Love for Leno
It would have been easy for Bernd Leno to check out at this point. Up until Saturday lunchtime the German keeper had not started a game for Arsenal in the Premier League since August, and as a result was omitted from Hansi Flick’s most recent national team squad. Regardless though, he was ready.
It’s easy to forget just how important a player Leno was for the Gunners. As recently as the 2019/20 campaign he was a player of the season contender, and arguably kept Unai Emery in his job. When forced to make a decision between him and his counterpart in the opposite goal at Villa Park Emi Martinez, it was ultimately the former Bayer Leverkusen man who Mikel Arteta allowed to stay at the club.
And yet there are flaws to his game. Not exactly catastrophic ones, but ones that became blindingly obvious when Aaron Ramsdale was brought in to the squad. The 30-year-old is a conservative passer, whose preference is generally to stay on his line rather than look to sweep high up the pitch. He is also a quieter character than Ramsdale, which again is not necessarily a bad thing, but when you consider the charisma the England keeper has brought to the Gunners back line the difference was stark.
Still though it seems his teammates really care for him. On an overwhelmingly positive day, the most heartwarming sight at Villa Park was watching the Arsenal team instantly coalesce around Leno whose beaming smile matched the spring sun. Ramsdale also raced onto the pitch at the full time whistle to congratulate the German on his clean sheet: a sign of the togetherness in this current Arsenal group.
Immense credit needs to go to Leno for showing the professionalism to stay switched on and not look out of place despite playing his first competitive match since December. While his kicking wasn’t especially impressive, the 30-year-old whipped out some decent saves, including an acrobatic stop from Philippe Coutinho’s free kick with the final act of the game.
“He had control, emotionally he was prepared and I’m really happy for him,” Arteta said after the game. “Obviously it’s been a tough few months for him because he’s always played in his career, but he has stayed there, Aaron has been here to support him and it’s great to see those things.
“His reaction has been very good, accepting the role. It’s very difficult not accepting it, but relaxing about it, just trying to push and improve in every area and this is what we want from our players.”
The Gunners are expected to confirm the signing of Matt Turner from New England Revolution in the summerfootball.london understands and this is likely to spell the end of Leno’s tenure at the Emirates Stadium. However, with Ramsdale set to be out for a few weeks with a hip problem, it seems the German could play a crucial part in Arsenal’s top four push as his parting gift.
Saka calls for more protection
You would think after this game that the headlines would be on Bukayo Saka for the fact that he scored the game’s winning goal, but instead, the focus was on him for a very different reason. The England international was on the end of some heavy treatment from the Aston Villa defenders
As the half time whistle blew, he could be seen talking to referee Andy Madley as the pair headed into the dressing rooms. After the match he revealed what the conversation was about. “I wasn’t complaining, but I wanted to let him know that is my game,” he told BT Sport after the match. “I’m going to run at players; sometimes I need a bit more protection when the opposition is trying to kick me.”
The sight of watching Saka get booted into the air is not exactly something new. There have been countless occasions this season where it has seemingly been open season on the 20-year-old for defenders who can’t cope with his quick feet. James McArthur’s volley into the back of his calf in the 2-2 draw with Crystal Palace is probably the most egregious example, and yet these acts seem to go relatively unpunished.
Tyrone Mings’ late and reckless challenge in the first half left Saka’s ankles bloodied and ultimately forced him off later in the game to be replaced by Nicolas Pepe. Mikel Arteta confirmed after the game that the winger was fine this time, but it feels like with these dangerous challenges going continually unpunished, that there is only a matter of time before we see something more serious occur.
In fairness to Saka, he doesn’t seem to be too frightened by that prospect. “My ankle is a bit bloody, but I’ll be going again in the next game,” he said after the game when asked about the rough treatment he received. “It’s part of my game, so I’ll be doing it again next time.”
As one of England’s most talented youngsters, it does seem a little odd that officials are not doing more to protect Saka as they have done with players of similar status in the past. Perhaps it is because of Arsenal’s own poor disciplinary record that refs are less inclined to look favourably upon him, but their job is to ensure the safety of all players on the pitch. Saka should be no different. The Gunners have been scarred by incidents with Eduardo and Aaron Ramsey, and they will not want it to happen again.
Lacazette’s limitations on show
It almost seems that we have to caveat every criticism of Alexandre Lacazette by the fact that going after his goal scoring record is such low hanging fruit. We know that the Frenchman doesn’t score often from open play, but what he does offer in terms of leadership work rate and link up play make that slightly more palatable. There is an extent to which that is true though.
