Arteta hails improved resilience
Going into this game everybody knew the potential it had to be a banana skin for Arsenal. The Gunners had been sublime throughout preseason, but a Friday night London derby to raise the curtain on the Premier League season had an eerily similar feeling to last season’s opener. To make matters worse Selhurst Park had been the scene of the beginning of the unravelling of their top four hopes just a few months ago, and in his pre-match press conference Mikel Arteta admitted that the scars from that night were still to raw for him to even try to use them as motivation.
“I think that one is still pretty recent, so we don’t need to dig too much into that,” he said of April’s 3-0 defeat. “We have players that didn’t participate at all in that game, and it would be something that probably is not even worth mentioning. They are aware about the difficulty of tomorrow’s match for sure.”
As the game began it appeared Arsenal had put all their demons behind them. The Gunners were electric in the first 15-20 minutes to the extent that Patrick Vieira admitted his side “could not get close to them.” The only reward they were able to obtain for such real dominance though was Gabriel Martinelli’s well worked set piece goal and as time went on Palace began to grow into the game.
For all the talk of the nightmare at Selhurst Park five months ago this game actually began to have more of the feel of last season’s reverse fixture at the Emirates, where Arsenal had gone in front only to immediately surrender momentum and crumble under Palace pressure in the second half before a 95th minute Alexandre Lacazette equaliser spared their blushes. With their new look side and mentality though, the question was how would they respond?
Right, enough beating around the bush. It’s time to fawn over William Saliba.
The Frenchman was absolutely sensational on his Premier League debut that had been three years in the making. Palace are by no means an easy first rodeo in English football, but as the atmosphere around him bucked back and forth, Saliba was able to stay serene.
It is this unflappability that is so remarkable about his play. There was only one occasion across the 90 minutes where it appeared the 21-year-old broke into a full sprint as he made up a tremendous amount of ground to prevent Jeffrey Schlupp picking up the ball after a Ben White had found himself out of position. When required to defend one-vs-one he was superb and on the unusual occasion that he was required to go to ground to stop Wilfried Zaha in the box, his technique was sublime. The stats backed this up with seven ball recoveries and six clearances and it was telling that when Jean-Phillipe Mateta came on later in the game, the 6ft 3ins French striker decided to try and pin himself to Gabriel Magalhaes, rather than going anywhere near Saliba.
Aside from his defensive capabilities the Frenchman was excellent in possession completing 100% of his take ons, managing a 94% pass accuracy. It was also telling that Thomas Partey’s most frequently used pass combination was Saliba as a sign of how available he was to receive the ball even when Palace began to press higher in the match.
Gary Neville has made little attempt to hide his disdain for Arsenal and their progress in recent months, but even he couldn’t be blind to the 21-year-old’s man of the match display at Selhurst Park. “The most important thing for young players generally is to play football,” he told Sky Sports. “We see a lot of players get stuck in between the first team and the reserves, and they don’t get football.
“Saliba has got football inside him and I was massively impressed by him. It reminded me of a young Rio Ferdinand. He’ll actually get stronger, and his body will become more coordinated. He’s such a young centre-back still at the age of 21.”
Mikel Arteta echoed these comments in his own post-match press conference: “You don’t really see that at 21-years-old for a debut in the Premier League against this opponent where you face difficult players and resolve the situation the way he’s done it with that composure, with that calmness and with that presence,” the Spaniard said. “So big credit to the boy.”
Of course now the big thing for Saliba is finding consistency in the Premier League. It is easy to forget that he is still only 21, and fluctuations in form are a natural part of player development as such a young age. On this front though it appears that Arsenal are not worried and appear happy to leave him to his own devices in order to prepare himself for what’s to come.
“Let him be and let him play,” is what Arteta said when asked what he had said to him before the game. “It’s the way he’s done it. The way we have tried to develop that player with his consent and with his knowledge. To sign a player at 19 and bring him back two years later is unusual and he’s been so determined and willing to come here and now prove the point that he’s ready. Now we are exposing the player in a really difficult environment where he can be comfortable and navigate and enjoy as well.”
It’s been a long time coming, but Arsenal fans are now finally seeing that their French superstar was worth the wait.
Full backs show strength in depth
Saliba’s arrival in the middle of the back four has gone on to create some interesting tactical variations on the sides of it. Whereas last season Arsenal tended to line up with one more traditional overlapping full back and another more inverted defender, on Friday night they opted for two of the latter in Ben White and Oleksandr Zinchenko.
As the Gunners spent the early part of the game camped in the Palace box, situated just behind them were the pair of White and Zinchenko who had come so narrow as to be pretty much within the width of the D. The influence of Pep Guardiola on this tactical set up is unmissable, and it does appear that Arteta is trying to create his own brand of Pep-si light football down in north London.
It should be said that neither was totally restricted to this inverted role and there were times when both got forward on the outside channel to support the attack. It is this unpredictability that makes Arsenal such an exciting prospect going into the coming season.
The strength in depth is another thing to consider when it comes to the variety of the Gunners’ defence. Kieran Tierney was introduced late in the game for Zinchenko, while Takehiro Tomiyasu is still to return from an injury layoff. Both were integral parts of Arsenal’s first choice back four last season but now face a battle to get their starting spots back.
Tomiyasu in particular finds a new battle on his hands. Having largely fended off competition from Cedric when fit last season, the Japan international has a new rival in Ben White who is capable of fulfilling many of the inverted roles that Tomiyasu excels in. With the defence looking so settled now, you do wonder if Arteta will even think to change things when last season’s first team full backs are fully fit again. His praise of White after the game appeared to suggest not.
“He’s done really well,” Arteta said of the England international. “We know individually when you are so tight with him how difficult it is to win the ball from him, he upsets you, the way he tries to play the game is really tricky and we have to discuss. Ben has the capacity to play in different positions and that’s a big plus for any player and he really likes playing there.”
Last season Arsenal were dealt a cruel hand by the fixture list that saw them take on Manchester City, Chelsea and Tottenham within their opening few games. This time around the scheduling gods have been much kinder.
On paper at least, Friday night’s trip to Selhurst Park did appear to be the Gunners toughest early fixture. Next week they host a Leicester side in disarray amid the departures of key players and an underwhelming season last time out, before facing newly promoted pair Bournemouth and Fulham, and rounding off August with a home game against Aston Villa.
Perhaps it’s getting a bit too far ahead of ourselves to look that far into the future, but the chance to build momentum and confidence is most certainly there. From Arteta’s point of view there are still things that need to be improved before he can even think about a perfect start to the campaign.
“[We need to] be more ruthless in front of goal because we had a situation to finish them better, even in the second half as well, but that’s something that has to come,” he said after the game. “We lacked a little bit that edge. We didn’t finish enough actions and then they had transition moments and that’s what they liked to do. There were parts in the game that obviously we have to do better.”
With the attacking talent and depth at their disposal with the likes of Emile Smith Rowe, Fabio Vieira and potentially more signings to come it’s impossible not to think that issue can be quickly addressed though. If the Gunners manage to find that killer instinct in front of goal, then keeping the reigns on expectations may be one of the toughest tasks Arteta has to face this month.