Raise your hand if you had a bad feeling about today when you saw the snow-covered pitch in the West Midlands. I definitely did. A cold, slippery, sloppy pitch plays right into Sam Allardyce’s rugged, muck-it-up football and right away from Mikel Arteta’s quick passing game. With Arsenal coming off back-to-back wins up against a team they “should” beat, the scene was set for a let-down. We’ve almost come to expect things like that as Arsenal fans.
But not today.
The snow just makes Kieran Tierney more powerful. Unbowed by the elements, Tierney took the pitch for warmups in naught but his shorts and a t-shirt. And as if drawing strength from the cold, opened the scoring for the Gunners in the 23rd minute with a goal that would make Roberto Carlos jealous. Skinned his man down the last, cut inside, curled it into the far corner, with his right-foot no-less.
Hale End added a second for the Gunners just five minutes later. Bukayo Saka tucked away a lovely team goal off an Emile Smith Rowe assist. It was a move of the highest quality. Pure champagne football. Shout out to Alexandre Lacazette on the goal as well for the hockey assist — he came short and played a deft, one-touch dink into ESR’s path.
Speaking of the French striker, he’s playing like a man possessed lately. He scored Arsenal’s third and fourth goals today, giving him five goals in his last four appearances for the club. We were merciless in our criticism of him earlier this season when he was struggling to score and laboring around the pitch, so it’s only fair to sufficiently praise him now that he looks to have rediscovered his form. His resurgence kind of echoes what Mikel Arteta was saying: if you get yourself into good areas and get chances, which Lacazette had been doing, the goals will come.
A big part of Lacazette’s scoring run also comes from of how well his game and Emile Smith Rowe’s movement play off each other. Lacazette’s hold-up play is one of his strengths. It’s not traditional hold-up play, i.e. playing longer, aerial balls into a striker. It’s more his back-to-goal, quick, combination play in tight spaces.
The second goal is a perfect example. Smith Rowe drops deep to receive the ball and picks out Saka, who had checked back. Smith Rowe continues his run down the right. Saka finds Lacazette, who had also checked back, and the Frenchman one-touches it wide to ESR. Saka continues his run and drives into the area, Smith Rowe picks him out. Goal.
It’s quite simple, really. If you make runs into the box (or just run off of your teammates, generally), good things tend to happen. Emile Smith Rowe makes intelligent runs, and the Arsenal attack has been reaping the rewards. And it’s not as if he’s putting in blinders, either. He’s playing quite well, sure, but all the attack really needed was better movement to grease the wheels. The setup was in place, but it was missing something, and Smith Rowe has brought that missing thing.
If I’d told you Arsenal were going to score four, you’d probably have bet that Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang would be amongst the goals. He wasn’t, unfortunately. But his performance today was perhaps more reassuring than tucking away a meaningless goal in a blowout might have been. He’s looked off lately, and today he looked much more like the player he was during the restart. His movement was better, he was attacking the posts, getting chances, and he generally looked to have more energy. Good players find their way out of runs of poor form. Lacazette did, and Aubameyang is a better player than Lacazette. He’ll find his way out of this dry spell, too.
Somehow, Arsenal have kept the most away clean sheets in the Premier League. Yes, you read that right. Rob Holding and Pablo Mari weren’t asked to do all that much today, but all your really can ask of your centerbacks is to help keep the opponents off the board. They did that. I think Gabriel gets his starting spot back once he clears COVID, but Mari’s recent performances have made that less of a sure thing, at least in my mind.
A word of caution: Arsenal were playing West Bromwich Albion, the team with the worst goal differential in the league today. We shouldn’t make too much of the performance; we did that once this year with Fulham.
On the other hand, it’s always nice to see Arsenal “do what they’re supposed to do” and put a lesser team to the sword. Indeed, they’ve gotten into a bad habit of not taking care of business against relegation fodder clubs. You can only play the teams in front of you, and Arsenal have beaten the last three teams they’ve suited up against.
Three wins is a streak. Arsenal have moved into 11th in the table on 23 points, just three behind Chelsea and six behind a bunch of clubs who’ve got 29. The table is extremely congested, perhaps even moreso than last season, which means table position can change quickly. Next up in the PL, the Gunners have Crystal Palace and Newcastle, both at the Emirates, before a stretch of “tougher” games. Neither of those two games will be walkovers, but they’re eminently winnable matches. Two more wins and the Gunners are right back in the chase for a Champions League spot.
But first, Arsenal take the pitch as holders in the FA Cup against Newcastle. I greatly enjoy being able to call Arsenal “holders” — they should keep it that way.