The last two losses have been especially hard to stomach, as the fan protest that is being organized for this Monday’s match against Everton should illustrate. But there is still hope: While the team sits in 14th position right now, a win against this surging Arsenal squad would create a lot of confidence for a team that could really use it at the start of December.
This will not be easy against a strong Arsenal side who, after suffering through a miserable August, have lost only three times since, to the likes of Manchester City, Liverpool and Manchester United. For the Blues to come away with those three points that they so desire, they will have to finally find some offensive consistency for themselves, while ensuring that they do not make too many defensive mistakes in front of Jordan Pickford.
RBM: First off, while the start of this season was a bit rocky for Mikel Arteta and Arsenal, what is the current feeling around this club as they’ve lost only once since the end of August?
The mood is much improved since the start of the season, even with Thursday’s defeat. It was a difficult start to the year, in which the fixtures & squad fitness issues further complicated matters. And while they sat 20th heading into the international break I was not overly worried. Since that point, they’ve played 13 matches across competitions and only lost twice - at Liverpool and at United.
Plus the squad went through significant changes - Aaron Ramsdale took over in goal, Takehiro Tomiyasu, Ben White & Nuno Tavares have all become key figures in Arsenal’s defense, Albert Sambi Lokonga has deputized nicely in his debut season for the injured Granit Xhaka, and the club secured the permanent signing of Martin Odegaard. All of that served as a launch point coming out of the break and going from 20th to within a point of the Champions League spots. How could anyone not feel optimistic that things are improving?
RBM: How is Arsenal putting this run of general form together without consistent goals from Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, who has been quiet so far this year?
I think there are two main factors - (1) the defense has improved. Outside of the losses to Liverpool and Manchester United, Arsenal has only given up four goals from the other 11 matches since the first international break. Ramsdale has quickly become a fan favorite and massive asset in goal, Tomiyasu looks to be a great value and finally gives the right-back position some stability, and who would have guessed that Tavares could play so well that it would keep Kieran Tierney out of the lineup? (2) Emile Smith Rowe. He has already set a new personal best with six goals so far this season. His emergence, along with the threat of Bukayo Saka on the other side of the attack has been critical to Arsenal’s success so far.
RBM: As a club, where do you believe this Arsenal team can still improve upon as they look to hold onto their current position of sixth place on the Premier League table going forward?
At the moment Arsenal sits 5th, but there are issues to work out. Aubameyang’s form has been off as you mentioned, but it’s doubtful that the club looks to sign the next big forward until the summer. There is a chance that Lacazette, Nketiah, and even Aubameyang are all gone by the start of next season. But in order to challenge for the European positions this year and improve on finishing 8th the last two seasons, one of those forward options will need to step up. Unless the likes of Smith Rowe, Saka, Odegaard, Martinelli, and Pepe can overcome that deficit from the flanks and central midfield.
The other thing is road form. Arsenal now has five losses on the season with four being on the road. Now those results came at Liverpool, at Manchester City, at Manchester United, and at Brentford on their Premier League opener to start the season. So you can argue that circumstances played into those results and they are out of the way now, but in order to truly look like a top-four contender, Arsenal needs a big road win.
RBM: While the fans were yelling for Mikel Arteta’s head at the start of September, what should the realistic expectations be for this club moving towards the second half of the campaign?
Realistically Arsenal’s target should be top six this season. They’ve been 8th the last two years so that would be a step forward as Arsenal continues this roster overhaul. But beyond the finishing position, the club will want to be within striking distance, points-wise, of fourth even if they don’t make it there. Additionally, since they are not in Europe this year, going far and perhaps winning the FA Cup should be a fair target. The FA Cup holds importance not only with the Arsenal fan base, but with Mikel Arteta as well, and the competition has been great to the club over the last decade, winning it four times from the last eight.
RBM: How do you expect Arsenal to set up on Monday, and who should Everton be watching for in particular when this team comes to Goodison Park?
I’d expect Arteta to play a 4-2-3-1, similar to what we’ve seen from a majority of the matches this season. A similar defense, with the exception that Kieran Tierney likely comes in for Nuno Tavares. In midfield there is less of a need to go defensive with Mohamed Elneny, so Albert Sambi Lokonga probably returns to partner with Thomas Partey. In the attack, we could see more rotation with the congested schedule in December, which might bring the likes of Pepe, Bukayo Saka, and Alexandre Lacazette into the starting lineup. I’d lean towards keeping as much of the defense as possible for the match at Everton and then rotating for Southampton at the Emirates five days later.
RBM: Finally, what’s your prediction for Monday’s match?
Without knowing the starting XI, I’ll go with a 2-1 win to Arsenal at this point. The Gunners really need a strong bounce-back after dropping what could have easily been a win at Old Trafford. I think the defense will be pushing hard for a clean sheet after making two simple errors that gave up goals to United.
Our thanks to Nathan for his time.