‘There’s nothing worse than thinking your team are a little bit soft. Brentford have looked at them and thought, “yeah, we’ll have you” and that’s the worst feeling.
‘Arsenal fans will go away from here tonight thinking “we’ve been bullied”‘, was Gary Neville’s assessment of Arsenal’s 2-0 defeat to Brentford on the opening night of the 2021-22 campaign.
Mikel Arteta’s side travelled to Thomas Frank’s then-newly promoted Brentford team and were taught a comprehensive lesson of preparation and application.
Arsenal return to Brentford 13 months on from their chastening defeat at the same ground
One game into the new season, knives, in some quarters, were already out for the Spaniard and two subsequent defeats at an aggregate score of 7-0 did not do much to stem the tide.
Following that dreadful start that left Arsenal at the foot of the league table questioning where their next win could come from, they have improved markedly.
It was only a late season blip that saw them miss out on the Champions League after putting themselves in the box seat with weeks of the season to go with Arteta’s young side emerging from the canvass of their poor start to challenge towards the upper echelons of the league.
Not many, had you asked them on August 13 2021, would have given Arsenal much of a chance of sitting pretty at the top of the league a year later. But that is where they currently lie after starting the 2022-23 campaign in impressive fashion: winning five and losing one of their opening six fixtures.
With Arteta’s new look side travelling to Brentford 13 months on from their 2-0 defeat, Sportsmail thought it necessary to assess where, how and why Arsenal have been able to carry out their astonishing transformation.
Mikel Arteta has seen his side improve immeasurably since his last trip to Brentford
Looking back at the starting XI for the trip to Brentford last term reveals quite an alarming change in personnel from then to now.
Indeed, of the 11 who lined up that night, only three remained in the starting XI for Arsenal’s most recent Premier League game, a defeat away at Manchester United. They were: Ben White, Granit Xhaka and Gabriel Martinelli.
The casualties from the names that started the game read as: Bernd Leno (Fulham), Calum Chambers (Aston Villa), Pablo Mari (Monza), Nicolas Pepe (Nice) and Folarin Balogun (Reims).
Kieran Tierney, Emile Smith Rowe and Sambi Lokonga, who also started that evening, remain at the club but not as first choice in their respective positions.
Eight changes to a starting XI in a little over a year is quite the rigmarole. It is unlikely to have been much different had Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, both missing through Covid that evening, been fit.
Arsenal looked a team adrift in their 2-0 defeat in west London at the start of last season
A glimpse at the bench offers a further change of the rigorous nature of Arteta and Edu’s squad rebuild over the last year. Only one of those names on the bench that evening, Bukayo Saka, remains a key cog in the current Arsenal project.
The rest have either been cast off – Hector Bellerin, Nuno Tavares and Ainsley Maitland-Niles – or remain on the very fringes of Arteta’s squad: Mohamed Elneny, Rob Holding, Reiss Nelson and Cedric Soares.
Following the three defeats from their opening three games, Arsenal sought to revamp their side somewhat. Aaron Ramsdale came in to replace Leno while Martin Odegaard arrived around the same time. Takehiro Tomiyasu represented a shrewd bit of business with the window hours from closing.
Arsenal’s season began to pick up in the aftermath of a 5-0 defeat at Manchester City that appeared to represent rock bottom. The new players began to gel and a relatively unconvincing 1-0 win over Norwich at home saw them put their first points on the board. A string of wins soon followed, including an exhilarating 3-1 evisceration of Tottenham at home.
Gabriel Jesus has arrived and revolutionised Arsenal’s forward line in a matter of weeks
By the end of the campaign, the toll on Arteta’s young squad proved too much. Defeats at Tottenham and subsequently at Newcastle saw their top four chance slip through their grasp at the last. However, this did not prevent them from going into the market this summer for some quality additions.
Oleksandr Zinchenko, capable at both left-back and in midfield, has arrived from City and proved to already be one of the club’s foremost players. His absence at Brentford through a suspected thigh injury could prove a blow.
William Saliba’s return from, in essence, a three-year loan spell, returning to St Etienne before taking in the delights of southern France in Nice and Marseille, has added extra solidity to Arteta’s defensive options.
The arrivals of Fabio Vieira and Marquinhos, from Porto and Sao Paulo, are signings for the future and very much in keeping with the club’s recent strategy of buying young.
Martin Odegaard is a key cog in the Arsenal tactical wheel with his role as the right-sided eight and the traditional No.10 being key to Arteta’s style.
Meanwhile, Gabriel Jesus has brought firepower up front that Arsenal so lacked last term. Alexandre Lacazette’s lack of potency in front of goal cost them in the same charge is unlikely to be levelled at the Brazilian come the end of the campaign.
Arsenal’s position in the table is in large part thanks to the solid work done in the market. The changing faces in Sunday’s starting XI to the mismatched side that Arteta was forced to put out last year reflects a club on the up rather than the downward spiral they appeared to be descending on last year.
Style of play
The early Arteta reign was somewhat characterised by an uncertainty of what he wanted his Arsenal team to be. When he arrived from City, many expected them to start playing like a Guardiola side. It was clear from what Arteta was instructing his team to do in those early months showed that he did not believe they had the quality to play that brand of football.
Arsenal’s shock run to the FA Cup in Arteta’s first campaign, delivering European football when it seemed most unlikely, was as pragmatic a cup run the north London club had seen since the days of George Graham. The semi-final victory over Manchester City saw Arsenal outshot 16 to four while the win over Chelsea two weeks later saw them only have 40 per cent of the ball.
A season followed that many have consigned to the deepest of archives. Tepid and disinclined performances had many supporters questioning what the direction was under the Spaniard. The following season’s opening weekend defeat to Brentford did little to stem that tide of dissatisfaction and apathy.
