While Leyton Orient had at least been active over the past few weeks, even if I hadn’t always been in attendance, I hadn’t been to the Emirates for more than three weeks. Arsenal had signed off before the international break with a 5-1 demolition of Fulham adding to the feeling that a feel-good factor is returning to the club and making it even more frustrating to have a couple of weeks without a game to watch.
Playing on a Monday night of course meant that Arsenal’s break was extended even further, meaning that I approached the game with the nagging doubt in the back of my mind that the momentum generated by six wins in a row in the league and nine in all competitions would be lost.
In his programme notes for the match Head Coach, Unai Emery, suggested that, despite the recent wins his charges hadn’t been starting matches with the right level of intensity, and so it was to prove again. It was Leicester who were in the ascendancy from the kick-off and were able to carve out a few really good chances, being denied by profligate finishing and a couple of good saves by new goalkeeper Bernd Leno; as well as having a fairly clear penalty shout for handball against Rob Holding waved away. They did however find the net just past the half-hour mark, when Chilwell’s cross-come-shot deflected off Bellerin leaving Leno stranded.
In recent seasons conceding a goal was usually the cue for the team to spend the next twenty minutes or so wandering round in a daze, unsure of how to respond; but this incarnation of the side appears to be made of stronger stuff and we seemed, if not completely unfazed, at least determined to get back on level terms. As it was, some smooth football down the right flank saw us create a chance for skipper-for-the-night Mesut Özil to calmly restore parity on the stroke of half-time.
While there was a scare early in the second half when Ndidi crashed a header from a corner off the crossbar, from that point forward, and in keeping with recent form, it was the Gunners who dominated the remainder of the game.
Özil, seemingly rejuvenated by being back in his favoured position, looked like the player we all believed him to be when he first joined the club. The mercurial German playmaker was very much the orchestrator-in-chief: creating two goals in a matter of just four minutes for Aubameyang who had only just come onto the field, and thereby sealing the victory.
In truth the victory could have been even more emphatic as Arsenal seemed to be enjoying the energetic free-flowing way they were playing once they had taken the lead. As was evident against Watford and at Fulham the Arsenal support, yours truly very much included, were enjoying every single minute of it.
In many ways it is difficult to know how to assess Arsenal’s season so far and the impact that the new coach has had. There will be those who say that they lost the first two matches against the only decent sides they have played; but to start the season at home to Pep Guardiola’s incomparable Manchester City team and then to go to Stamford Bridge would have proved a tough ask for any new manager getting to know his side and starting to try and embed his philosophy and ideas.
Since then the record, at least results-wise, has been unblemished, although it can hardly be said that Emery’s team have swept all before them and played teams off the park.
Most concerning is this lack of intensity at the start of matches, which Emery referenced himself. The Basque coach’s reputation and track record suggest that his footballing philosophy is founded on the high press and a proactive approach to winning the ball, but on the evidence of the matches so far Arsenal have looked the very opposite: wide open at the back and passive defensively.
So far his team have, for the most part, managed to ride their luck and weather out the storm or as in Monday night’s case find a way back into the game after conceding. Indeed another characteristic of the new man’s approach has been the bold early substitutions and in-game tactical tweaks that have reaped dividends; one can only wonder what his predecessor, such a stickler for pre-planned changes on 70 minutes, makes of all this?
Encouragingly, in the second halves of recent matches we have seen some slick, exciting, free-flowing football reminiscent of that which the Invincibles used to deliver in their pomp: Ramsey’s goal against Fulham and the third goal against Leicester in particular were a joy to witness.
The cynical amongst us might suggest that we have beaten nobody of any significance yet, and there are certainly much sterner tests to come against Liverpool next weekend and then Tottenham and Manchester United in quick succession in early December. For now though some of the stuff that the team is serving up, albeit almost exclusively in the second half of matches, makes us feel as though, as the fans at Craven Cottage chanted: “We’ve got our Arsenal back”!