied with a point given that Leeds were thrice denied by the woodwork and some good goalkeeping from Bernd Leno kept the scorers untroubled.
I wonder, though, whether Arteta might take something more than just a point from this match. In the absence of the sort of personnel who can mould Arsenal’s play in a way the manager might like – those elusive midfield creators – perhaps a return to those earlier principles point the way forward for this team in the next few months.
For all his efforts to tinker and tweak with the formation and the starting XI, nothing has yet yielded better results so why not put this experiment on ice and get back to the sort of football that allows us to be effective? It shouldn’t be taken lightly that solidity and efficiency earned us an FA Cup win and some notable scalps along the way last year.
Given where we have come from as a club, playing on the back foot runs counter to our intuition but there are no prizes for stubborness here. For now, we have to be smarter. The visit to Elland Road has shown that something is missing from this side, the manager should seize the opportunity to act now, to return to something we know works. Let’s bring back the bloody-mindedness.