They look a team more united and with more of an idea of what they are supposed to be doing
However, slowly but surely Arteta has been able to instil a style of play that is identifiable. The youthful team, led by the triumvirate of Saka, Emile Smith Rowe and Martinelli, provided a vibrancy to Arsenal’s play that allowed them to carry out Arteta’s wish of how he wanted them to play.
‘We have to make things quicker, sharper. We can be more adaptable, we can be much more unpredictable, we can have much more flexibility and we can be much more consistent throughout games to maintain that level,’ Arteta said in March this year in a rare reveal of how he wants his team to play.
Indeed, since the abysmal start to last season’s Premier League season his players have showed such in abundance.
The loss to City was followed by three consecutive wins, including one over local rivals Tottenham. Arsenal lined up in a 4-2-3-1/4-3-3 shape that day, as they have done for most fixtures thereafter, with key cog Martin Odegaard acting as both a No. 10 and a right-sided central midfielder, aiding Thomas Partey and Xhaka.
The result at Old Trafford was a difficult one to take but they showed they have the mettle to mix it with the big sides
It will be the same shape that lines up against Brentford on Sunday.
Another game that similarly represented what Arteta wants his team to do was the visit of the champions, City, to the Emirates on New Year’s Day.
Arteta’s side passed and pressed Guardiola’s team off the pitch in the first half that day and but for some poor finishing could have had City finished off by the break.
As it was, Guardiola’s side responded as they so often do and five minutes of madness, in which City equalised from the spot, Arsenal missed a gilt-edge chance and Gabriel was sent off, saw them essentially win the game.
‘Mikel expressed his feelings that he’s really proud of the team and their performance, as we all are,’ assistant Albert Stuivenberg said after the game.
‘But also he’s frustrated that we don’t have at least one point and I think we deserved three.’
The pressing and intensity with which Arsenal moved the ball only become evident last season on a regular basis, but they also showed a steeliness and determination that served them well at various interludes over the season.
Odegaard and Gabriel Martinelli have grown to be two of the league’s most exciting young players
A run of five wins from February to March, four of them by one goal, showed Arteta and his staff that his players were more than up for the fight. Having been accused by Neville and Carragher of lacking bite and that will to win after the defeat at Brentford, Arsenal saw off on Wolves twice in the space of a matter of weeks, once with 10 men and the second time scoring a goal right at the end. They also beat Brentford, with Arteta using a tweet from Ivan Toney to motivate his players beforehand, Watford and Leicester.
The collapse at the end of the season reflected poorly on Arteta – why did he gut the squad in January with no replacements lined up? Why did he persist with Lacazette over Eddie Nketiah for so long? – but his tactical acumen and motivational skills improved the Arsenal team immeasurably from their defeat last August.
They return to the Gtech Community Stadium a better side on the pitch, tactically well drilled with plenty about them should the traditional Brentford long balls start to rain down. Arteta appears to have finally come upon the magic combination in elite football: a side whose ability to play is not offset by their willingness to get their hands dirty.
After irritation, annoyance, frustration, anger and then vitriol comes the worst of all football atmospheres: apathy.
The Emirates on a Thursday evening or Sunday afternoon in the late-Arsene Wenger days was a place of shrugged shoulders, ‘oh well, who cares?’, and ‘it doesn’t mean anything, anyway’.
Apathy is the kiss of death in football terms. Once people no longer care, attendances fall and then owners, fearing for the lack of gate receipts, are inclined to act. The Kroenke’s, for instance, decided in 2018 that the Wenger reign could go on no longer. It was only after he announced his retirement at the end of the season, beginning a sort of farewell tour, that attendances and atmospheres picked up again slightly.
No player reflects the astonishing change in atmosphere better than Xhaka. The Swiss was booed off in October 2019 and swore at the Arsenal fans. He was close to throwing his shirt on the ground while walking off but something clicked in his brain that that was not the brightest thing to do in front of an already rabid stadium. He now has his own song. Quite the turnaround.
The atmosphere inside the Emirates have changed dramatically with the stadium now loud and feverish
Under Arteta, there was some sort of new atmosphere bounce. Arsenal played Chelsea in that odd period between Christmas and New Year and until Tammy Abraham stuck a dagger into the hearts of the Emirates crowd, it had been quite loud.
Fast forward to Chelsea at home in 2021 and that apathy had set in. The Blues, fresh off the back of their second Champions League crown and with a centre forward in Romelu Lukaku representing the vessel through which they were all to live their dreams that season lining up, were a mountain too high for this Arsenal team. Something that had been declared by all four sides of the north London ground prior to kick off.
The apathy, and perhaps division, of the late Wenger days threatened to return. Against Norwich, in which a nervy performance against the league’s worst side saw Arsenal finally gain some points thanks to an Aubameyang goal.
Wins followed and with that came some unity. People at Arsenal began to identify with the youthful team that they saw in front of them. Usually quite an unforgiving stadium for players making mistakes, the traditional ‘arghs’ were replaced by encouraging bouts of applause. This season, for instance, when Saliba bizarrely headed into his own to halve Leicester’s arrears, the Emirates crowd stood to roar the team on. They won 4-2.
Granit Xhaka now having a song shows how the relationship between this group and the supporters has changed
It was not uncommon to see the odd fight breaking out in away ends under Wenger in the really dark days, such were the dividing lines between those who wanted the old boss to remain and those who would do anything, it seemed, to get him out.
They are now more jovial occasions, with a new band of songs reflecting the new band of players.
It has contributed to a much healthier feeling around the club, with players and supporters now able to put on a united front whatever the result.
Arteta in March declared Arsenal the ‘closest’ they have been to returning to where he feels the club should be. A win on Sunday, 13 months on from a result that threatened to derail the Spaniard’s entire project, will only edge them closer.