Saturday’s match was far from a vintage outing for the 30-year-old who looked absolutely shattered when he was replaced by Eddie Nketiah 15 minutes from time as the effects of three games in six days began to take their toll. If anything this signifies how much he brings to the team and his dedication is why he will be allowed to leave with fond farewell if he does indeed depart in the summer. However, there is an area of his game that he can work on in the short term.
Whereas most strikers want to get themselves facing the net to take on shots and the chance of glory for themselves, Lacazette is a player who instead wants to play with his back to goal so that he can lay it off for his teammates. The Frenchman wears No.9, but the fact that he was interested in taking the No.10 shirt when Mesut Ozil left says a lot.
These facilitative instincts have been key to unlocking the goalscoring potential of the likes of Gabriel Martinelli, Martin Odegaard and Bukayo Saka in recent weeks, but there are times when it can be to the detriment of the team. As a striker Lacazette simply has to score goals, but when he is so insistent on laying it off instead that becomes near impossible.
There was one instance in the first half where the excellent Thomas Partey intercepted a loose pass from John McGinn, and slid the Frenchman in inside the box. The chance was there to let the ball roll across his body and shoot, and this seemed the most obvious thing to do. Instead though, he held it with his back to Emi Martinez before misplacing a layoff and yelling furiously at both Emile Smith Rowe and Granit Xhaka for not being on the edge of the box to receive.
The desire to fashion chances through sheer force of will is certainly something that used to be in Lacazette’s game. If you think back to goals against Cardiff and Chelsea during Unai Emery’s only full season in charge there’s evidence of this. However, in his most recent incarnation the 30-year-old seems to have no interest in being more selfish in front of goal anymore.
Perhaps this is a tactical instruction from Mikel Arteta, but by the Spaniard’s own admission, he wants Arsenal to be more clinical so that games like these, in which the Gunners dominated the first half, do not have such tense finishes. “If we want to win more games that we dominate like today we have to score the second and third one,” he told the press in his post-match conference. “We’re not there yet.”
Perhaps the quickest way to get there will be by encouraging his striker to take more shots on himself instead of laying it off all the time. One defensive error and Arsenal could have left Villa Park with one point instead of three today. It needn’t have been that tense, and more ruthlessness from Lacazette could be the solution to that.
Arteta at one with the fans
It’s not long ago that serious questions were being asked about whether Mikel Arteta deserved to keep his job at Arsenal. Had fans been inside the Emirates Stadium during the near two month Premier League winless run then he may well not have survived to see the scenes that greeted him at full time on Saturday.
As recently as last summer, the #ArtetaOut discourse on social media had become viscously toxic and split most fans down the middles. Even the most staunch supporters of the Spaniard would surely have had questions after the first three games of this campaign yielded zero points, zero goals and nine conceded.
But at a time when other owners would have been quick to the trigger, Stan and Josh Kroenke stuck by the man who they’d invested £150million in. Now we are really starting to reap the rewards and one of those is the intense bond felt between players and the fan base.
Key to the turnaround has been Arteta for whom the cultural reset has been almost as important as the one on the pitch. Somewhat amusingly he was asked about the New Zealand All Blacks’ famed ‘no d***heads’ policy’ in his pre-match press conference and whether that was important to him. “I cannot use that word, but I agree on that,” said the Spaniard in response.
This Arsenal team is one full of players who the fans really identify with. The sense that most will now feel as they eagerly await the opportunity to watch Bukayo Saka, Emile Smith Rowe and Ben White in action for England over the international break is that of a proud parent, and the trios likeability is a key part of that.
At full time though it was Arteta who was feeling the love from the travelling support. “We’ve got Super Mik Arteta, he knows exactly what we need, Kieran at the back, Gabi in attack, Arsenal on the way to Champions League” boomed out across the away terraces for a solid 10 minutes or so after the end of the game as fans rushed to serenade the man who has made their team fun to watch again.
“Personally great because we’ve been through a lot and we played nearly two years with no crowds,” the Spaniard said when asked about his new chant after the game. “To gain something that in my opinion was the most important thing which is unity around the club and a sense of direction and belonging, it was going to be really important and it produces belief and energy.”
Of course the success of this season for Arsenal will be decided by whether they make top four or not, but regardless of what happens between now and May, what he has done to transform the mood around the club will probably be the lasting legacy of this campaign. With a young and relatable it team, it seems that’s set to last for years to come.