733 days ago, it felt like the dawn of a new era at Emirates Stadium. Just over two years ago, the Gunners put on a scintillating display to brush Leicester aside and climb into the top four. It was without doubt one of the most memorable matches in Unai Emery’s ill-fated time in charge. Sunday’s repeat of the fixture, two seasons on, could be the catalyst that kickstarts the Mikel Arteta era at Arsenal.
In their first European game of the season, Arsenal made hard work of beating Rapid Vienna. It was a laboured and lethargic victory, the kind which have become common under Arteta, as he seeks to toughen the core of a previously brittle squad.
The debut of £45 million summer signing Thomas Partey was symbolic of the strength his manager is attempting to instil across the whole team. The Ghanaian won 10 of 13 duels he contested, also completing five tackles. On the ball, he had 102 touches and finished with a passing accuracy of 83%. Partey was purposeful, whilst his team-mates often lacked intent and incisiveness.
Despite an accomplished debut from their new recruit and a win in Vienna, Arsenal still have several issues to fix. Most importantly, they must become more unpredictable and dynamic when in possession. On too many occasions since the start of the season, they have looked passive and pedestrian, struggling to make killer passes into the final third.
This has led to an over-reliance on Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang to bail them out of trouble, which he did once again on Thursday. Although the Gabon international is a serial goalscoring threat, he needs help up front. The lack of support he often receives is one of the downfalls of Arteta’s favoured 3-4-3 formation.
This shape makes Arsenal more difficult to beat defensively(they have conceded the second-fewest goals in the Premier League so far this season) but nullifies aspects of their attacking threat as a consequence. In his first 10 months at the helm, the Spaniard has preferred a more cautious approach, attempting to keep his team in games from first whistle to last.
This sound and pragmatic philosophy has so far payed off. But, for Arsenal to avoid a repeat of the manner in which they stagnated under Emery, his successor must allow his players to be more adventurous in attack. Arteta did this to great effect in the second half against Rapid Vienna, when he introduced Hector Bellerin. The full-back’s runs down the right flank afforded Nicolas Pepe time and space to take up dangerous attacking positions. When Pepe cut inside, this allowed Bellerin the time to deliver dangerous balls into the penalty area, which resulted in Arsenal’s winner.
That winner serves as a sign that Arteta is intent on creating a side that will evolve into an attacking machine, if all goes to plan. The first phase of making his Arsenal team tougherlooks to have been completed. Now comes the next phase of crafting a squad that attacks with ruthlessness and scores for fun.
For that, there is no better place to start than going toe to toe with a high-flying Leicester, who sit above the Gunners on goal difference. In a clash of great importance for both sides, a convincing win could be one that signals the arrival of Arteta’s Arsenal.