Every once in a while, you come across a statistic that really does tell the whole story. Numbers that articulate a situation so much better than words. This is one of those statistics.
Wednesday night’s 4-0 defeat of Norwich City was Arsenal’s sixth win under new manager Mikel Arteta – more than the number of victories picked up by the club under Unai Emery and Freddie Ljungberg combined this season.
Where to begin. Three managers in a season is pretty ropey on anyone’s watch, but especially at a club that thought it was above “hiring and firing”. It goes some way to explaining why so much of 2019/20 has felt directionless.
But even Arteta’s six tells its own stories. Those wins came from 15 matches across a period of time that, granted, has been skewed by football’s shutdown, but was punctuated by issues around players and tactics, and humbling defeats. Things are better but there is still a long way to go.
That first victory – 2-0 against Manchester United on New Year’s Day – we know now to have been a false dawn. The table states as much with two places and six points in United’s favour. Mesut Ozil finished the game having run 11.54km, more than any of his teammates. “A perfect win” was how Arteta described it, lauding effectiveness with the ball and solidity at the back in the process.
They’d have to wait more than a month for the second, but when it came – 4-0 against Newcastle – successive wins against Everton (3-2) and West Ham (1-0) followed. After restart blips against Manchester City and Brighton, six goals and two clean sheets against Southampton and Norwich City have them neutral with six games to play.
Maybe neutral is too simplistic when faced with two wins and two defeats over the last fortnight. Those wins – away to the team with the worst home record and at home to the team bottom of the league – are not true gauges of what this Arsenal side are or want to be about. But it is against these teams in this period of transition that reveals the more simplistic elements of what Arteta wants from them.
Both opening goals in those games came through pressing higher up the pitch, specifically his strikers closing down opposition goalkeepers to earn the ultimate dividend. On the face of it, it’s a relatively basic play and one attributed more to keeper error than calculation. But it is not something Arsenal’s frontline used to do under the previous two managers.
Now, with both Eddie Nketiah and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang boasting a goal each in the space of six days from it, the juice has shown to be worth the squeeze for others, too. The rest were following suit: for the first half against Norwich all that was good from the hosts came through forcing themselves on the ball.
Amid the obvious tactical benefits of doing so, especially against a team who have been bossed around all season, such an approach is one way of changing an ingrained and unhelpful mindset. Many of the bad things to afflict Arsenal this season have been because players have allowed these bad things to happen. Amid all the pessimism in the stands when fans were populating them, those at the club felt sometimes players’ shoulders would slump as if resigned to the misfortunes that would inevitably follow.
There was a glimpse of it at the start of the second half, as Norwich came out from the break with a degree of belief that no doubt centred around knowing Arsenal were likely to take it easy at 2-0 up. A better side might have made more of this period which came to a crashing halt when a misplaced Norwich pass across their own goal handed Aubameyang his second of the night and Arsenal their third.
As a whole, this will rank as one of Arsenal’s worst seasons in recent memory. They have not been this low [seventh] after 32 games since 1994/95 and their output in front of goal is the worst at this stage for the last 20 years.
But slowly and surely, Arteta is working at ridding the mistakes, changing mindsets and setting foundations for next season. It will take time, of course, but the man himself reckons even the bad days have all been for something.
“It’s been a really difficult season since I joined with the amount of games we had in December then the break that we had in lockdown,” he said. “They (the players) are so willing, they are completely on board with what we are trying to do. And obviously that result will convince them even more that this is the right direction for us to take as a team.”
Europe is still on the cards for Arsenal. So, too, is progress.