Here is something to add to the list of things Arsenal are doing this season that they were not so good at recently. They are more consciously street-smart, doing necessary deeds in the name of results. Exhibit one: to preserve the points with a couple of minutes to play, not one but two players committed cynical fouls in the same move to cut short the danger of a PSV breakaway. In one sweeping brandish, the referee duly booked both Kieran Tierney and Martin Odegaard. The two Arsenal players barely shrugged. It was the kind of act that is applauded if your own team does it and detested if performed by the opposition.
Arsenal have tended to be the inflicted rather than inflictors of such stuff and it is hard to imagine there will be any complaints in the dressing room. These are signs that Arsenal are wising up a little. They can’t afford to be too nice, too soft, too clean in the cut-throat world of ambitious competition.
Mikel Arteta wants his players to think like winning machines. It is how he thinks and he wants that to permeate into the minds of his squad. Most people would consider it reasonable to query why Bukayo Saka or Gabriel Jesus were picked from the start of a Europa League group game at home during a period of unremitting football. Not Arteta.
He wants his players to aim for the standards set by the creme de la creme. He needs them to feel that driven, that desperate, to perform all the time.
“Look at the top players in the world, they play 70 matches, every three days and make the difference and win the game,” Arteta argues. “You want to be at the top? You have to be able to do that. And if we start to put something different in the mind of a young player, I think we are making a huge mistake because then (he would) be like, ‘No, I don’t play now, on AstroTurf, I don’t play’. I don’t want that. I want them to be ruthless every three days. I want them knocking on my door saying, ‘I want to play, I want to win the game’.
“There is no fitness coach in the world that is going to tell me that they cannot do it because I’ve seen it — 72 games and scored 50 goals. The players that score 50 goals do not play 38 games in the season, it’s just impossible.”
There it is. A gauntlet hurled.
In fairness, the current squad don’t seem to carry too many who are not pushing themselves, aiming high, trying to improve and improve again. Saka limped off with ice strapped around his calf but the manager has confidence he can continue to play game after game.
The 21-year-old is playing endless football. But his appetite doesn’t wane and nor, lately, has his impact. The match-winner in a game Arsenal dominated without demonstrating the sharpest cutting edge was the almost-ever-present Granit Xhaka. Yet more evidence of the season he is having came with an expert volley with his wrong foot.
That is a delightful finish from Granit Xhaka! 💫
— Football on BT Sport (@btsportfootball) October 20, 2022
A strong team selection pointed to how Arteta is methodically managing the short and long-term picture simultaneously during the madness of this season’s schedule.
Looking after the workload of his players, being attentive to the physical demands while insisting on sharpness and intensity, Arsenal’s manager is intent on shuffling his pack as smartly as possible.
This pre-World Cup half-season, if we can call it that, has cranked up performance levels across the team. But let’s not pretend it is not physically and mentally challenging — prepare, play, recover, rest, repeat… From their last notable break of a mammoth five days between beating Tottenham and Bodo/Glimt in a relatively tame week at the start of the month until the World Cup pause, Arsenal are in a spell of 12 matches in 37 days — on average one every 3.08 days.
In addition to attacking this Premier League campaign, Arsenal have focused on attempting to top their European group as quickly as possible. There is a very practical reason for this. Group winners skip the first knockout round, which is shoved into the fixture list in February. Two fewer games in the post-World Cup second act of the season could be extremely helpful. With four straight wins to qualify ticked off, Arteta now has the luxury of choosing a more fringe team for one of the last two matches. Maybe not everyone will travel to PSV, particularly with the buffer of a home game against Zurich, on zero points, in the last match.
The aim — to press on as efficiently as possible in both league and Europe — has informed Arteta’s selections in the Europa League. Ben White, Martin Odegaard and William Saliba have started only once in the competition this season. Thomas Partey has had a couple of sub appearances. Jesus and Saka barely featured before starting against PSV. So they have all had breathers when it is felt most expedient.
The majority of players have also been able to appear in bits and pieces of games to minimise the physical burden, something helped by the new five-substitute rule.
“Everybody is participating and everybody feels part of it which is really important and then everybody is competing and putting in the performances that are needed to win the games. It’s about managing the temperature of the team, making sure they play with enough confidence, but as well being on our toes and we are ready again to go to Southampton and put in the performance required to win the match,” Arteta said. “This is the challenge and we are enjoying the challenge. The confidence is there obviously and you can see that, but it is the hunger to go again and win.”
A hungrier, smarter Arsenal do not want to let up.
(Top photo: Catherine Ivill/Getty Images)
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