‘Became stronger in every area’
editor of NOS Sports
editor of NOS Sports
There is no shortage of surprises this season in the Premier League. Brighton, Fulham and Brentford are performing above expectations, while acknowledged top clubs Liverpool and Chelsea are failing badly.
“But surely the biggest surprise is that Arsenal are doing so well,” said Phil McNulty, chief soccer officer at the BBC, about England’s leaders. “They are playing wonderful soccer and are the deserved leaders. Absolutely.”
Tonight, however, a serious assault on that position awaits when first pursuer Manchester City visits the table leader. The until recently unapproachable list leader.
The pressure does seem to be slowly but surely getting a grip on Spanish manager Mikel Arteta’s squad, given some lesser results in recent weeks.
McNulty: “It could be, but I’m not sure. They lost in the FA Cup at Manchester City, but that can happen to any club. Everton was a tough away game because they just had a new manager. Besides, Arsenal hadn’t won there in a while. And last weekend they played equal against Brentford because of a controversial goal that really should have been disallowed. That was bad luck.”
While the rise of Arsenal, which has finished outside the top four for the last six seasons and celebrated its last national championship in 2004, may be startling, it is not entirely out of the blue. “They’ve gotten stronger in every area,” McNulty analyzes.
“For example, in the back line, they have added William Saliba and attracting Oleksandr Zinchenko and Gabriel Jesus from Manchester City has been great. Two experienced players who know how to win titles. The other players are also performing well. Martin Ødegaard (former player Real Madrid, sc Heerenveen and Vitesse) is doing great. As are up front Bukayo Saka and Gabriel Martinelli. And with Aaron Ramsdale there is an excellent goalkeeper.”
Last winter, Arteta also added Leandro Trossard (acquired from Brighton) and Jorginho (Chelsea) to his selection. The 46-time Italian international of Brazilian descent was brought in when it appeared Brighton did not want to let young Moisés Caicedo go.
That Brazilian striker Jesus, a major force in the first half of the league, has been out since the World Cup in Qatar with a knee injury has not hurt the team. “No, because Eddie Nketiah has come in and he is doing an excellent job,” McNulty praised the 23-year-old Londoner. “He is a real finisher and has ensured that Arsenal have barely missed Gabriel Jesus.”
The so far successful season – the “Gunners” are also still in the Europa League – may the club management consider a reward for the policy pursued. The club remained confident in Arteta, who was Pep Guardiola’s assistant at Manchester City for three years before choosing to stand on his own two feet at Arsenal in 2019, despite the somewhat mediocre results.
McNulty: “While many people wondered how long Arteta would keep his job in London, Arsenal not only let him have his way, but even got him a new multi-year contract last May. And he’s doing a super job, of course. Arteta has brought together a squad of young and experienced players.”
“In terms of playing style, he is very much of the Guardiola school. They play great positional play, but even faster and more intense than City, who are more patient and let the ball go around longer. Arsenal looks for the attack faster and plays more directly. Very attractive and exciting to see.”
That raises expectations for tonight’s clash with City, the most important league game of the season so far, according to McNulty. And not just because the defending champion can close the gap with the leaders, although Arsenal still has a game to go. The duel is also interesting from a psychological point of view.
McNulty: “If Arsenal win, they will really start to realize: we can be champions, we have a great chance to win the league. But a defeat will put City back in the lead and they will think there: we have conquered Arsenal and can now win the last battle as well.”
The experienced soccer journalist does not venture a prediction. “If City are at their best, I can see them winning. But they are rather changeable this season. And it remains to be seen if Erling Haaland is fit. He was substituted at halftime against Aston Villa. According to Guardiola it was not serious, but it should be clear that it is a huge loss if he is missing.”
McNulty: “I wouldn’t write Arsenal off anyway. They are not at the top for nothing, of course. Big difference with other years is that they do manage to win the top games now. Like at home against Manchester United (with Nketiah’s 3-2 just before time, ed.) and away from Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool. The home advantage could well be the deciding factor tonight.”
McNulty does not foresee a relapse like last year, when a Champions League ticket was squandered in the closing stages of the competition. “They look more unyielding and mentally stronger now. There is more spirit in the squad and are more mature as a team. No doubt because there is more experience in the team now. Setbacks may follow, of course, but I would be very surprised if Arsenal were to collapse yet.”